The Future in Birkieland: A Q & A with ABSF Executive Director Ben Popp

Ben TheyerlApril 26, 2022

Start of the 2022 American Birkiebeiner in Cable, Wisconsin. (Photo: ©2022 American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation/James Netz Photography)

A look at what’s ahead for the Birkebeiner, and its former home at the Telemark Lodge.

When I reached out to American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation (ABSF) Executive Director Ben Popp before Christmas to set-up an interview discussing the Birkie’s plans for the now-defunct Telemark Lodge property, he was already putting plans into action. An interview would have to wait until after the holidays, because that weekend ,the Birkie was hosting a SuperTour race which would serve as a test event for its start-line venue in a bid, along with the Loppet Foundation in Minneapolis, to host an FIS World Cup in 2024.

Bringing a World Cup to Cable, Wisconsin is ambitious, but then again, when Popp is involved with the Birkie, energy and momentum are not the barriers. It’s not a question of “if”, but “how big” the end project will be. Since starting with the Birkie in 2013, he has overseen the expansion of what was already America’s largest race into a year-round docket of endurance programs.

For Popp, that expansion has been done with a forward-looking vision that is deeply rooted in his own history. A son of Wisconsin’s Northwoods, he witnessed first-hand the outsized dreams of Birkie founder Tony Wise, who at the opening of the Telemark Lodge in 1971 invited US Olympic Gold Medalist in Alpine Skiing Billy Kidd, and found his reaction to be simply, “[Telemark] is the only place where the Lodge is bigger than the ski hill!”

Ben Popp, Executive Director of the ABSF. (Photo: ABSF)

For the original Telemark, that turned out to be both an intrepid mantra, and its ultimate failing. Which leads me back to why I initially reached out to Popp – discussing the Birkie’s purchase of the now-closed Lodge and its demolition last year, and the new plans to build a dedicated Nordic Center on the former site.

Our conversation, though, turned into something much more akin to sharing a round of Leinie’s at Seeley’s famous Sawmill Saloon. Which is to say, Wisconsin skier to Wisconsin skier, cheesehead to cheesehead, Ben to Ben, we covered a lot of ground. The result is a conversation that covers the idiosyncrasies of a very specific place in the skiing landscape – Wisconsin – but by doing so gestures towards contemporaneous issues in the development of our sport in the US from a multitude of perspectives, all wrapped up into one professional – Ben Popp.

The excerpts below touch on, among other things: how the Birkie views plans for new infrastructure as supporting their mission; how skiing organizations are planning a sustainable future for the sport; and how Wisconsin skiing can develop the next generation of elite skiers from its ranks.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

The women’s podium of the 2022 Slumberland American Birkebeiner: Alayna Sonnesyn (SMS T2) took the win ahead of Caitlin Patterson (CGRP) and Rosie Frankowski (APU). (Photo: ©2022 American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation)

FasterSkier (Ben Theyerl)The Birkie Foundation (the Birkie) now owns the former site of the Telemark Lodge, can you bring us up to speed on what’s happened since you bought the old Lodge last year, and what the plans are for the future there?

(Historical context on Telemark Lodge.)

Ben Popp (BP): In February 2021, we closed on the property. As part of that agreement, we had to commit to raising the money to remove the building. That turned out to be a challenge, because generally people don’t like to give money to tear things down – that’s not very exciting.

To make up the costs, we decided to sell 250-acres on the far-western edge of the Telemark Property that didn’t have any trails on it, and to try and conserve it into perpetuity. Landmark Conservancy bought that property; it’s now the Telemark Forest Preserve.

That brings us to now. The building is down. We just applied for a $7.5 million dollar grant with the federal government to build a Nordic Center (details here) which will be LEED Platinum certified. We’re also working on a huge solar-array with Dairyland Cooperative, which would help us offset [the carbon emissions] from our snow-making operation [at the Birkie start venue and Telemark].  

That’s the the nuts-and-bolts that got us to where we are now, which is the idea that Telemark is vital to: one, the economic activity of this region, and two, for the Birkie to carry out our mission of having amazing experiences while getting people outside, we need a medium, and this is the place for it.

(Photo: Telemark Education Foundation)

FS: As a follow-up, what’s the timeline looking like for the Nordic Center?

BP: The timeline is tricky. We’ll hear back on the grant in June, which with the current construction market would make breaking-ground this year very hard. We have said though, that now is the time to start planning, so that’s what we are doing.

What we’ve already started implementing is additional snowmaking, so that we could successfully host the Super Tour in December (2021). What’s interesting about that is we’ve still only invested $400,000 into it, which, yes, is a lot of money, but in the world of snowmaking is nothing. [For example,] Battle Creek (in the Twin Cities) is going to be about $5.6 million dollars. I give a lot of kudos to our crew for [what they were able to do for the SuperTour], having 3.75 kilometers of trail open before December 10th, but the reality is that was such a heavy lift, and we’re going to have to invest another $1 million into our snowmaking system to make it sustainable and reliable.

FS: The Birkie has a lot of other projects outside of Telemark. How do you see Telemark intersecting with those? 

BP: That’s one of the highest priorities for us. If we look at our mission: one, putting on great events; two, being stewards of the [Birkie] trail; and three, providing opportunities for people to be active outside. Getting Telemark ready for events is critical to part one and three. You could argue that this isn’t directly related to how you improve the Birkie Trail, [part 2 of our mission]. But by way of getting more people involved, it gives us the capacity to put resources into the Trail.  

FS: There also seems to be more of a faith in the Birkie Foundation to get Telemark right than past attempts at reviving the property. How have you built trust in the local community and gotten them involved in what the Birkie is doing?

BP: I think there’s two parts to it. 

One, doing what you say we are going to do. [In the past,] people saying “we’re going to rebuild Telemark!” and then never having it happen just made it worse and worse. For us, starting back in 2013-14 when we said we’re going to raise $750,000 and buy an area for a new Birkie start line and build a bridge over highway 63 at OO, we got reactions of “no way, no way” and then…we did it! I think little steps like that start to prove to the community that you’re worthy of trust.

Two, it’s being really involved in the community and being open to other nonprofits. That allows us to openly invest in the community. We donate over $50,000 to the [Hayward] schools and their initiatives. Instead of us looking at simply how we leverage the assets around the community, we look at how we can partner with them so it’s good for both parties. That example is very local in Cable/Hayward, but we also help with initiatives around Wisconsin/Minnesota that need help get projects off the ground.

Like as an example I was just brainstorming with Claire Wilson (Executive Director of the Loppet Foundation in Minneapolis, MN) – how cool would it be to do some kind of exchange program where we’re going to send kids from the Northwoods to go down and experience living in Minneapolis and skiing at Theodore Wirth, and vice versa, they send kids up here and we can house them at Telemark and they get to spend a week in the woods [and make them say] “wait, where’s the stoplights?!” Those would be opportunities that would be awesome.

The remnants of the Telemark Lodge lobby in winter 2022. The Birkie has started grooming trails on the Telemark Property from the adjoining Birkie startline just a half-kilometer away. (Photo: ABSF)

FS: You’ve also started Team Birkie (a pro-racing development team that launched this summer) that’s already had success getting skiers to the World Cup.

BP: Yeah, we want to bring in the elite athletes to train [in Cable], that’s what Tony Wise (Telemark, and Birkiebeiner founder) used to do. I mean the U.S. Ski Team – Marty Hall and Bill Koch – they were here! They designed our trails! We need to figure out how we get our elite athletes, our role models, to stay in the Midwest and train so that they can inspire our kids here. The next Jessie Diggins can, but shouldn’t have to go out and live elsewhere, which is how it currently stands with Midwestern skiers. But they can’t spend time here if we don’t have roller-ski loops, snowmaking, and the things that they need to get better at their profession. 

[Your dad] (Ted Theyerl, former Wisconsin Nordic Ski League President) has a great way of putting it. Trying to teach skiing without reliable snow is like trying to teach basketball if the gym is there only once every other week.

Team Birkie’s Zak Ketterson takes command through the heats to win the classic sprint during last December’s Gitchi Gami Games – the Birkie’s SuperTour event. (Photo: American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation.)

FS: That part is something I look at with a lot of potential based on my experience at Telemark. I intersected with the brief period [around 2010] when CXC (Central Cross Country Skiing) was trying to use Telemark Lodge as a training center. I remember going into what used to be the nightclub at the Lodge, which they were using as our dining hall, and sitting down and Jessie Diggins was at the table, and it made us juniors go “Holy crap!” That’s so inspiring.

BP: You’re right that’s inspiring!

FS: In a similar way, I wanted to get your personal perspective on what Telemark has meant to you, and the community in the Northwoods, and how that drives your plans and the Birkie Foundation’s plans?

BP: I mean I grew up in northern Wisconsin and I remember as a kid going over to Telemark and being like, “Woah, where am I? This is incredible!” Telemark was just an incredible economic and cultural driver.

I think personally my motivation is that this project is going to create a ton of opportunity, and essentially extend the reach of the Birkie Foundation and what we do. I often use a statistic when we are out on the road. If you draw a circle 50 miles around Cable/Hayward, 90% of our revenue comes from outside of that circle. But we spend over 80% of our revenue within that 50-mile Hayward/Cable circle. The bigger the Birkie gets then, the more gets spent here in our community.

FS: And now, to me, the additions of the Super Tour and the World Cup build on that spirit of Tony Wise saying we can dream big, and we can do it in Cable, Wisconsin. I was wondering if you find inspiration in that spirit? What is your “wish list” as an Executive Director for the next 10 years for the Birkie Foundation?

BP: Tony is an inspiration, no doubt about it. The World Cup is a great example. Is hosting in 2024 going to be a ton of work? It is going to be a ton of work. But to do it as a part of the 50th anniversary of the Birke, bringing it full circle to Tony having the first World Cup here back in 1978, and his creation of the Worldloppet, well it will: one, shine a light on the sport that we love; and two, on the Midwest, where many times even from a ski standpoint people think you just fly over it.

Then we go, “How do we get to doing it?” Well, we’ll take it step-by-step.

Tony was really vested in making sure Telemark and the Birkie benefitted his community and had a primary focus on getting people outside and being active. While [Telemark] isn’t going to be a lodge with 200 rooms, it is going to be cut from the same cloth of getting people outside, skiing in the Nordic community, and being connected to the world at-large. 

That [last part] was especially important to Tony – he was a tank commander in World War II for goodness sakes, and learned to love Scandinavia and Austria along the way – so for us there must be that worldly component of the Birkiebeiner. Being a WorldLoppet and us trying to bring a World Cup here in 2024.

That gives us comfort knowing that where we’re going, well, with the historical vision Tony had, it’s one and the same.

Rosie Frankowki races the classic sprint qualifier in Cable, WI during the Gitchi Gami Games. (Photo: American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation.)

FS: Final question: The Birkie and you have been a leader in sustainability in the sport over the past couple of years, how do you see clubs, organizations, and the sports headed towards a more sustainable future? Especially the shift to going fluoro-free in waxing so it’s sustainable for the environment, but still equitable so that the best skiers are rising to the top?

BP: That’s a great question. For the Birkie, the sustainability piece is at the forefront for everything we’re doing. It’s tough because we balance the environmental, actual sustainability of the sport – skiers getting into skiing and staying in skiing – and the financial. If we go 100% and do everything possible on the environmental front, which would be the ideal, then we’re not going to be able to be financially sustainable and therefore the sport isn’t here in the Northwoods in 5 years. It’s about how you marry those three things in an optimal amount.

At the Birkie, we want to remain at the forefront for years to come.

FS: What’s your dream in that respect?

BP: My ultimate dream often comes when I think about the World Cup.

How amazing would that be to line up Jessie Diggins next to Johannes Høsflot Klæbo, next to your dad, my mom, a kid from Minneapolis who didn’t know what skiing was two years ago, a kid from the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation, and on and on. 

I like to think that Klæbo may be just as inspired by a kid out on skis for her first time as I might be sitting at home watching him on the start-line. When we all get to sit at the same table, we all get to inspire each other, and that’s what I’m working towards at the end of the day.

The American Birkiebeiner takes off towards Mt. Telemark in 1978. (Photo: Telemark Education Foundation)

Ben Theyerl

Ben Theyerl was born into a family now three-generations into nordic ski racing in the US. He grew up skiing for Chippewa Valley Nordic in his native Eau Claire, Wisconsin, before spending four years racing for Colby College in Maine. He currently mixes writing and skiing while based out of Crested Butte, CO, where he coaches the best group of high schoolers one could hope to find.

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