The skiers who set the first tracks in what has become North America’s largest ski race basked in the glow of the Birkebeiner torch Thursday, telling stories, wearing knickers and gliding on wooden skis.
The first annual 5K Nikkerbeiner brought the first Birkebeiner winner to Main St. in Hayward and a number of the 34 intrepid Nordics who joined him on the make-shift trail that led them to Cable.
“That is one of the greatest things in my life, to see how it has grown,” said Sam Ersson, now 75. “This, I could have not dreamed of in 1973. I can’t say it in words, but in my heart, it is very, very warm.”
Forty years ago, Ersson answered an ad from Tony Wise and moved from Sweden to Cable to become the ski instructor at the Telemark Resort. He arrived in November, and set about working on Wise’s dream to make Northwest Wisconsin a paradise for cross-country skiers around the world.
There was one catch.
“I told him my name was Sam, and he said, ‘I want to have a Nordic ski instructor. Your name is Eric.”
And that’s how it reads in the official results: Eric Ersson – 2:48:16.
He’ll ski again on Saturday, but with a slower pace in mind.
“My wife and daughters asked me not to go the same race as I did in 1973,” Ersson said. “I am the only man in the house, I figure I have to take notice.”
Bruce Derauf, from Duluth, Minn., skied behind Ersson in that first Birkebeiner, and will strap on the same wooden skis he used then to tackle the 54-kilometer classic on Saturday. He showed them off, along with his original Birkie bib, to win the best in show award among the Nikkerbeiners.
“I’ve enjoyed the friendships through the years, seeing old friends and making new ones, and the spirit of the volunteers,” he said.
Two other Duluth skiers, Connie Fuller and George Hovland, flanked Derauf on the podium, honored for their longevity and historic gear. Fuller showed off the Jarvinen skis she used in the junior nationals in the early ‘70s and Hovland sported the bib that his late friend Petr Fossiedi wore when he won the ski race from the courthouse in Duluth to St. Paul, in 1937.
Like the Birkie itself, the gathering of older skiers and time-worn gear was a reunion and a celebration on Main St.
On Saturday, more than 10,000 skiers will follow the tracks they’ve laid over the decades.
Conditions: Snow fell steadily Friday morning and forecasters predicted three to five inches would pile on the Birkie trail before the 8 a.m. start time. Birkie officials announced they would groom continuously until the snow stopped, but the fresh powder likely will make for slower conditions, especially for the skate skiers.
Contenders: Previous Birkie winners Matt Liebsch and Caitlin Gregg will be among the top U.S. contenders chasing victory and the $7,500 prize. Joining them will be Brian Gregg, Minneapolis, Minn., who finished third in 2012; and Sylvan Ellefson, Vail, Co., recently won the 2013 Colorado Governor’s Cup; Jennie Bender, Minneapolis, Minn., winner of the classic race in 2011 and third in the skate in 2012; and Chelsea Holmes, Girdwood, Ak., Canadian 30K champion in 2011.
A strong field of European skiers, who have dominated the race for a quarter century, will challenge the Americans. Italian Fabio Santus, the course record holder (1:56:58) returns this year. Sergio Bonaldi, Italy, and Benoit Chauvet, France, are 4th and fifth in the FIS Marathon Cup standings.
Tatjana Mannima, Estonia, is first in the women’s Marathon Cup standings, and Ursina Badilatti, a Birkie veteran, stands in fifth.
Notable: John Kotar, a retired professor of forestry at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, will ski his 40th and last Birkebeiner. Kotar and Ernie St. Germaine are the only two skiers to have competed in all 39 Birkies, to date. Jacque Lindskoog, the only woman who raced in the first Birkie, in 1973, will return.