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It's the largest cross-country ski marathon in North America and has been nicknamed the "Greatest Show on Snow."
In fact, once a year, join the colorful pageantry of the American Birkebeiner and arrive in Wisconsin's Northwoods excited to tackle the rolling hills that rise and fall within the Bayfield and Sawyer county forests.
The American Birkebeiner takes off from Cable and skiers follow the Birkebeiner trail 51 kilometers (about 34 miles) until it wraps up at the finish line on Hayward's main street. The 2001 American Birkebeiner and its sister race, the 23-kilomoter Kortelopet, attracted 6,545 skiers and about 20,000 spectators. The inaugural American Birkie started by Tony Wise in 1973 attracted 35 skiers – 34 men and one woman.
Opening ceremonies last year included a procession of Hayward Elementary students who carried the flags of Norway, Switzerland, Sweden, France, Estonia, Germany, Austria, Finland, Italy, Japan, Canada, Australia, Czech Republic and the United States – the 14 countries that are part of a Worldloppet series of international ski marathons.
Norwegian Consulate General Ole Overaas said he was pleased to be at the American Birkebeiner and honored that the race was named after a historic event that took place in his country more than 800 years ago.
He described the 57-kilometer trek of two soldiers, nicknamed "birkebeiners" for the birch bark leggings they wore, as they skied over the mountains to bring the Norwegian infant prince and future king, Hakon Hakonsson, to safety. Several races including the American Birkebeiner, call on skiers to challenge themselves against a Wisconsin Northwoods race course patterned after the historical event.
"I am so glad that you also have the Barnebirkie for children because they are the future of the sport," Overaas said. "They will see that skiing is not just exercise but a way to get closer to nature, a way to feel and hear the sounds of the forest."
In fact, people who use the Birkebeiner trail that is marked by rolling hills, see a side of the forest that other visitors rarely experience. Even the elite athletes regularly comment on the quality of the trail, which features some of the most scenic and challenging terrain in the Worldloppet ski circuit.
Making skiers happy is important to businesses in Hayward, Cable and the surrounding area as well. A Wisconsin Department of Tourism survey during the 2000 Birkie found that the skiers spend an average of $145.62 per person, per day. They stay an average of 2.9 nights and the average age of participants is 43, which certainly helps local restaurants and regional attractions.
Maintaining the trail is important for the race, the local economy and its future. The 10-year Sawyer County Forest Comprehensive Land Use Plan (1996 through 2005) sets a goal to maintain a 150-foot aesthetic forested buffer on each side of the Birkie trail through Sawyer County.
Pete Wisdom, DNR's liaison forester to Sawyer County, explains that appointed citizen groups worked with conservation groups, the county and the Department of Natural Resources to form and follow the plan. Partners in the plan included the American Birkebeiner Foundation (ABF) along with the County Conservation Committee, the DNR liaison forester, loggers and timber buyers, the county forester and more. Others such as the Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Association (CAMBA), the Sierra Club, and some industrial foresters commented on the plan.
Department of Natural Resources and county foresters have been successful maintaining the buffer. Two years ago, one small parcel along the trail was clear-cut and sold. That five-acre patch had an understory of aspen that is quickly regenerating and replanting itself.
"The main goal is to protect the trail surface so there's enough snow to keep it skiable," Wisdom notes. "To accomplish that, we keep trees along the trail to provide shade."
Over the years tree harvesting near the trail has been controversial, Wisdom notes. "Everyone has a different idea of what looks pretty and some didn't want to see any clearing. Others felt there should be some harvesting."
Maintaining the aesthetic buffer along the Birkie trail is the most important part of the timber management plan in that zone, Wisdom explains.
"This calls for using selective harvests to promote long-lived trees to grow there," he says. Guidelines only allowing logging during off-snow times so skiers do not have to encounter logging equipment along the trail.
Private landowners also own small portions of the forest along the Birkie trail and in those cases, the ABF has negotiated permission to cross and groom the trail on this private property.
"It's both a science and an art to manage the area," Wisdom notes. "It's an art because it's hard to keep everyone happy. We've had very few problems along the trail," Wisdom says. "It's beautiful trail and we want to keep it looking that way."
Pete Sievert, the assistant Sawyer County forester, knows first-hand about the trail conditions as a three-time Birkebeiner racer.
Sawyer County is managed in seven forestry blocks. The Birkie trail is located in the Seeley Hills block and is home to diverse soil types, 10 habitat types and a variety of vegetation, Sievert explains. Seeley Hills is noted for red pines, northern hardwoods like oak, aspen and white pine. Its glacial topography is marked by rolling hills.
One of Sievert's greatest challenges is public education to show people how selective timber harvest can benefit the trail.
"Some people think the designation Class A Aesthetics Zone means the trail should be surrounded by an untouchable buffer," Sievert notes. "What it means is that aesthetics is the primary concern there."
To keep the trail at its best for skiing, Sievert says four things are needed: mowing, brushing, grooming and some selective harvesting.
One issue has been that falling snow gathers in dense pine trees. Too little of this snow reaches the trail complicating the grooming.
"The greatest impediments to skiing [here] – especially for the classical skiers – are the pine needles and cones on the trail," Sievert suggests. Classic (striding) skiers who hit pine needles with their skis get caught.
Sievert contends that the worst offending trees could be taken out without any detriment to the trail. He says there is plenty of vegetation to prevent erosion while still maintaining longer-lived trees.
"People who use the trail for recreation see it today," Sievert says. "But as a forester I'm looking at it long-term, 10 to 15 years or more down the road."
Before last year's race, the course underwent considerable changes to enhance skiing conditions. To take some pressure off the trail, the Kortelopet (a half-Birkie course that runs at the same time) started at the Cable Union Airport like the Birkie. The Kortelopet course then splits off from the main route at the nine-kilometer mark before continuing on along scenic, hilly trails maintained by Bayfield County and Telemark.
Near the start of the race from the 2.5 to 4.6 kilometer marks that follow a power line corridor, electrical poles were consolidated from two-pole to a one-pole system. That means 13 poles now line the trail instead of the previous 26. Once that construction was completed, the power company along with the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation repaired and moved the trail closer to the woods to take advantage of the tree line and natural shade that helps to retain deeper snow.
During the months leading up to the race, Trail Supervisor Bob Murdock also removed trees, stumps and brush to create a wider track with more room for skiers that improves the race flow and eliminate bottlenecks. Trail grooming begins in November when a 30-foot-wide swath is set for both classical and freestyle skiing.
"The trail supervisor plays a crucial role for the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation," explains Cherie Morgan, the Birkebeiner executive director. "We count on that person to remove trees and brush in summer and fall, and to prepare and groom the trail once the snow falls."
The Birkie trail is groomed and maintained year-round by the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation. It remains open and free of charge to the public, except during Birkie race weekend. Through the Foundation's efforts and the public partnership, this bit of northwestern Wisconsin preserves and maintains one of the most challenging and beautiful trails in the world.
Natasha Kassulke, associate editor of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine, skied her first Kortelopet last year and plans to tackle the Birkebeiner this February.