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.


The King of the Jungle

On the second day of our trek, we picked our way down another incredibly steep hill and finally reached a creek bed. Five minutes later, I was walking in the middle of the stream, when one of our native guides called for me. He put his fingers to his lips and motioned to a tree. I strained to see what he was pointing at and saw something coiled around a branch. I almost jumped when I realized it was a large snake, perhaps a Papuan Black, one of the most venomous snakes in Papua New Guinea and the world. New Guinea is home to over 80 species of snakes, some of them — the Papuan taipan, New Guinea death adders, the New Guinea brown snake, and the Papuan black — highly dangerous.  

Image result for papuan black snake
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When I reached for my camera, the guide stopped me, “No pictures,” he said. By then, the rest of the group had caught up and one of the other trekkers made a move toward the opposite bank of the creek, just feet away from the tree where the snake sat. I grabbed his arm and pointed up above. We stood there awe-struck, examining the snake. “Let’s keep moving,” the guide said.

When we reached our lunch spot, we learned the entire story of the snake. Our lead guide explained that some of the carriers had come upon it as it slithered from the underbrush. Had it been another species they might have killed it with their machetes, but this snake was something to be feared and respected. The carriers, he said, assured it that we were just passing through, that we wouldn’t disturb it or its jungle home. And they saw to it that we kept to that promise. When we inquired about swimming in a pool beneath a waterfall to wash the sweat and grime from our bodies, they told us no. At first we didn’t understand. Then they explained that it would be disrespectful to disrupt the snake’s home and by taking pictures and swimming in the pool, we would be doing just that.LRG_DSC00991

We had another four hours of hiking left, and for the rest of the day, I thought about that snake and the carriers’ reaction to it. Somewhere along the way, I came to understand that the snake was their totem – the king of the jungle. It was an animal they revered.


Triage on the Trail

One of the first things my dad and I packed for our hike across New Guinea was our medical supplies. To make sure that our trip wasn’t ruined by infection or illness, we put together a very thorough first aid kit. Our fellow hikers were just as well-equipped.  Among us, we had ointments and antibiotics, Ibuprofen, antihistamines, steroid creams, eye drops, bandages, splints, and more.

We had been informed there was minimal access to healthcare in PNG, and virtually no healthcare once we were on the trail. In fact, the villages we were hiking though were so remote that in order for people there to get to a clinic, they would have to hike for several days—often on treacherous trails.p1010232 2

Papua New Guinea, with a population nearing 7 million, has fewer than 400 doctors. And of those 400, only a handful work in rural areas—where 87% of the population resides. This absence of any kind of healthcare was made apparent to us while we were on a rest day in the village of Laronu. We were sitting around for the day, waiting for our re-supply helicopter, when a young boy approached Julie, a fellow trekker, held out his arm and asked her if she could “fix this.” Julie immediately grabbed her pack and dug out her first aid kit. She applied some antibiotic ointment on his infected cuts, wrapped his arm in a bandage and sent him on his way. But soon, word spread. An hour later we had a line of at least 30 villagers, all seeking treatment for their ailments, or for those of their family members. By then we all had our first aid kits out.

We treated a little boy who had tripped over a pot of boiling water and burned his arm, and another child with a tropical ulcer so big it looked as if he had taken a machete blow to the head. My dad offered up a dose of his antibiotic eye drops to a man with persistent pink eye, the same drops, it turns out, that I would need later in the hike. And the people kept coming, huddling close in the waning sunlight, waiting their turn.lrg_dsc01640

As we treated infected cuts and bandaged open sores, villagers went about their business. Children played soccer, running barefoot over rocks and dirt without even a grimace. Women carried buckets of water from a nearby mountain stream while others crouched around a cooking mumu filled with pig meat, sweet potatoes, and greens.

Despite the sickness and hunger and malaria outbreaks, life in the village goes on. The villagers seemed content. I, however, was not. That night, I told my dad that I wanted to figure out a way to get medical supplies to the villages along the trail. At the very least, antibiotic ointments for skin infections, but, ideally, antimalarial drugs and mosquito nets. Easier said than done. But having experienced the generosity and friendship of the villagers, I am determined.