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Birkie canceled – but BirkieFest a success

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The announcement spread quickly across the Midwest just before noon Friday, Feb. 24, “The Birkie is cancelled!” The American Birkebeiner, founded in February 1973 by iconic developer and promoter Tony Wise, is the largest cross-country ski race in North America, and second only in the world to the Birkebeinerrennet, in Rena, Norway. This was only the second time in the 45 years of the event that the race was cancelled. The race was cancelled in February 2000 because of rain.

The Birkie is a regional event that is an economic engine for the communities of Hayward, Cable, Seeley and Spooner. The tourism industry consisting of restaurants, bars, cafés, bakeries, hotels, motels, resorts, gas stations and the local retail establishments count on the 13,000 participants and the 20,000–30,000 spectators to give the region a yearly shot in the arm.

The skiers literally plan and train all year long in anticipation of skiing in a Birkie event, be it the 50-kilometer Skate / 55-kilometer Classic Slumberland American Birkebeiner, the 29-kilometer Kortelopet, the 15-kilometer Prince Haakon, the Barnebirkie (children's’ race), the Junior Birkie, the Barker-Birkie Skijor (human/dog ski event), the Nikkerbeiner (a fun tour event in classic skis and clothes), or the hilarious Giant Ski Race (involving teams of six skiers on a 25-foot skis).

The anticipation of whether the events were in jeopardy began to creep onto the horizon following the 35th annual Hayward Pre-Birkie Feb. 11, when the temperatures began to rise consistently above 32 and near 60 degrees.

The American Birkebeiner is operated and managed by the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation, under the direction of its Executive Director Ben Popp. Through his guidance, along with the approval of the organization’s board of directors, the ABSF has lived up to its brand, “SKI-RUN-BIKE-LIVE.” The ski race has now expanded into a “Fat Bike Birkie,” March 11; “Lumberjack Run,” July 22; “Birkie Trail Run Festival,” Sept. 29-30; and the “Birkie Tour” January 2018. The Birkie, and the events, all centered around the “American Birkebeiner Trail.”

The trail runs through the hills of Bayfield and Sawyer counties, from Cable to Lake Hayward. There is a “Classic” and “Freestyle” trail from the Cable Union Airport to an area just south of Sawyer County Highway, “OO,” east of Seeley. The combined course then runs south to the shore of Lake Hayward. The ABSF grooming staff does year-round maintenance on the trail. The total trail length equals approximately 100 kilometers, varying from 20-40 feet wide. The staff and groomers made the decision to close the trail Feb. 16, in order to preserve the trail for the anticipated 13,000 skiers. The race would never be possible without the dedication, hard work and long hours of the groomers.

This year’s event could be dubbed the “Social–Media Birkie.” Communication has always been one of the organization’s badges of honor over the years, but with Birkie 44, the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation and staff put on a master’s class on how to hold a world-class event in the face of record-setting temperatures and April-like showers under the possibility of cancellation.

Ben Popp became a Facebook and YouTube sensation with his daily updates from various locations on the Birkie course or from locations in either the Birkie office or on the shore of Lake Hayward. The key that other organizations should take note of was the communication, without the spin. Every participant was made to feel like the stakeholders they are. The participants, their families, co-workers, friends, local and regional merchants have been all affected by “Birkie Fever.” The message was never any sort of doom and gloom, but of optimism that “the weather may break, the trail is holding up, we may combine events, but if there is a cancellation, there will be a really fun and meaningful event.”

It was announced Tuesday that Lake Hayward was no longer safe for the skiers to cross, because the ice had separated from the shoreline, following near 60-degree temperatures and 1.5 inches of rain. Thus the “International Bridge” across Highway 63 would not be installed and the races would not be finishing in Hayward. The ABSF had made a major change this year by moving the Kortelopet and the Price Haakon to Friday, with a finish on Main Street. Now all Main Street events were being moved, including the Barnebirkie and the Barkie-Birkie. The Nikkerbeiner and the Giant Ski Race were cancelled.

Everyone was presented with the same scenarios that event managers were struggling with. The participants and coordinators were all speaking the same language. Rumors were not being spread, but real facts and viable alternatives were being openly discussed. There was even a video shot from the actual organizers meeting.

The “Expo” and “bib pick-up” would still commence at at 1 p.m. Thursday at the Hayward High School. The turnout was as if the race was going on as normal. The atmosphere in the building was electric. There were many deals to be had from the visiting vendors, but the crowd was there to support the Birkie, Hayward and the businesses affected.

The announcement was made early Thursday morning that the Friday events were now being moved to Saturday. The southern half of the course was no longer safe to host an event. Popp and staff continued to deliver the message that the safety of the participants was paramount.

The announcement on Friday was not a surprise. The forecasted snowstorm was a first-class dud. Rather than tears, there were smiles in the announcement there would be an event involving skiing, food, music and fun at the newly opened American Birkebeiner Trailhead and start area near the Cable Union Airport.

The event was first announced as “Birkiestock,” but came to be known as “BirkieFest.” The groomers crafted a 5-kilometer loop from the new start area into the woods behind the old Telemark Resort and back to the start, the vendors from the Expo were there in force, in the new “Great Hall.” The large tents that would normally be at the finish line in Hayward were filled with tables and chairs and the soups and treats normally served to the race finishers.

The ABSF invited all to attend the event. They have estimated approximately 10,000 skiers, spectators, family members and revelers who enjoyed the beautiful morning with music, big stories and brats.

As the events were changing early in the week, the Birkie office put out several press releases. The lead at the top of the page set the tone for the entire event: Like the original Birkie Warriors, those with #BirkieFever in their souls are resilient and determined. It is in that spirit that we make the following announcements regarding Birkie Week events. As is commonly said following a community event, “A good time was had by all.”

The 45th annual Slumberland American Birkebeiner week of events is slated for Feb. 22-25, 2018 with registration opening on May 1, 2018.