When the 46th American Birkebeiner ski race begins, David Kettula will be dressed a little differently than many of the other skiers.
Kettula, of International Falls, his daughter Tasha Pinckney and husband Virgil, and his grandson Caelan Pinckney, will be dressed as warriors Skjervald, Inga, Torstein and Baby Prince Haakon.
They will don traditional garb and wooden skis as they re-enact the 800-year-old legend that inspired the creation of the American Birkebeiner ski race, celebrating its 46th year Feb. 22 in Hayward, Wis.
In addition to skiing the entire 55-kilometer Birkie Classic race — on traditional wooden skis — the trio will pick-up baby Caelan Pinckney as he portrays Prince Haakon, at the American Birkebeiner International Bridge and carry him across the finish line on Main Street to signify the safe delivery of Prince Haakon to Trondheim, Norway.
The family’s essay led to their selection by the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation as winners of the 2020 Birkie Warriors & Inga Contest.
They will serve as ambassadors throughout the festival.
“Throughout Birkie week this trio brings to life the legacy of the Birkebeiners. Torstein, Skjervald, and Inga are important threads in the greater fabric of the overall Birkie experience,” said Ben Popp, ABSF executive director.
The contest winners were selected by judges who know exactly what it takes to ski the 55-kilometer Birkie Classic Trail on wooden skis and in full period costume: Each year, the contest judges are none other than the previous year’s contest winners.
The contest winners are based on essays each applicant writes, outlining their skiing abilities and why they should be selected as the next “Birkie Royalty.” Winning also gets them into next year’s Birkie for free, Kettula noted.
“My family would like to be selected as 2020 Birkie warriors because there is not one day the Birkie is not on my mind,” wrote Kettula in the essay. “It is a way of life. I live in International Falls, Minn., but my roots run deep into the woods of northern Wisconsin. My home is 50 miles from the Birkie trail in Frederic, Wis.”
Together, the Kettula/Pinckney trio has a long history of Birkie week participation and a definite case of Birkie Fever, say organizers.
The 2020 American Birkebeiner will be the 30th Birkie for David Kettula. When he lined up on the start line 30 years ago, it was the very first ski race he’d ever participated in and he hasn’t missed a Birkie race since. He registered for that race on race day.
His best finish has been 203rd, he said. Kettula is a member of the Polar Polers Ski Club.
“We were all together when I received the email that said we made it,” he said. “We all let out a Birkie yell. It is a once-in-a-lifetime honor.”
Kettula’s daughter, Tasha Pinckney, has an equally impressive Birkie track-record, skiing her 10th Birkie in 2020. Pinckney has also skied two Kortelopet races, along with four Junior Birkie and 10 Barnebirkie races. She started skiing at age 2 and competed in her first race at 3, Kettula said.
“When I found out we won, I couldn’t stop smiling,” Pinckney told the ABSF. “I started thinking about training on wooden skis, what costumes we would wear, and when the elite skiers might pass us. I’ve been skiing since I could walk and am so excited to portray Inga for my 10th Birkie and cross the finish line with my son.
Tasha’s husband, Vergil Pinckney, did not grow up as a cross-country skier, but it didn’t take long for him to catch Birkie fever after meeting Tasha; 2020 will be Vergil’s second Birkie.
“I married into a skiing family but had never cross-country skied before I met my wife,” Pinckney told the ABSF. “After I watched my wife and father-in-law ski the 2015 Birkie, I started to get the fever. I definitely have it now and am honored to represent the warriors who saved the Last King of Norway.”
Kettula told The Journal that skiing has a long history in his family. His father grew up in northern Wisconsin, where everyone skied in the community including his grandparents, who immigrated from Finland.
“They skied as a way of life brought over from the old country,” he said. “I grew up hearing stories about friends of my dad’s that made skis and how you skied to friends’ houses for saunas.”
Skiing on wooden skis — his first pair of skis — will be a challenge, he said, as equipment has gotten lighter and faster and adapts to different conditions, he said.
And serving as “royalty” is a bit more involved than Kettula originally thought, he said.
But at the end of the festival, he said he will return to International Falls, and go back to work at the local paper mill that Monday.
“And spend the next year getting ready for the next race, again,” he said.
“Next year’s Birkie is on my grandson’s birthday,” Kettula told the organizers in his essay. “It must be a sign. After 30 years, the Birkie fever is still burning strong.”