Kjell Arne Berntsen as a ski model for a Norwegian magazine.
Kjell Arne Berntsen as a ski model for a Norwegian magazine.

HEN Jon and Mary Hart welcomed a young Norwegian college student named Kjell Arne Berntsen into their home in 1975 as part of the Sons of Norway Valdres Exchange Program, they did not suspect what a long, deep connection they were forging.

Or that -- almost 40 years later -- they would be sponsoring a children's ski/walk event in his honor.

The Harts, along with Vesterheim and Sons of Norway lodges in Decorah, Lanesboro and Spring Grove, are hosting this year's Barneløpet ski/walk event Saturday, Feb. 1, in honor of Kjell Arne.

Back in the 1970s, the Harts were young themselves and their first child, Laura, was just a few months old when they told Gordon Christianson of the Sons of Norway Valdres Exchange Program that Kjell Arne could stay with them.

Relatively new to Decorah, the couple knew few people, and Kjell Arne, only about five years younger than Mary, soon became their "brother, son and best friend," Mary Hart explains. The three remained close over the years, the Harts visiting Norway six times and Kjell Arne returning to the states three times, and their friendship broadened as their respective families grew.

Kjell Arne was the epitome of an outdoor sports enthusiast, and over the course of his life, he promoted a wide range of physical activities for both children and adults. He had a special place in his heart for skiing, even serving as a ski guide for blind children in Minneapolis on one of his visits back to the states-and he actually was a sports model for awhile. His wife, Ellen, was a choreographer for the opening and closing ceremonies at the Lillehammer Olympics and, of course, Kjell Arne was enlisted for that, along with their two children, Vilde and Even. Tragically, Kjell Arne died about a year ago from injuries sustained in a freak skiing accident.

"Barneløpet is a great way to honor Kjell Arne. He loved skiing, he loved children, he loved Decorah. His whole life was devoted to promoting physical fitness," Jon Hart said.

"The event is a perfect blending of his love of family, exercise and the outdoors," Mary Hart added. "We know it is something he would appreciate, and we are so grateful we can remember him in this way."

The Harts' son, David designed the commemorative T-shirts that will be given to all Barneløpet participants this year, and the usual entry fee of $3 is being waived because of the Harts' generosity, so the event is free.

Barneløpet, a non-competitive ski or walk event for children ages 3-13, is Saturday, Feb. 1, at 10 a.m., with registration from 9:40-10 a.m. at the Decorah Community Prairie.

Barneløpet is open to girls and boys of all skill levels. Each registered participant will receive a printed bib for the event and a medal.

Sons of Norway groups all over the country sponsor Barneløpet events, modeled after the American Birkebeiner cross-country ski race held in Hayward, Wis.

The Decorah Community Prairie is accessed by car at the south end of Ohio Street, near Aase Haugen Homes. The trail will be in a loop, with the start and finish at the site of the butterfly garden. After completing the course, participants are welcome to hot chocolate and cookies.

Along with the main loop for skiing and walking, there will be a shorter loop for younger skiers. Caregivers can walk or ski the course with the children, or may choose to stand along the course and cheer. Sleds are welcome for younger siblings.

In the absence of snow, children will walk the course. If in doubt about weather conditions, listen to local radio stations for cancellations or check vesterheim.org.

Participants must provide their own skis. There are a limited number of children's skis for rent at Decorah Bicycles on a first-come first-served basis.

For more information about Barneløpet, contact Vesterheim at 563-382-9681.

In addition to Jon and Mary Hart and Vesterheim, Barneløpet's sponsors this year are Sons of Norway Valdres Lodge No. 503 in Decorah, Sons of Norway Heimbygda Lodge No. 376 in Lanesboro, Minn. and Sons of Norway Valheim Lodge No. 364 in Spring Grove, Minn., along with Vesterheim.

For complete schedules of events, exhibitions, and classes and more information about ways to donate, check out Vesterheim online at vesterheim.org.