01/15/2013 10:49 EST | Updated 03/17/2013 05:12 EDT

Alberta cross-country ski fest marks 25th anniversary with Viking feast

EDMONTON - The Canadian Birkebeiner Ski Festival, the largest classical cross-country ski event in the country, is gearing up for its 25th edition next month.

Organizers are expecting 1,700 to 1,800 skiers — the most in the past five years — on the trails of Cooking Lake - Blackfoot Provincial Recreation Area, a half hour east of Edmonton. More than 600 volunteers help run the festival, said general manager Glenda Hanna.

Open to skiers of all ages and abilities, the Birkebeiner will be staged Feb. 8-9 and include events ranging from 2.5 to 55 kilometres long. Classical cross-country means skate-style skiing is not allowed.

"It's just a great, big, wonderful and joyful celebration of outdoor life, of active life, of winter, of skiing," said Hanna, adding that the festival draws recreational skiers from across Canada and other countries.

"We have people skiing from little toddlers tootling along right up to elite athletes. Lots and lots of families participate."

The 2013 milestone will be celebrated with a "Viking feast" and 25th anniversary gala.

"Over 30,000 people ski Birkebeiners every year — there's one in Norway, one in Wisconsin and ours here," Hanna said. The festivals commemorate the 800-year-old legend of so-called Birkebeiner soldiers who saved the heir to the Norwegian throne in an epic 55-kilometre journey.

Shuttle buses will run from the Ramada Conference Centre Edmonton, the host hotel, to the ski site.

Registration and other details are at