The weather gods simply would not allow the 2017 American Birkebeiner to take place, even as an untimed “open track” ski tour.
A record-setting heat wave and a forecasted Friday snowstorm that failed to materialize forced organizers to cancel the nation’s largest cross-country ski race for only the second time in its 44-year history.
But in the end, nothing could cool “Birkie fever” for some kind of event in lieu of the races. Thousands of participants and their families still made their way to Cable Saturday to view the new starting area and ski around a 4 kilometer course crafted out of what frozen material could be patched together.
“The lousy snow may have spoiled the race but it didn't spoil the weekend,” said Pat Remington of Madison. “We had more fun with family and friends than ever before.”
Those thoughts were shared by many others who enjoyed the carnival-like atmosphere without the pressure of a timing clock. The celebration featured food, beer, music and equipment demonstrations.
Kay Lum of Fitchburg was hoping to complete her 21st Birkie for the second time—she also missed skiing the 50K race last year due to a knee injury—but had a memorable day nonetheless. First it was a ski on the short course with friends followed by a trip to the Sawmill Saloon in nearby Seeley.
“They had a great band with lots of people dancing in ski clothes and their Birkie bibs,” she said, referring to the slip-on fabric vests printed with individual racers’ numbers. “Some people were even in their ski boots.”
While many registered skiers leisurely completed laps of the short course—avoiding, as best they could, icy patches, exposed grass and dirt churned up by grooming equipment—others fled for better skiing elsewhere. The snowstorm that skipped the Cable-Hayward area on Friday dumped several inches in Minoqua and Ironwood, Michigan, which lured scores of would-be Birkie skiers to Nordic centers there.
Concern for the future
Low-snow conditions have impacted the Birkebeiner before, with the race either shortened or cancelled 10 times since the inaugural event in 1973. It was canceled in 2000 following a Friday rainstorm. Before last weekend, the Birkie enjoyed a nine-year run of full-length 50K and 26K ski races.
Still, given the realities of a warming planet there are growing concerns among skiers about the future of their beloved sport. Of the 17 hottest years ever recorded, 16 have occurred since 2000.
“I've been thinking for years that the long-term prospects for the Birkie are not good,” said Tom Kaufman, a veteran skier from Madison and coach of the West High School cross country running team. “The snow line has continued to move farther and farther north.”
The lack of consistently cold weather has led to snowmaking efforts at a many cross-country venues around the Midwest, including Lapham Peak in Delafield and a half-dozen trails in the Twin Cities. Elver Park on the city’s southwest side featured a small man-made ski loop this season made possible largely through donations from the Madison Nordic Ski Club.
The Mora Vasaloppet, once the largest ski marathon in Minnesota, has been plagued by scarce snow for years and now depends on snowmaking to hold a shortened event on a loop course. Birkie officials have also talked about some sort of snowmaking effort to ensure an event can be held regardless of the weather.
But skiing loops on man-made snow certainly can’t compare to that long and challenging trek over the hills of the Northwoods on the world-famous Birkie Trail. It’s why the races attracts entrants from nearly all 50 states and 20 foreign countries each year.
So yes, I’ll be signing up again for the 2018 event and wager the race fills to capacity once again. Time to think about getting on the bike and training for next year.
Mike Ivey, a Madison writer, contributes the Footloose blog to madisonmagazine.com. Madison Magazine Associate Editor Joel Patenaude, also a Birkie skier, contributed to this report.
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