Writer's One-Time Ski Quest Turns Into Birkie Fever

By Tom Bartelt
Special to TravelWisconsin.com

Skiing the American Birkebeiner was supposed to be a one-time event for me, a way to prove my youth the year I turned 40. But I caught the notorious Birkie Fever, and almost every February since then I’ve been back, anxiously waiting my turn to begin this historic race once again.

The Birkebeiner’s roots go back to 1206, when two Norwegian warriors rescued the kidnapped Prince Haakon, who became one of Norway’s most accomplished and beloved kings. The Birkebeiner race commemorates their 35-mile escape through the wilderness to bring the two-year-old to safety. Birkebeiner means “birch leg,” Norwegian for the protective birch bark leggings worn by the warriors.

The Wisconsin version of the Birkebeiner began in 1973 with only 35 skiers completing the race. The event has since grown to become the largest cross-country ski race held this side of Norway.

Some 800 years later, our race day begins early with a final check of the weather and last-minute adjustments made to the wax we ironed onto our skis so meticulously the night before. We sing along with “The Birkie Rag” on WOJB during our drive to the parking lot, where we’ll board school buses that will take us to the starting area at Telemark Lodge near Cable.

I take my place at the start along with 700 other skiers. There are 3,000 ahead of us already on the course, and another 3,000 waiting here to depart. Skiers are grouped in waves with others of similar ability in order to spread out the nearly 8,000 participants.

The starting gate lifts suddenly, followed by a loud cheer and lots of nervous chatter. “On your left!” “Watch your poles!” “Sorry, my fault.” “Are we there yet?” “My legs hurt already.” “See you in Hayward!” The pace starts fast but slows to a near crawl when we reach Power Line Hill, the first of many long climbs on this 51-kilometer course.

Farther down the trail, I hear zydeco music coming from the 9-kilometer rest stop. “Take one of these, they’ll bring you luck,” says a volunteer as he slings a beaded necklace over my head. He’s right—they do work. I’ll finish this Birkie with my personal best time, but more than two hours slower than the time of the winning Italian skier.

Thousands of spectators line the course to cheer us on. Most are packed along Hayward’s Main Street, the race’s home stretch. Others find spots where snowmobile trails cross the route. Like fans at a NASCAR race anticipating a crash, one group watches from the top of a treacherous downhill run, jeering at skiers who take spectacular falls.

Crossing Highway OO near Seeley marks the halfway point of the race. There’s less talking now; everyone’s focused on reaching the finish, still a long way down the trail. A skier wearing shorts and fake dreadlocks leaps ahead of me. Later, I catch and pass someone dressed as Superman.

That makes me feel better, until a woman clearly old enough to be my mother skis by almost effortlessly. I had defeated Superman, only to be humbled by a grandmother and a Bob Marley impersonator. Such is the diversity of ability and motivation found here.

Finally we cross Lake Hayward and ski the last long stretch up snow-covered Main Street to the finish. Spectators ring cowbells and shout encouragingly, “Great job!” “Looking good!” I know I look terrible, but I appreciate the gesture. At long last, I hear my name announced over the loudspeaker and gratefully ski under the finish banner.

Exhausted but satisfied, I trudge down the street to Angler’s Bar & Grill to celebrate with the rest of the group, share stories about our day, and begin making plans for next year: Once caught, Birkie Fever can be treated but never completely cured.

The Annual American Birkebeiner will be held in February. In addition to the 50K skate race and a 54K classic race, there are shorter events designed to appeal to skiers of all ages and abilities, including the popular Barnebirkie for kids as young as 3 years old. To register or for more information, visit www.Birkie.com.