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Cookies. Lots and lots of delicious cookies at every rest stop along the way. There are chewy chocolate chip classics. Fudge-filled fancy ones. Peanut butter bombs. Shortbread. All homemade. All very yummy. Nordic skiers participating in the legendary Cookie Race — the annual cross-country ski loppet hosted by Calgary’s Foothills Nordic Ski Club — are definitely rewarded for their work. But, ask any of the contestants, the rewards of Nordic skiing go well beyond the cookies.

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Given these pandemic times, it likely won’t come as a surprise that interest in cross-country skiing is booming. Safe, physically distanced outdoor sports are all the rage. Especially ones that you can do inexpensively and with the whole family.

“When you’ve got two-metre-long skis on your feet, it’s tough to get too close to anyone!” says Elise Konoff, an avid cross-country skier who’s been participating in the Cookie Race for years. “The pandemic certainly hasn’t hurt cross-country skiing. In fact, it’s been a godsend for many, including our family. During the worst months of the pandemic, in the winter of 2020, it literally saved our mental health. We were out there every day, usually on the groomed trails at Confederation Park. The sport has so many benefits.”

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The physical and mental benefits of getting out there and gliding, gorging on clean, pine-scented air, are a huge benefit. And then there’s the accessibility, the fact that the whole family can do it, and it’s not overly difficult to do even for raw beginners. (Of course, learning proper technique through lesson programs and coaching is highly recommended. Like many sports, the better and more efficient you get, the more enjoyment you’ll have.)

And while many sports — take alpine skiing, for example — require significant investments in terms of equipment and time, Nordic skiers require relatively inexpensive skis, boots and poles. And those pricey lift tickets? You don’t need ’em! Once you have some gear (even renting gear is typically much less expensive than renting a full alpine set-up), skiing at designated Nordic areas is often free.

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“For many people, including our family, a huge benefit is getting together with other families in the great outdoors and just having that social interaction,” says Konoff, who is the current adult programs director at the Foothills Nordic Ski Club.

“And we don’t necessarily need to set aside a full day for it. Often a half day, even a couple of hours, is all we need. But the fun-factor, especially when you get like-minded people together in a beautiful setting on a beautiful winter day, can be off the charts.”

Participants in the Kananaskis Ski Marathon (aka the Cookie Race) are offered cookies during and after the race.  GAVIN YOUNG
Participants in the Kananaskis Ski Marathon (aka the Cookie Race) are offered cookies during and after the race. GAVIN YOUNG

Enter the loppet. And what, exactly, is a “loppet” you ask? Think of it this way: in curling you have “bonspiels.” In swimming you have “meets.” In fishing you have “derbies.” And, yes, in cross-country skiing you have “loppets.” But don’t think highly competitive, “serious” sporting events. Sure, you get timed and there are prizes, but it’s more about the fun and the camaraderie. And, when it comes to the famous Cookie Race, which is held in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, it’s all about the cookies.

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“The loppets are geared so that everyone, young and old, fast and slow, can have a great day and ski the appropriate distance based on their skill level,” says Konoff. “Each club typically puts on a loppet during the winter and the event will be open to skiers from other clubs and even non-members can register, come out, ski their desired distance and have an awesome day in the great outdoors. Ask anyone who is a part of the Nordic skiing community, loppets are so much fun!”

In Scandinavia, especially, where the loppets originated around 500 years ago, these spirited events can draw thousands of skiers.

The 90-kilometre Vasaloppet, for example, is considered the oldest loppet in the world. It takes place in Sweden and typically attracts approximately 15,000 competitors.

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In Alberta, the most notable loppet would be the Canadian Birkebiener, which is Western Canada’s premier Nordic skiing event. The three-day festival, which is held at Cooking Lake and the Blackfoot Provincial Recreation Area just east of Edmonton, typically draws well over 1,000 skiers. Some will ski the full 55-kilometre course carrying a 5.5-kilogram backpack, while others will ski shorter distances without packs. This year there is a virtual category, too, challenged on the following weekend.

Not surprisingly, given the popularity of these events, it’s not uncommon for skiers to hit the road and travel to various loppets throughout the province. It’s an opportunity to compete on a new course, meet other fun-loving cross-country skiers from other clubs, and have a great day recreating outdoors.

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“A big part of it is meeting new people from a different region and supporting other clubs,” says Konoff. “It’s a tight-knit community and it’s the love of skiing that really draws us together.”

Of course, if you participate in the Cookie Race (Feb. 26, mark it down), you will be drawn together for another notable reason.

And, yum yum, you know what that is!

Loppets in Alberta

Feb. 11 to 28: (live event first weekend, virtual event second weekend) Canadian Birkebeiner, Cooking Lake/Blackfoot Recreation Area, canadianbirkie.com.

Feb. 26: Kananaskis Ski Marathon—Cookie Race, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, Foothills Nordic Club, foothillsnordic.ca.

March 3 to 11: Masters World Cup 2022. For skiers aged 30 and older, this is a competitive race atmosphere and a fun place to be a spectator. Canmore Nordic Centre, albertaworldcup.com.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many Alberta Nordic clubs are hosting virtual loppets or limiting the number of participants. For more information on Nordic skiing in Alberta, including up-to-date information on upcoming loppets, visit nordiqalberta.ca.

Eat Play Stay Alberta

Find more stories like this at EatPlayStayAlberta.com, a special website created by Postmedia Content Works to promote Alberta tourism and hospitality opportunities and deals.

This story was created by Content WorksPostmedia’s commercial content division.

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