Amid the stress of conditions that are anything but winterlike, planners of the Birkie cross-country ski races have decided to scale down and reconstruct the event, which begins next week.
Organizers of the American Birkebeiner took to Facebook Live with a much-anticipated update Monday night. Alas, the 50th anniversary version won't look like what generations of skiers have come to expect and will lean heavily on stockpiled snow getting moved into place with help from Bayfield County and others to help build out a 10-kilometer course.
"It's been a Herculean effort," said Ben Popp, American Birkebeiner executive director.
While colder weather and a dusting of snow in recent days have helped, there will be no run from the trailhead in Cable, Wis., on the trails to a finish in downtown Hayward. Birkie race directors plan instead to put a majority of the races on the course, launching from the trailhead. Some of the traditional races will be shorter and on different days, but organizers are determined to salvage a milestone year.
For example, the skate and classic marathons that would normally go off, wave by wave, Feb. 24 will spread over two days. Only elite and "supertour" men and women's marathon skate skiers will cover 50K, while all other waves for both skate and classic will ski 30K. The Kortelopet and Prince Haakon races also are shorter.
The Birkie now will include some "open track" days when skate and classic marathon participants can ski their 30K races.
Event director Kristy Maki said organizers took into consideration the length and width of the course and number of skiers to figure out how to accommodate skiers over multiple events and multiple days.
"It is a course that will be safe and fair for everyone. … This will be a memorable one for sure," Popp said.
The Birkie hasn't been immune to poor weather in its 50 years. It last was canceled in 2017, prompting officials to acquire snowmaking ability.
"I think by nature it being a weather-dependent sport, there is always an eye to [the possibility of change], and participants understand that," Popp told the Star Tribune in an interview last week.
Still, Popp said the prospect of annual challenges to the Birkie is scary. "A big part of our organization and community still seems to be eroding."
Popp said investments in snowmaking infrastructure are going to be critical. He'd like to see more facilities across the Midwest and suggested places like Milwaukee, Madison, Wis., and Chicago to help provide training areas for skiers — or potential skiers — to get in miles and who then might consider traveling to northwestern Wisconsin this time of year.
"As much as our facilities are great … we can't be the only ones making snow. We need population centers," he said.
Philanthropic development and offering a wider range of trail activity — such as team runs and cycling events — in other seasons have helped the organization, Popp said, because "if you don't figure out how to diversify and not be 100 percent dependent on weather, you are in trouble."
As evidenced again Monday night, Birkie organizers are trying to remain upbeat.
"I will say the lemonade of this is that it's been unbelievable in bringing our community together. This year on 5 kilometers of trail, you are talking to someone all the time," Popp said. "The social part of this has been amazing, and that silver lining has been a rallying point."
John Richter is the executive director of Endurance United (EU), a St. Paul organization that promotes healthful lifestyles involving outdoor recreation, such as skiing and mountain biking. It coaches and trains adults and youth. He said as many as 75% of the group's 300 adult members have signed up to ski in the Birkie. Like other outdoor sports, many participants train in anticipation of a late-season race and, for thousands, that means in Wisconsin.
Richter was on a ski Sunday morning with EU members at Battle Creek in St. Paul. He said the group's camaraderie has helped soften the edges of a hard winter.
"They just are kind of rolling. There might be some pockets of frustration, but you can't control it," he said.
Richter said he feels for planners at the Birkie Trail and also this week's World Cup visit at Theodore Wirth Regional Park in Minneapolis — two banner events that can't be celebrated in full. "It's been pretty much a perfect storm."