Spectators provide the extra
encouragement for both elite and citizen skiers during the 30-mile journey to the finish line.
The American Birkebeiner: A Wisconsin classic.
Story by Erin Gordon, photos provided by Gordon family
As the end of February approaches, many Midwesterners have caught a case of spring fever while anxiously waiting for the snow to melt and temperatures to rise. But for a distinctive group of skiers that fever is a special kind, known as Birkie fever.
It's this fever that brings participants back to the Northwoods of Wisconsin year after year to partake in a piece of tradition and history by competing in our nation's largest cross-country ski race.
The camaraderie of fellow skiers, combined with the accomplishment of completing a challenging course, and an unwavering love for the sport is the reason this race has become a part of my family's legacy, as it has with so many others.
The Birkebeiner, which runs from Cable to Hayward today, was founded in 1973 by Tony Wise, who also established one of the state's original cross-country ski destinations, the Telemark Lodge. Wise, inspired by his Norwegian heritage and motivated to promote the sport, created the Telemark ski trails in 1972 and the race was instated the following year.
Each year, in addition to the 10,000 racers, over 20,000 spectators and volunteers line the trail and fill the streets of Hayward to cheer and encourage racers as they ski. Family, friends and loved ones travel from every inch of the globe to witness the triumph and magic that is the American Birkebeiner.
The "Birkie" commemorates the historic journey of two soldiers, called "Birkebeiners" because of their birch–bark leggings, through Norway to carry the infant prince to safety amidst a civil war. Prince Haakon would later go on to become the King of Norway.
The Birkebeiner soldiers became a symbol throughout the country of courage, perseverance and character in the face of adversity.
In 1978, Wise established the Worldloppet League, uniting the American Birkebeiner with the other most prestigious ski marathons in the world. Today, over 20 international races are recognized as part of the Worldloppet, which was driven by Wise's idea that you could travel the world through skiing. According to Ben Popp, the Birkebeiner's executive director, over 30 years later they are still compelled to provide these experiences and more.
Leaving the legacy of lifestyle
Popp, a native of small town Phillips, like many other long–time skiers, grew up with the sport. After coaching and starting a nonprofit organization, which promoted an active, outdoor lifestyle that aimed to overcome obstacles and boundaries, he found his way back to what he always loved: skiing.
"The Birkie drives a lifestyle. It has become a leader in promoting and creating a healthy lifestyle," explains Popp. "It created a medium through which people could really engage in this lifestyle in their everyday life and that is bigger than you or me or the race itself."
This is one aspect that Popp has been devoted to throughout his life, and even more so now that he is directing the American Birkebeiner Foundation. Our conversation echoed the sentiment that is evident among racers and familiar spectators: the Birkie experience is unparalleled to many of its kind. So many races have come and gone, but the iconic trail through northern Wisconsin, the hospitality of a small town and a story with rich history continue to make the Birkie legendary.
"There is a sense of pride among everyone involved, from volunteers, families, friends and racers," says Popp. "They share a sense of community, togetherness and accomplishment through the unique experience they have year after year. It's all encompassing."
While the Birkie continues to be the Foundation's largest event year after year, Popp and his team have worked hard to promote other year–long events: from marathons, relays and 5Ks to mountain biking and fat bike racing; the trail truly serves the community each season.
"Ideally, we want to give citizens access to a wonderful piece of land year-round and take advantage of the other outdoor activities," says Popp. "It's about providing events that are social, fun and not intimidating. This is how we create that gateway to a lifestyle of being active for everyone."
A family tradition
Reflecting on my own childhood, I can vividly remember looking forward to the Birkie every year. For as long as I can remember, the Birkie was always more than a ski race, but rather symbolized a special time spent with family.
My dad, Mark Gordon, first started skiing the Birkie in 1981 after being convinced by a friend to give the race a shot. Having never skied more than six miles, the 30-mile trek was difficult at best, and halfway through, he thought about giving up. A volunteer on the trail encouraged him to finish, assuring him the second half would be easier.
Nearly 34 years later, my dad is now a member of the distinguished Birch Leggings group, an honor that recognizes skiers who have participated in more than 20 races. Over the years, it has become much more about the family and friends than the miles.
"It's one of those things you tell yourself you're never going to do again when you're actually skiing," dad says. "But after the second year, more and more people started joining our group and it became a tradition we looked forward to sharing with our friends every year."
It's also a tradition that will continue in my family's next generation. On my dad's 30th year of skiing, my brother along with his University of Minnesota classmates, skied his first Birkie and has continued to participate in the race in the years since.
"Participating in the race has had a major impact on our family to have a more healthy lifestyle year–round, including a love and celebration of winter and the outdoors," my mom, Deb Gordon, says. She has also participated in the Birkie, Kortelopet and even a jack rabbit race while pregnant with me.
"It has always been a family event, whether someone skied or supported the active skiers," mom says.
While I've never skied a Birkie myself, the experience is inclusive of spectators and those who support the skiers in many ways, from rest stops along the trail to cowbell ringers at the finish line. For all those involved, it truly is an event that celebrates tradition, pride and the outdoors.
A couple of years ago, my parents made the move out west to Seattle, but my dad continues to make the trip back to Wisconsin every year, not only for the race but also for a special trip with his daughter and friends.
Erin Gordon is a communications specialist in DNR's Office of Communications.