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Surviving the Birkie and Seneca

Charlie Ramstad takes to the Birkie trails in Wisconsin, after Storm Seneca dumped up to 14 inches of snow. PHOTO BY KAREN SKOYLES

The 41st American Birkebeiner was held last Saturday in Wisconsin, with a handful of Detroit Lakes’ skiers making the trip through a treacherous snow storm.

DL’s Karen Skoyles writes about her first-hand account of the weekend, which is one of the largest Nordic skiing events in the United States.

The communities of Cable and Hayward, Wis., have hosted the American Birkebeiner for the past 41 years. 

It is the biggest Nordic ski race in North America and it attracts skiers from all over the globe.  The Birkie is a world class ski race that is largely organized and staffed by volunteers across a two county region.    

This year’s event was no exception. 

Two days before the event, winter storm “Seneca” struck. 

Seneca was huge, and she packed quite the wallop across a fairly wide swath of the upper Midwest.  Travel was disrupted, flights were diverted and participants adjusted travel plans as they were able. 

Seneca dumped at least 14 inches of snow on the Cable-Hayward area, throwing a bit of a wrench into the preparations for the big event. 

One big challenge included moving and setting portable toilets for 13,000 racers and 20,000 spectators in a cold blanket of new snow.

That is the challenge that the Birkie organizers and participants faced.

Hordes of Nordic enthusiasts descend on the Cable-Hayward area for the festivities that make up Birkie week. 

Hotels and vacation homes in a 100 mile radius are filled. The race starts at the Cable airport and finishes down the Main Street of Hayward, 32 miles to the south. 

People need to be moved around and a fleet of school buses are deployed. Buses bring people staying in Hayward to the start area. 

Those not staying on the Hayward side drive to various parking lots fashioned from fields, and school buses transport racers and spectators to the start area. 

Those skiing the Korteloppet and Prince Haakon races start and finish their events in Cable. 

The middle school in Hayward is registration central on the Friday before the race. 

Racers pick up their bibs, gear bags and last minute race information in part of the gym. 

Race organizers are accustomed to moving snow.  Fields are normally transformed into the parking lots. 

An army of heavy equipment and trucks with plows is deployed to transform those grass fields and the Cable airport into parking lots and a village of portable toilets and almost heated changing tents.

The courses must be groomed and the expectation is that the courses will be compared to a world class standard.

With the Birkie classic course at 54K, the Birkie skate course at 50K, the Korteloppet classic and skate courses at 23K and the Prince Haakon course at 12K, it’s an awful lot of snow to roll, pack and set track.

Fourteen brand new inches of cold, fluffy white stuff two days before the event is not a good thing from the groomer’s perspective. 

Classic skiers like a firm deck with crisp tracks that set up like a good meringue. 

Since their skis generally stay in those tracks, classic skiers like the snow to be cold and dry because it is easier to wax for kick - the going uphill phase of Nordic skiing - under those conditions. 

The infected must be nurtured and sustained along the route. In order to do that, the race organizers enlist the services of an army of volunteers to man “feed stations.” 

These feed stations are dispersed across the divergent courses and are staffed by volunteers. 

A number of lakes area Nordic skiers slogged through the snow and cold of Seneca to participate in the Birkie experience again year. 

Don Goetz made the journey to volunteer as a ski patroller. Jake Richards of Callaway skied for St. Scholastica in his first Birkie, completing the 50 K skate course in 2:59:54.3 and placing 28th of 247 in his age group.

DL junior Berit Ramstad Skoyles, eligible for her first Birkie this year after having skied three prior Korteloppet races skied the 54K classic race in 4:02:19.2, placing third of 70 in her age group and 198th of 1,862 of all Birkie classic skiers - men and women. 

DL graduate Dylan Ramstad Skoyles, skiing for the University of North Dakota ski club, skied his third Birkie race in 3:33:38.6, placing 66th of 1,862 classic skiers. 

Also participating in the 54K Birkie Classic event were Dan Josephson, Charlie Ramstad, Shannon Goetz, Glenn Gifford and Knute Thorsgard. 

In the 50K Birkie skate event, Bob Koshnick placed ninth in his age group and Ian Fritz participated as a member of the St. John’s University ski club. 

In the 23K Korteloppet races, Nikki Caulfield completed the classic race and Zach Foltz placed 15th of 1,276 in the skate event.

Whatever the reason for making the annual February pilgrimage to the wilds of northern Wisconsin, the Birkie infection is clearly an epidemic among the Nordic faithful.