This Saturday, a beloved Decorah tradition will again take to the snow-covered prairie.
The 24th annual Barneløpet will take place Saturday, Feb. 4, beginning at 10 a.m., at the Decorah Community Prairie. The event gives children the opportunity to participate in a kids race, either on skis or by walking, through the tall prairie grass.
For Darlene Fossum-Martin, this event is extra special as she’s helped organize it from its beginnings.
Fostering a love
Fossum-Martin’s love to ski began at a young age. She said her grandfather gave her her first pair of red wooden skis for Christmas in the mid-1950s. That gift fostered a love of outdoor winter activities.
By the 1960s, Fossum-Martin remembers receiving letters from family in Norway mentioning a cabin in the mountains where they’d cross-country ski. It didn’t take long before Fossum-Martin went to La Crosse, Wis., to buy a pair of shiny red wooden cross-country skis.
When she graduated from high school in the mid-1970s, Fossum-Martin decided to visit family in Norway.
“Staying with them at their cabin and skiing in the mountains was a dream come true but definitely nothing like the woods and fields near Spring Grove,” she said. “There is a saying that all Norwegians are born on skis. Maybe not all but it has to be the majority. I was astonished at all the children that were hardly old enough to walk were on skis, not to mention those that would fearlessly swoosh by me going down the mountain slopes.”
Seeing an idea
Fossum-Martin introduced skiing to her children at a young age. She started by taking them with her in a backpack, then taught them how to ski themselves.
Wanting to continue to foster that love, Fossum-Martin took her kids to the American Birkebeiner in Hayward, Wisconsin. Later, her children skied the Barnebirkie, sponsored by Sons of Norway and held prior to the Birkebeiner.
“Seeing hundreds of kids ages 3-13 skiing down the street, being cheered on, was such a joy to see, especially when my kids were a part of it,” she said.
When she moved to Decorah in the mid-1990, she said she noticed there weren’t many outdoor winter activities for kids. “I thought it would be fun to organize a Sons of Norway Barneløpet, an offshoot of the Barnebirkie held in Hayward,” she said. “Sons of Norway lodges have sponsored Barneløpets throughout the Midwest, and in other states throughout the northern U.S. for several years so why not hold one in Decorah?”
At the time, Fossum-Martin was a Sons of Norway member of the Valdres Lodge in Decorah. She approached the group with the idea to host a Barneløpet. She said she volunteered to handle coordinating the event as long as another dozen people volunteered to help the morning of the event and a few more to bake cookies.
The first Barneløpet in Decorah was held on the first Saturday of February in 1999, beginning at the Dug Road parking lot and ending at Mary Christopher Park.
In 2000 while working at the Vesterheim Museum, Fossum-Martin approached the museum with the idea to join the partnership in putting on the event. Since then, the Valheim Lodge in Spring Grove and the Heimbygda Sons of Norway Lodge in Lanesboro have also joined in sponsoring the event.
In addition, Fossum-Martin noted the group has benefited from an annual donation from Jon and Mary Hart, in memory of their Valdres, Norway, exchange student Kjell Bernstein. “Because of their generous donation, we have been able to offer the event free to every registered 3-13 year old that skis or walks the course,” she said.
For the past 24 years, the Sons of Norway members have continued to volunteer their time, either helping the day of or baking cookies for the children, while Fossum-Martin has continued to coordinate the event. One thing that has changed is the location. The race has been moved to the Decorah Prairie, with the event starting at the butterfly garden.
“This area is much more convenient for families as we start and finish right at the butterfly garden so parking is not an issue. Folks can either drive up and over the dike and park right near the garden or they can park at the end of Ohio Street and walk over the dike,” she said.
Even though she’s been a part of several of these events, Fossum-Martin said she still gets a thrill out of seeing children get that taste of skiing like she did. “On the morning of the event when I start seeing moms and dads and grandparents with their kids walking over the dike with their skis, I can’t help but think of the movie Field of Dreams, ‘If you build it they will come!’ It’s one of those real good feelings.”
The event is also open to people who prefer to walk rather than ski, thus making it an option even when there’s not much snow on the ground. “It is definitely a family affair with parents, grandparents and even aunts and uncles walking along with their kids or cheering them on at the finish line,” she said.
Full story in the Decorah Public Opinion.