Plenty of snow for 2019 Birkie, but warming climate prompts more snow-making for cross country skiing
CROSS COUNTRY SKIING
BY MIKE IVEY
There’s nothing new about the rocky relationship between weather and the American Birkebeiner cross country ski marathon.
In fact, the first Birkie I entered in 1987 was shortened due to a lack of snow cover on Lake Hayward back when North America’s largest ski race finished at the now vacant Telemark Lodge in Cable.
Since then, there have been several shortened courses, two complete cancellations and that time in 2007 when snow cover was so thin organizers ran the race as an untimed 25-kilometer tour, and the course turned into a rolling party on skis.
The good news is that conditions should be excellent for the 45th annual Birkie, with moderate temperatures and a forecast for snow during the day on Saturday, which could slow the course as the long races go on.
Still, there is the nagging fear that the snow we all love is only going to get harder to find. You can’t help but wonder about the future of winter sports in Wisconsin and whether younger generations will catch “Birkie Fever” like so many Baby Boomers did back in the 1970s and ‘80s.
Those challenges, both economic and social, are laid out in an excellent film titled “Saving Snow” which includes footage from the cancelled 2017 Birkie.
Jonathan Patz, Director of Global Environmental Health at the University of Wisconsin and a Birkie veteran himself, also offered some dramatic images in a recent presentation to CXC that will depress any serious skier.
For Birkie Executive Director Ben Popp, it all comes down to snow – and in this case making it to guarantee more venues for lessons, training, racing or simply enjoying that feeling of gliding on narrow skinny boards.
“We’ve seen a decline in registrations in places like Milwaukee and that is definitely because of the snow conditions,” he told Silent Sports.
At the same time, Popp noted that registrations have stayed consistent in the Twin Cities and he says there is a direct connection to the excellent man-made snow trails there, include Theodore Wirth Park which will host an FIS World Cup event in 2020.
Other communities that value cross country are also realizing that if you want a thriving ski scene, you better supplement what Mother Nature provides. Lapham Peak near Delafield and Elver Park in Madison now provide a few kilometers of man-made skiing, largely due to volunteer efforts and private fundraising.
Organizers of the Mora Vasaloppet have taken things further by devising a system that uses manure spreaders to distribute man-made snow along 18 kilometers of trails. It’s an amazing story that received National Public Radio attention on how a small community in central Minnesota came together to save its beloved ski event.
These are inspiring stories which show the passion of cross-country skiers, who in many cases are stepping up with their own time and their money to keep their sport alive.
The issue hasn’t been lost on U.S. Ski & Snowboard, the national governing body for Olympic skiing and snowboarding. It has instituted a program called “White to Gold,” which offers discounts to help local ski clubs purchase snow-making equipment.
“The focus has to be on the clubs; that’s where it needs to happen,” says Popp.
Popp is also a big believer in promoting cross-country skiing at all levels, not only for racing or Olympic development. He says even a small track of man-made snow close to home is enough to get most people outdoors in winter.
“We really need to do a better job emphasizing the social part of it,” he says. “You can go out and ski around a two kilometer loop with a friend and then go out for coffee.”
Birkie events begin Thursday with the BarneBirkie kids race, followed by the 29K Korte and 15K Prince Haakon on Friday and the Birkie 50K skate/55K classic on Saturday. The 15K race has seen the largest size increase, with registrations up by several hundred over 2018.
And thanks to moving the shorter races to Friday, every skier now enjoys the same Main Street finish in downtown Hayward after climbing the temporary “International Bridge” constructed over U.S. 63 for Birkie week.
All told, some 13,500 skiers and an estimated 30,000 spectators are expected. The Birkie is also northern Wisconsin’s biggest single winter tourism event, with a direct economic impact of over $4 million. There will be 49 states and 23 countries represented.
Those numbers are why the American Birkebeiner continues to invest in its own snow-making system. The goal is to cover enough of the Birkie trail with man-made snow to ensure the race never again needs to be completely cancelled.
This year’s event will feature 2018 Olympic gold medalist Kikkan Randall as the honorary race starter. Randall, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in June and is undergoing chemotherapy, will make numerous appearances during Birkie week and plans to ski the 50K skate race.
Ernie St. Germaine, 71, the last remaining “Birkie Founder,” is also entered and will be skiing in his 45th race on Saturday. Look for his red bib in the 55K classic event.
Not coming to the start line, however, are the 2018 champions in the signature 50K freestyle race: Anders Gloerson of Norway has decided not to enter since the Birkie is not an FIS points race this year while, Caitlin Gregg, a five-time champion, had a baby just two weeks ago and isn’t skiing.
Otherwise, all systems are go.
Just remember, if you break a sweat at the Birkie, you’re either overdressed or going too hard. Look for me in the beer tent Saturday.
(A freelance writer based in Madison, Mike Ivey will be skiing in his 30th Birkie on Saturday.)