GeneralInterviewsMarathonsNewsAs Birkie Outgrows Its Britches, New Developments for America’s Biggest Ski Race

Avatar Vince RosettaJanuary 2, 2017
During the construction of the new permanent start and American Birkebeiner Trailhead in Cable, Wis. (Photo: ABSF)
A look at the new permanent start and American Birkebeiner Trailhead during construction this summer in Cable, Wis. (Photo: ABSF)

It has been an exciting 2016 for the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation (ABSF). After a successful completion of the Phase 1 fundraising program in 2015, the ABSF secured a land purchase that will give North America’s largest ski race, known as the Birkie, a permanent start area for events.

The Phase 1 campaign also supported the construction of a warming shelter at the new start, which is open year-round, several aid-station buildings along the trail, which can be used throughout the year, and also the construction of brand-new Birkie offices and the Tony Wise Museum in Hayward, Wis.

Just like in previous years, the ABSF has been busy in the offseason, making improvements to the American Birkebeiner (including the 50-kilometer skate and 55 k classic marathons, set for Feb. 25, 2017) and its trail system.

In mid-December, FasterSkier checked in with Ben Popp, ABSF executive director, on the phone to discuss some of these changes and what future Birkie participants can expect.

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FasterSkier: First off, congratulations on the new start-line purchase and trailhead. That seemed to be a goal the Birkie had for years. Can you tell us why that was such an important piece of the Phase 1 fundraising campaign?

The Derksen Family Trailhead Warming Shelter at the new American Birkebeiner Trailhead. (Photo: ABSF)
The Derksen Family Trailhead Warming Shelter at the new American Birkebeiner Trailhead. (Photo: ABSF)

Ben Popp: We are really excited for this new trailhead. We recently had the first event there, a youth biathlon camp and it was great to see the potential this new trailhead will bring. I skied up from Boedecker and when I got to the new trailhead, I had a warm place to change, people were hanging out, there were nice new bathrooms for people to use. Upstairs, the kids were meeting and getting lessons before they headed out to the trail.

You finally see that when you have facilities like this it brings in other people as well as the skiers. There was a woman inside reading a book while her husband was out skiing longer. It’s that whole concept that I am excited to see at the start line. It is something that can be used for events other than the Birkie. It is going to be the start for a JNQ [Junior National qualifier] meet, the Wisconsin state championship and the newly announced race that the Hayward high school nordic team is putting on this winter.

Phase 1 fundraising raised $715,000 dollars from more than 1,400 donors. They will all get to reap the benefits and be able to enjoy a first-class facility and help build the nordic community.

During the week between Christmas and New Years, we will have the big building heated and have concessions inside to support the 300-400 high school kids who are up here to ski. Before they huddled up into buses and hung around Double OO. Now they will have a warm building to hang around at, wax skis and get something to eat.

FS: Now that Phase 1 is complete, what does Phase 2 entail? How is the fundraising coming along?

BP: It has been a very busy fundraising season for us. The Birkie staff has been all over promoting the Foundation and the new development phases. The feverish pace has picked up for sure. We’ve been out a lot, as far as Traverse City and everything in between. It is important to work with USSA [the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Association], The Loppet, and Endurance United to strengthen the nordic-ski message in this area. People expect us the be a leader in this movement because we are looked on to be the innovators and spokesperson for this community. The community is small but extremely passionate, and we as a group need to capitalize on this if we want the sport to grow. Our message is to support us, but in doing so you are supporting the community and the whole nordic industry. Having spokespeople like Kikkan [Randall and Jessie [Diggins] out there winning and supporting the USSA, it is, in turn, helping us grow.

Phase 1 was the land purchase and trailhead. With that accomplished, we moved into Phase 2 and that focuses on improving the trail. The question always comes up about snowmaking and we finally have an opportunity to pursue this with power and water at the new start line.

We are starting to explore the possibility of storing snow during the summer like they do in Canada and in Europe. Some of our staff just got back from Europe where they met with a bunch of people from the FIS [International Ski Federation] and World Cup venues to talk about this very topic.

Between the skiers and the bike riders, we estimate that there are over 100,000 people using the trail all year long. That leads to a lot of erosion concerns and Phase 2 addresses these concerns. If we can improve the way the trail drains and stop erosion we could easily ski on just two inches of snow.

The Timber Trail warming shelter. (Photo: ABSF)
The Timber Trail warming shelter on the Birkie Trail. (Photo: ABSF)

Another part of Phase 2 is the aid stations. Every aid station is now going to have heated buildings with water that are open year-round. The idea is that it’s a building that is open to the public year-round for water and shelter. For the 30 events that use the trail, they will provide a place to store race-day equipment and everything that gets used for the events.
Other parts to Phase 2 include extending the classic trail south of Double OO. It’s not a full second trail but there are some places we can separate the skate and classic trail past Double OO.

Other items include putting an underpass under [Route] 77 for skiers and bikers. We are working in conjunction with the Wisconsin DOT and using some grant money to find a way to not to have to block that road during our race and other races that use that intersection.
We are also working on replacing some of our older pieces of equipment. Our oldest PistenBully is 17 years old, so with upwards of 100 k of trail, these machines really take a beating.

We are looking to get wider PistenBullys to accommodate the width of the course better. Right now it takes us three passes to groom the trail. Wider PistenBullys will reduce that to only two passes. Fewer passes mean faster and more importantly, better grooming.

We want to wrap up Phase 2 around December 2017. The fundraising goal for Phase 2 is right around $1.6 million dollars which is twice as high as Phase 1 was. We raised about 35 percent now and are close to $600,000 raised to this point. We are getting there and are excited about the response.

FS: Recently the Birkie Trail got two very prestigious awards, being named the best cross-country ski trail in the U.S. as voted by USA TODAY’s 10 Best Readers’ Choice travel award contest and, in conjunction with the Hayward Lakes Visitors and Convention Bureau, earned a 2016 Champions of Economic Impact award. What do these two awards mean to the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation, the towns of Hayward and Cable, and also for the trail itself?

BP: We have the trail but also the community support to host the nordic community. The town’s “all-in” mentality of letting the Birkie Foundation take care of the trail, we (the community or Hayward and Cable) will take care of the people who are here to ski and make sure they have a great time outside of skiing. That was a huge part of us getting these two awards. The future is very exciting for us and the community. Being so close to the Twin Cities and their enormous nordic community makes us very lucky because we can be the destination that some of these other great cities and resorts have become. The area has turn into a four-season, all-year-round destination spot.

In terms of what the Birkie means to the cities of Cable and Hayward financially was shown in a recent 2013 University of Wisconsin economic study that estimated the silent sports lifestyle in Hayward and Cable brings in close to $22 million dollars to the community. That is a huge number for a town of 3,000 people. That includes visitors coming up to ski, bike, ride ATVs, hunting, and fishing, etc. It also includes people renting hotel rooms and buying second homes here. That goes back to my point of the towns embracing this lifestyle because bars and restaurants realize that there are other things people want to do up here once they are done skiing.

All the construction in Phase 1 and Phase 2 has been from local contractors in the Cable/Hayward area. Again, building that sense of community that helped us get these awards.

FS: How did the decision to separate the 29 k Kortelopet race from the Birkie come about? Was it due to logistical problems and too much traffic, or something else?

BP: Obviously, the biggest change is moving the Korte, America’s second largest ski race, to Friday. We started thinking about doing this about two years ago. The question is why? We knew two years ago that this race wasn’t the race experience we wanted to give participants. They missed out on the opportunity to see the crowds that lined Main Street and cross the finish line there. Starting at the airfield [jn Cable] and ending close to there just wasn’t the event experience we wanted. The current setup worked but didn’t give the experience we were proud of. People told us time and time again that they wanted to be a part of the atmosphere at Main Street, and not just be an afterthought of the Birkie.

The biggest factor that prompted the move other that the atmosphere was demographics. The majority of the Korte participants are women and 40 percent are under the age of 23. Basically, its kids and women and those are two demographics that are vital to us and ones that we needed to get excited about the race. The concept was that if we can give these two groups and event experience that was as good as or better than the Birkie and then get them to get more kids and women involved in the events then it is a huge win for us. We were willing to take on the risk, extra costs and manpower to accomplish this because we felt it was important to get these two demographics excited about skiing.

FS: With the Korte starting at OO, what changes did you have to make to that area to be able to hold that many racers at once, compared to previous years where the field was pretty thin by the time they got to OO?

BP: We did a lot of work at Double OO for the new Korte start and for the Birkie. We will eventually have a new building there as a result of Phase 2, which will really help support or races as well as the mountain bike races in the summer.

Since the Korte start is almost as big as the Birkie start we did a lot of work widening parts of the trail that leads from the start to “Picnic Table Hill”. The start line for the Korte will be on the south side of Double OO. If you skied from the current Double OO cabin and went left down the hill to that flat area, you will be right at the new start line. We widened that area by two acres and also added a walking path for spectators. They will walk from the building over the bump and through the nostalgic arches which is pretty cool because that part of the trail won’t be used for the Birkie anymore. (Basically, once you cross Double OO, Birkie racers in previous years went right up the hill, in 2017, we will cross the street and turn left.) Everyone will funnel through the new Korte start on Saturday since all the aid stations and infrastructure will be there from Friday’s race.

We reworked that corner so it isn’t off-camber anymore and also worked on the descending hill into the Korte start area. Once the skiers cross the road both races will join at that point. in past years, the classic race didn’t join the skate race until Picnic Table Hill. Now they join once everyone crosses Double OO. The course is now 70-feet wide as it goes up the hill to the top of Picnic Table Hill.

We also worked on the righthand turn from the Picnic Table Hill descent. That has always been a nasty hill so now it just flows straight instead of turning to the right. That should help with the flow of the race and support the large group of Korte skiers that will be coming down that hill.

After all these course changes, the Birkie is just a bit shy of 51 k. Last year the race was a bit longer because of the added 2 k section at Fish Hatchery. This year, we are taking that section out for the skate race so it puts the skate race close to 50.5 k and the classic race is just shy of 55 k, sitting at 54.6 k.

In the future, the classic race might get a bit shorter as we continue to work that trail south of Gravel Pit. There are a few places that we can put in a new classic trail as we go south but for now, the distances are staying very close to the advertised 50 k and 55 k distances.

FS: What changes are being made to the expo and race weekend this year in order to support the racers who are entered in the Korte race?

BP: Basically, everything is staying the same. The whole event weekend ends up just being four hours longer. The events on Thursday are just starting a little bit earlier. In the past, we started all the events around noon. This year we are starting at 8 a.m. Overall, the events are spread out a little more.

We are turning downtown into a big festival over the race weekend. We are going to have live bands, food vendors and family events to help improve the excitement of the race and to support the spectators there waiting for their loved ones to finish.

The expo will stay the same for this year. Feedback from most of the vendors we talked to said that the current setup is the extent of what they can handle in terms of manpower, product and race-weekend support. It will be interesting to see. After the race, we will ask for feedback and change things up and adjust things that happened or didn’t work. For now, we just ask everyone to go into it like they normally would and let us know your thoughts and feeling after the race.

One of the Birkie's new kilometer markers on the classic trail. (Photo: ABSF)
One of the Birkie’s new kilometer markers on the classic trail. (Photo: ABSF)

FS: On a recent trail run, I noticed the new trail markers. What was the 15 k mark is now 37 k to Hayward mark?

BP: All the signage on the trail has been redone this year. It now counts down to Hayward instead of counting up just like the race. Also, every sign is unique because they are now directional. The staff at Apple Awards designed the signs to tell you how may kilometers to Hayward, Firetower, Boedecker, Double OO etc. The classic trail signs will be blue and the skate trail signs will be red. It gets interesting when the two courses meet at Double OO because the race distance will be different. This just reflects the extra length for the classic race.

FS: After last year’s warm weather and the warm lake conditions, have you considered reworking the finish to avoid the lake?

BP: Downtown is critical for the race. We have to get into Hayward to finish the race. We have looked at a few worst-case scenarios if Lake Hayward is deemed unskiable. The alternative routes we looked at involving a few different turnoffs onto the snowmobile/ATV trail then go around the backside of New Moon into town.

If we have snow to work with and the lake ice isn’t safe, then it is possible because we will have snow to move around and can activate the other backup plans we have talked about. If it is a warm year with no snow and no ice, then it becomes a little more challenging.

Telemark Resort (Photo: Tom Held)
Telemark Resort (Photo: Tom Held)

FS: Visitors and guests to the old Telemark Resort will remember the hall of fame wall covered with past Birkie winners. Now with the opening of the new Tony Wise Museum of the American Birkebeiner, the hall of fame has an official home. What did it mean to the history of the race to get the hall of fame and museum established in a permanent location?

BP: The museum provides the tradition and inspiration that the Birkie is all about. Having Kikkan here last year and Jessie being a Birkie Ambassador this year is great. They provide the inspiration and role models for kids and adults.

The Birkie is all about tradition. With Telemark closing, we were going to lose a lot of that tradition with the Hall of Fame and other aspects of the race potential being lost forever. We were approached by an extremely qualified woman lives in Cable and worked for the Smithsonian and she wanted to take on the museum project. She helped raise the money to build the museum and to relocate the Birkie offices all under one roof.

The museum far surpassed all expectations we had for it. Having so much history and tradition in one building is incredible. We have a lot of hands-on interactive displays, personal stories, and history of Tony Wise and his family. The is so much potential for the museum to grow in the future. We still have a storage room of archived pieces that was donated to us by the Lewis family from Telemark that we haven’t even begun to look at yet. It will be fun to see how the museum evolves in the future.

It is great to see how many people have come from states that have never heard of the Birkie, who might be in town for vacation or visiting family, and see their reaction as the walk around the museum experiencing the Birkie history for the first time.

The Birkie trail as seen this past weekend between Cable and Hayward, Wis. (Photo: Vince Rosetta)
The Birkie trail as seen this past weekend between Cable and Hayward, Wis. The entire trail is covered, with less than a five-inch base, according to a groomer on Saturday, Dec. 31. (Photo: Vince Rosetta)

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Author’s note: The Birkie Foundation has been working hard to give fans, spectators and racers the best experience possible for this years race weekend. If you are interested in supporting the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation all the information can be found on its website.

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Vince Rosetta