The American Birkebeiner: 55km of Snow and Sweat

By Dennis McCann

To stand on Hayward’s Main Street at the finish line of the American Birkebeiner on a frosty February morning is to take part, if only as a contributing witness, in one of Wisconsin’s singular sporting events. It’s the church-bell-ringing, cow-bell-clanging, ski-flashing, crowd-roaring conclusion to a cross-country ski race that began several hours earlier and many miles away in the forests of Sawyer County. On its best days it’s a ferocious flight to the finish by some of the world’s fastest winter athletes followed by thousands of citizen skiers who might lack the winners’ preposterous pace but not their determination.

But don’t ask for whom the bells toll; put on some fleece and warm boots and see for yourself.

The American Birkebeiner began in 1973, the brainchild of dreamer and resort owner Tony Wise, who envisioned a cross-country ski race similar to those popular at the time in ski-crazy Norway. At the time, according to a history prepared by Birkebeiner officials in Hayward, there were only 30,000 pairs of cross-country skis in the United States. But betting on potential and a prayer, Wise and Nordic skiing expert Sven Wiik developed a 48-kilometer trail in the woods near Cable. On race day, 54 skiers lined up for the very first American Birkebeiner and its shorter sister race, the Kortelopet.

Four years later, more than 2,000 skiers registered, including 400 Norwegians in black and yellow outfits who cemented the race’s international flavor. Today, 10,000 skiers participate in not just “the Birkie,” as the 55-kilometer premier event is best known, but in a half-dozen shorter distance events as well. They represent 48 states and 21 countries. While elite skiers use the swifter ski-skate style, many traditional skiers doggedly stick to the classic two-lane ski style, which a newly built trail will better accommodate this year.

As for “Birkie fever,” it’s not something penicillin can erase. Three skiers have started every race since 1973, and more than 800 “Birchleggers” have skied the full American Birkebeiner 20 times or more.

The event takes place February 23-25, 2017. In addition, in January, the Birkie Tour, an untimed, open-track event, allowed skiers in training for the Birkie to get some trail time, or gave first-timers who wondered what the fuss was about to experience the feeling of the Birkie trail.

The Birkie annually attracts thousands of spectators including family and friends of skiers, but also many who simply enjoy world-class competition. The two best places for spectators to feel the pulse of the race are at the start and at the finish, says the race’s executive director, Ned Zuelsdorff, noting that the finish area offers easy access and ample parking, while the starting line requires spectators to be bussed in and out.

“The start line is a little more difficult,” he says, “but I think it’s more exciting because you’ve got everybody there.”

Another popular spectator position is near the halfway point of the race at County OO, near the hilliest part of the course. A number of spectators on snowmobiles prefer to wait at the foot of what some call “Bobblehead Hill,” where they delight in scoring skiers’ more spectacular falls.

Complete information on the American Birkebeiner, including a list of races and other events, Birkie history and essential details for both participants and spectators, can be found at

Of course, the most essential detail can’t be found on the Internet. So before you go, pray for snow.