The Days After the American Birkebeiner

Katie Hancock

Katie Hancock is a recreational skier, a bookseller at the local independent bookstore, and an avid food gardener.

The American Birkebeiner (aka the “Birkie”) is the largest cross-country ski race in all of North America. The event has its roots in Norway, when Birkebeiner skiers, so called for their protective birch bark leggings, skied through the treacherous mountains and rugged forests of Norway's Osterdalen valley during the winter of 1206. Norwegian history credits the Birkebeiners' bravery with preserving the life of a baby who later became King of Norway. In Wisconsin, the American Birkebeiner Ski Race just celebrated its 40th anniversary, with thousands of racers from across the world skiing a 50 kilometer course that traverses a hilly and scenic route through the northwoods from Cable to Hayward, Wisconsin. 

Hosting such an event is quite a feat when you consider that the town of Cable has only eight hundred residents. Here are some statistics to consider: Over 13,000 skiers, 2,400 volunteers, 20,000 spectators, 5,000 bananas, 5,000 doughnut holes, 42,000 cookies, 4,000 medals, 165 portable toilets…the list goes on, but you get the idea. The thing about the volunteers is that they are mostly people who love to ski. But on this day, they choose to work at food stations and provide medical back up and help in any way possible. They’d just as soon ski the Birkie course the day after the race.  

This year, I volunteered to help out at the Kortelopet finish. I arrived at the tent at 7:30 am to get my assignment. “Here’s your crew, Katie. You’ll be back up timers to the back up timer,” said the finish chief with his hands full pencils and clipboards stacked with paper. “Super!” I said out loud as I looked at a group of six ninth grade boys with whom I’d be spending the day. “You’ve got to be kidding!” I said in my head as I smiled and handed out pencils. It ended up being a day full of laughter and loud, sometimes obnoxious, cheering for all of the local folks who crossed the finish line. We thanked our lucky stars that both the primary and secondary computer timing systems worked well that day!

Birkie Hill Wisconsin

My children have sort of a special day-after-Birkie tradition: They ski parts of the course looking for unopened packets of energy food and miscellaneous left-behind items. This year, it was slim pickings: Two packs of Gu and a water bottle. For my own tradition, I savor the quiet moment of being still on the trails and feeling the spirits of the tens of thousands of skiers who have thundered past this very spot, full of hope and determination and the joy that some describe as “Birkie Fever”. I think “Birkie Bliss” is maybe more accurate.

While it is true that the 50K Birkie Trail and 54K Birkie Classic Trail are groomed and maintained year round by the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation, there are actually nine different Nordic trail systems in Bayfield County, with a total of 244 kilometers of cross country ski trails. Each system of trails has its own unique characteristics and beauty. For example, the 14 kilometers in Drummond are groomed for classic skiing only, with a wide open trail that has two sets of tracks so it’s wonderful skiing for families or beginners. If you’re in the mood for variety, the North End trailhead in Cable leads to trails groomed for every skill level, including the Birkie and the Birkie Classic. In the weeks leading up to the Birkie and in the days that follow, they are just as beautiful, just as expertly groomed, and, might I add, less crowded.

Katie Hancock is a recreational skier, a bookseller at the local independent bookstore, and an avid food gardener. Katie’s husband, Arthur, is an Episcopal priest. They live in Cable, Wisconsin, where they are raising their six children, along with two dogs, two cats, a guinea pig, a rabbit, twenty-three hens, and a rooster named Marjorie. They are currently developing a community farm on the edge of town, where the mission is to grow food and build community. Visit Cable Community Farm’s website to learn more or connect with them on Facebook.

This entry was posted in Cross-Country Skiing/Snowshoeing, Spectator Sports Events, Outdoor Fun and tagged Skiing