The Birkie Experience

I did my first Kortelopet, a 30-kilometer Nordic ski race through the hilly woods of Wisconsin, at age 14. The American Birkebeiner (Birkie) is a major event, a celebration of the winter. Tens of thousands of cross-country skiers, traveling from all over the world, converge in northern Wisconsin to participate in the races and other Birkie-related events. No matter the conditions, extreme cold, rain, sun, blizzards, or patchy snow, the late February race takes place and Hayward’s Main Street is packed with people cheering on the racers as they ski the final 200 meters through town. It’s a rewarding finish with music and cameras clicking and cow bells ringing, clapping, hugging and back patting, all of which makes the end bearable for the exhausted racers. IMG_1450.jpeg

I’ve done two Kortes now and also two Barkie Birkies, a fun, often chaotic, skijoring race that takes place on the day before the Korte. The Barkie Birkie, for beginner skijorers like me, is 3K down Main Street and through a golf course. I participated in my first Barke Birke in 2018 after a couple months of practicing with my 8-month-old puppy, Bridger. Yet, when it was time for the start all of the practice went out the window. Bridger got so excited by the cheers and commotion that we ended up getting tangled with one of the helpers at the starting line. Then, somewhere along the course, he found some friends and played instead of racing. We finished in the middle of the pack, but had fun. This year, he was something of a veteran and reined in his excitement, concentrated on the course, and pulled us into a thirteenth place finish. I congratulated him enthusiastically, and hours later, we were still laughing about the motley collection of dogs and skiers. By night time, however, my attention turned to my upcoming race. In my head, I separated the course into three sections: The first section up-and-down with short inclines and declines; the second section consisting of long, steep hills; and the third, the flat, windy ski across frozen Lake Hayward, then over the bridge, and, finally, the slight, 200-meter incline to the finish line.

The very first time I skied the Korte, the snow was slow and fluffy. For the first 5K, the hills were packed and skiers got tangled. Then, it cleared out and I was skiing by myself. The day was beautiful, and soon I fell into a rhythm. I finished that ski in about 2 hours with aching feet and sore calves, but I had enjoyed it. I told myself as much as it had hurt and as tired as I was, I would do it again. So, a month later, I registered for the 2019 Korte. 

This time around, I skied with friends — just as rewarding of an experience. The snow was perfect, fast and sleek, and the sun was shining. I didn’t hurt as much as the first time, and I was powering up the hills. Even up “bitch hill”, a massive, steep incline with a man telling bad jokes at the top through a megaphone, I  felt good. Then, with 6K to go, I decided that if I was going to beat my previous time, I had to step it up. I told my friends that I was going to ski ahead and then mustering all the energy I could with the help of a chocolate GU, I increased my pace. Three more kilometers, fifteen more minutes, I told myself, then the finish line, my family’s smiling faces, my dog, a hot lunch and a nap.IMG_5026

Concentrating on the possibility of passing each person in front of me, I continued to V-2, (a tiring technique that requires a high cadence) and focused on my breathing, on the finish line. Soon I had only two kilometers left, then one, then I climbed the bridge, accelerated on the downhill, and hit the battered snow of the final stretch. I was exhausted, but the one thing that kept me from collapsing was the cheers from the fans lining Main Street, the exhilaration, and my relief and pride at having completed another Korte.

 

Frisbees and Friendship

When my dad and I were packing for Papua New Guinea, we put a lot of thought into what gifts we would carry with us to give to each village. My dad suggested that we bring Frisbees, one for each village that we would stay in. He recounted how my mom and he had brought a Frisbee with them when they visited the island in 1995. They had only brought one, so they could not leave it behind, but the whole village had turned out to play or to watch the magic disc floating on air. So, along with our other gear, we packed into our backpacks 12 colorful Frisbees.LRG_DSC01610

After arriving at a village, reaching our designated grass hut, and settling in, my dad and I would grab a red or blue or bright yellow disc and venture out toward an open area. The plastic toy immediately caught the children’s eyes and they would follow us, excited for a game. My dad would fling the disc as far as he could, and the children, never having seen this object before, chased after it. It took awhile for us to teach them the art of a good backhand or how to finesse a forehand. Some were naturally skilled at it and some were not—so much so that I would often have to cover my head and duck. 

After a few village visits, this became the ritual: unpack, unwind, rehydrate, present the Frisbee, teach, play, and then, the following morning before departing for the next village, get in one last throw, before we left the Frisbee in their hands.

PNG Frisbee #2Playing Frisbee with the kids (and adults) of the village was a way to build a bridge, to gain each other’s trust. We were largely unknown to each other, divided by our dress, our language, our customs, the color of our skin, our education. But through the simple act of play, we could connect with one another, and that gap narrowed. In the process of sharing this flimsy circular toy, flinging it, dropping it, watching it roll, laughing, instructing, and, finally, successfully passing it back and forth among us, we felt more alike than different.

Warriors’ Welcome

On our trek across Papua New Guinea, we walked 8 hours every day through jungles, through rivers, through mud, and up and down mountains. The landscape was rugged and pristine. But whLRG_DSC02125.jpgat made the trek even more meaningful was the isolated villages along the way. As we approached the villages, children covered in mud would spring from dense thickets of brush, shrieking as they charged us with spears, sticks, and machetes. At first it frightened us, but it was a ritual the children loved, and one we encountered each and every time. By the end of our trek we came to expect it and were no longer alarmed.

LRG_DSC01182.jpgOnce we entered the villages, which were often nothing more than a dozen thatch huts surrounding a dirt clearing, the colorful ceremonies began. We’d walk under an arch made of vines, leaves, and petals while women and men, adorned in red paint, headdresses made from bird feathers, and pig tusk necklaces pounded on their kundu drums.  Then the women and young girls of the village would drape flower necklaces over our heads and lead us to the center of the village where the real singing, dancing, and drumming began. That was followed by a series of speeches, which were translated by one of our native guides. 

LRG_DSC02814The gist of the speechess was that the villagers looked forward to seeing more outsiders and to the prospect of eco-tourism. Then the prayers began. After the last blessing, they lavished us with food and coconuts and treated us to more dancing. Though exhausted we felt lucky to be among the kindness and generosity of our Papua New Guinean friends, who had so little but gave so much.