Tradition and Transformation: The Birkie Plans its 50th Anniversary

Ben TheyerlJune 27, 2023
American Birkebeiner VI in 1979. The “Birkie” will celebrate its 50th anniversary next February. (Photo: Telemark Education Foundation).

Tony Wise could see 10,000 years at once. The last ice age had sent a glacier down over Wisconsin, and then tore it back. In the process, the landscape and lilt of a place emerged. Deep-pocketed kettles, ridges, gentle and subtle rolling hills, all draped in the needly green of the pines. Gaze at it, and time didn’t seem like something that moved forward, but instead danced within the bounds of a whole epoch. A 400ft moraine that rose up from the Superior Upland outside of Cable, Wisconsin: the Ojibwe called it kawabaming—the place to look out from. Look out, and it kept going. Time stretched out and blurred, forward and back. Ten thousand years didn’t seem like much.

Wise was a local boy who had just returned from serving as a tank commander overseas during World War II.  During his service in Europe, he’d found himself in the Bavarian Alps, where he’d been introduced to a way of moving across the Earth that filled the metaphysical space found on top of the local hill he now stood on. Skiing was an ancient way to front the winter, and a wholly new thrill in each and every turn. Hopes and histories were about to mix as Wise sought to purchase a piece of Wisconsin land to develop into a sking destination. Wise carved a number into one side of birch tree. Walt Kliszcz—a local railroad man who held the deed—carved a number into the other side. They met in the middle: $750.00. Wise renamed the hill Mt. Telemark, then built a ski hill, a lodge, a race, and a dream.

Tony Wise in 1972 outside of the old Telemark Lodge in Cable, Wisconsin. (Photo: Telemark Education Foundation).

Everything that successively unfurled was united by the understanding of time and place that Wise found at the top of Mt. Telemark. In transformation, there was always tradition. In 1973, when Wise set out to start a cross-country ski race, he simply adopted a Norwegian legend from 1206—the Birkebeiners—who saved the country by ushering the baby Prince Haakon to safety on skis. In its first year, the American Birkebeiner had 35 participants. In 2023, the “Birkie” was up to 13,000. In each ski stride over each glacial ridge and valley in the interim, the Birkie began to be interwound with the place Wise had set it in. The challenge was always there. Ski 50 kilometers. Like no other race out there though, people could find themselves having quickly done twenty or thirty Birkies over as many years. Soon, there were so many in that category they started a club for them all, the Birchleggers. It all added to the legend of Wise’s race, starting out there in the shadow of the place to look out from.

Which all leads to the big irony for the American Birkebeiner in 2023. For a race in a place that has staked itself on blurring the very concept of time to match the place it exists in, there is one span that is all anyone around the Birkie can talk about these days: 50 years. The American Birkebeiner is starting out on its 50th anniversary year.

Tony Wise himself now belongs to the realm of Paul Bunyan and the Birkebeiners—legends out there among the Northwoods. His careful balance of plotting out the new in the landscape is being heralded by a whole cadre of dedicated staff, volunteers, and skiers at the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation (ABSF). At the helm is Ben Popp, ABSF Executive Director since 2013. He’s another homegrown local who has inherited Wise’s ebullient energy and community-focused spirit.

When FasterSkier caught up with Popp to talk all things Birkie, he put the passage of fifty years right back into Birkie terms. “It’s been on the horizon for fifty years,” he said. “And yet, it feels like it came up super-fast!” Which is to say that the Birkie remains comfortable dancing within multiple timelines. While shovels hit the ground in one place, the groundwork is being laid out for the race’s biggest milestone yet come February 2024.

Popp’s way of directing all that energy follows what he calls a “three-step filter: 1) what is the history behind what we want to do? 2) Does what we’re doing build on that history in a way that’s good for what we define as the “Birkie” community, and 3) Can we do it sustainably?” What that has yielded during the first ten years of Popp’s tenure is a bolstered Birkie Trail system, including a new start area, increased participation in the Birkie’s now year-round event schedule, and a larger staff, presence, and place for the Birkie in the Hayward, the Northwoods, and the ski community writ large.

The filter is starting to be reflexive in time. The two big projects ahead for the Birkie in its semicentennial include looking back and figuring out the right way to mark the occasion at next year’s American Birkebeiner event, while also transforming Mt. Telemark and the remnants of the former resort into a world-class ski facility.

The ski trail affectionately dubbed “Tele-henge,” the ABSF’s ski trail through the old lobby, and future site of Mt. Telemark Village. (Photo: ABSF)
Telemark Looks Out Again

It was the “only place where the Lodge is bigger than the hill,” said Olympic gold medalist Alpine skier Billy Kidd at the opening of Tony Wise’s Telemark Lodge in 1970. With 400 rooms, the hotel offered more rooms than the ski hill outside had vertical feet. The Lodge was an outstretched behemoth that was demolished in 2021. All that now remains are towering old brutalist walls, deemed “Tele-henge” by the skiers down the hill at the new Birkie start line area. The meandering tale of how the Telemark Lodge got to Stonehenge status though, had left specters that still glowed with life. Mainly, the Birkebeiner, and the sport of cross-country skiing that it had helped build in the United States.

Which has got the Birkie Foundation dreaming big. After years of unstable ownership, the lodge was acquired by ABSF in 2018. Once the Lodge was condemned and demolished two years ago, the creative energies started to flow.

“For Telemark, there’ll be three big pieces: the ski trails, the mountain bike trails, and the Base Camp building” says Popp. A partnership with Wisconsin-based Trek Bicycles, along with a major grant from the One Track Mind Foundation promises to build an additional 17 miles of single-track mountain bike trail on top of the existing Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Association (CAMBA) trail network over the next three to four years. Rock Solid Trail Contracting, the builders behind the renowned trails in Copper Harbor, Michigan, are on the job. “Four miles are already done, and by the end of this summer, we’ll have nine miles added on,” says Popp.

The new rollerski loop at the base of Mt. Telemark, outside of Cable, Wisconsin. (Photo: ABSF)

Over at the Birkie start-line, the pavement of a new 5-kilometer rollerski loop—the first of its kind in the Midwest—is “just now starting to cure,” says Popp. The loop is laid through the old remnants of the Telemark base area and is giving skiers from everywhere access to Birkie terrain year-round for the first time. The loop is slated to host Central Cross-Country Skiing’s (CXC) Regional Elite Group (REG) camp later this summer, and just hosted its first Igor Legacy U14 camp this summer. The trail also become a favorite multi-use trail. “We get some older folks just strolling out there,” said Popp. “Hard place for a walk!”

As for the winter ski trails themselves, the ABSF’s focus isn’t so much on building new trails, but rather restoration of trails. Down at the base of Mt. Telemark, in view of abandoned Alpine ski lift towers, are the cuts and juts of a trail designed by American ski pioneers Marty Hall, Sven Wiik, and John Caldwell. These trails once hosted the Gitchee Gami Games with fields that included not just the best American skiers of the era, Bill Koch, Martha Rockwell, Stan Dunklee, Tim Caldwell, but notable names from ski history like Oddvar Bra and Arto Koivisto. A contemporaneous Sports Illustrated article on the 1977 edition reported that it was part of a then “controversial series” put on by the International Ski Federation (FIS), what would become the World Cup. An aged wooden sign between two tall maples identifies these as “The Telemark World Cup Trails.” With some clearing and modifications for grooming, skiers will be able to take to them again. The World Cup trails have an outsized place in the purpose of the whole Telemark Village project. While not the most resource-intensive, the project drives, or rather, skis, to the heart of the sport the Birkie community ultimately comes together around, and also represents the unique dance of making, and re-making, the energy of Telemark and all it stood for.

The resource-intensive side is there though, in the form of the planned “Telemark Base Camp Building,” an estimated $3.5 million nordic center that will come fully equipped to welcome World Cup athletes and first-timers alike. “I think the heart of what Telemark represented could be captured by the idea that on a given afternoon back in the day, you might have Bill Koch and a kid who’d never heard of the sport an hour before in the same place, and we want to get back to that,” says Popp on the essence driving the Base Camp’s purpose.

The Telemark Village Base Camp building is the next priority in the Birkie’s major restoration of the former Telemark Lodge site. (Photo: ABSF)

The plans call for a full-service nordic center—rentals, changing rooms, spaces for local business partners to sell coffee and food—while also acting as a jumping off point to experience the unique history of Telemark. Key to that is using the remnants of the Lodge to build a park-like plaza, where a collaborative project with the local Cable history museum will lay out Birkie history back to when Tony Wise carved his number into an old Birch tree.

The final piece of the project is up at the top of Mt. Telemark where an observation tower is being built out of recycled lift towers from Wise’s original alpine ski operation. The tower will act as a capstone on the Telemark project that Popp says tells Birkie they’re doing things right, “There’s a throughline in that project that really reiterates how there really is a rootedness in the values of honoring our history, and the history of this place. There were two people down in Spooner, Wisconsin who donated to make the tower possible, which included the naming rights, and they asked that it honor the original Ojibwe name of the area. So how do we make that happen? Well, the person to naturally ask is an Ojibwe Tribal Historian, and it just so happens that the only guy to do all fifty Birkie races, Ernie St. Germaine, is the preeminent Ojibwe historian.”

The former Telemark Lodge stadium hosts CXC’s U14 Igor Legacy Camp last weekend. (Photo: Ted Theyerl)

In other words, the drive of this version Telemark is to keep all that was contained in the old Telemark going. The ABSF capital campaign around it totals $10.5 million, with Popp saying, “we’re about half-way there on fundraising, and we feel like have about half of what we want to build done.” The purpose though, remains clear, “ultimately, that money isn’t ours. It’s an amalgamation of a whole lot of people and communities that value what the Birkie is. When you think about all 250,000 people that have completed the race since 1973, plus many more who touch our trails, or volunteer, or touch us in some other way, it’s a lot of angles that we want to make sure we’re covering in any single project. It’s pretty cool to have that presence, and to have that responsibility.”

“Celebrate in the Right Way” at the 50th Birkie

Just how expansive the Birkie community has become in 50 years makes for a big proposition come next February: “With the 50th, we really want to do justice to the countless people that have taken part in anything we have done over the past half century” says Popp, “The guiding question is what is a meaningful way to make sure that we represent what this thing, the Birkie, really means?”

The Birkie start line area in Spring 2023. (Photo: ABSF)

For the Birkie Foundation, those preparations started well in advance of the coming anniversary year, and included, at least at first, a kind of disappointment. In keeping with the kind of full circle nature that the Birkie paints with time, plans were underway to make the 50th Birkie the first World Cup ski race in Cable since Wise’s Gitchi Gami Games in 1977. A joint bid was underway with the Loppet Foundation in Minneapolis, Minnesota to make the World Cup’s 2023 North American tour one that covered city style racing in the Twin Cities, paired with the US’ most prominent international ski event. “At some point though,” says Popp, “we had to make a decision that was best for the Birkie organization, and we decided we couldn’t take on that financial risk without it potentially leading to us not being able to do the community-oriented projects that are already underway.”

The Loppet’s World Cup bid was accepted, which means the World Cup will visit the Midwest Friday February 17th to Monday, February 19th, one week before the 50th running of the American Birkebeiner on Saturday, February 27th. “It’s going to create an unbelievable atmosphere within the Midwest,” says Popp, “for ten days, no matter how you engage with cross-country skiing, all roads will lead here.” The Loppet Foundation, on its part, has also alluded that while the official World Cup joint bid may have passed, the spirit of the World Cup’s return to the United States will be bonded to the celebration of the Birkie’s 50th anniversary.

If registrations are any indication, the roads leading to the Midwest will be busy come February. “The pace has been incredible, we’ve had Birkie start wave after wave fill so far,” says Popp. In planning out what those registrants will experience, there’s been an approach to plot out change carefully. After all, says Popp, “if what the Birkie is has gotten us to fifty years, we want to make sure that we’re not messing with it!” The overall approach to race planning then, is one that is looking to accentuate the best aspects of the Birkie, rather than change them wholesale.

While no official announcement is expected until August, Popp says that the Birkie has “secured some agreements to keep some of the best World Cup athletes in the Midwest to do the Birkie.” It’s a step taken to help honor the marked competitiveness that has been set the race apart in American skiing throughout its history. “We’ve had Bjorn Daehlie, Vegard Ulvang, and what I’m willing to bet is the majority of American Olympic cross-country skiers, do the race, and we want to build on that legacy next year,” says Popp.

The Men’s elite field starts at the American Birkebeiner in 2023. (Photo: ABSF)

The Birkie is also looking to honor the kinds of characters and legends who have all added to the races lore. “One of the first groups we always go to plotting our next steps is the Birchleggers—those who have done 20+ races— because that really represents the beating heart of what we do” says Popp. In initial outreach, the Birchleggers returned a clear essence that the Birkie will key in on in the year approaching the 50th anniversary race. “What stuck out is that there was two paradoxical ideas which really play well together: they were saying, 1) My experience with the Birkie is unique to me, and that’s why I keep doing it, and 2) I want new people to be able to come to the race and form their own unique experience too.”

What does that look like in practice? Popp finds anecdotal evidence in the king of the Birchleggers, Ernie St. Germaine. The only active “Birkie founder,” one of the original 35 racers in 1973, St. Germaine plans on being the only skier to complete all 50 races come next February. St. Germaine has dutifully made the fifty-kilometer trek every February, but in recent years, has done so sans the crowded field on race day as part of the Birkie’s “open track” option. “It was something that fell into our laps with COVID, right?” says Popp, “but we realized was one way to allow some of our most dedicated skiers to continue being part of the race. Yes, most are going to want to be part of Saturday, but for some, the time, the space, and the camaraderie afforded doing so on the Wednesday before opens up a whole new way to engage.”

St. Germaine has continued on the spirit of inclusivity beyond just his racing as well. He has been a key part of the ABSF’s “Birkie One” initiative to “to reduce barriers and increase participation in skiing, running, and biking for marginalized groups in communities near and far.” An active member of the Ojibwe tribe, St. Germaine has helped bridge the Birkie with the local Anishinabeg people, including initiatives to restore trails on the Lac Courte Oreilles College campus outside of Hayward. The initiative has also helped the Birkie see where the existing infrastructure around the race, and the places people use to train for the race, can be more accessible. The paved rollerski loop at Telemark, for example, was officially designated mixed-use when it opened, to allow trail access to those who otherwise might not be able to access unpaved roads.

And finally, there are plans for the 50th Birkie to be a Birkie. For thousands to front the powerlines, then climb to the high point, flow through “OO,” over and with the terrain. For each individual to take on climbing “B**** Hill,” and over Fish Hatchery, and the Lake, and the International Bridge onto Main St., Hayward, Wisconsin, before swapping the thousands of stories that form in the ridges and creases of the land between.

It’s out there where the Birkie still dances within the bounds of some kind of glacial time, surrounded by glacial terrain. A new fixture of the place that Tony Wise once dreamed of among the tamaracks and pines. Over 50 years, the stories have multiplied, the time blurred and stretched, the particular feeling becoming something ever more complicated. Best not break its power into pieces. It’s all got coined under one tent, one community, this thing called the “Birkie.”  Best to keep it there, and say what has been said on Main St. Hayward, Wisconsin at the end of February a thousand times before: “Can’t wait for next year!”

Birkie finishers celebrate in 1991. True to Birkie form, all three are still involved in the race in 2023. (Photo: Ted Theyerl)

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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