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Snowy forecast buys time for Birkebeiner

Martin Stuge Baanerud of Marquette, Mich. (right) and Adam Swank of Duluth approach the Highway OO food station - about the halfway point of the race - during the 2013 American Birkebeiner. (2013 file / News Tribune)

There appears to be hope for the American Birkebeiner yet — hope for at least a semblance of the weekend’s iconic cross-country ski race between Cable and Hayward.  

While racers and organizers waited out another day above freezing on Wednesday, attention turned to a winter storm watch issued by the National Weather Service that said significant snow accumulation could be on its way to Northwestern Wisconsin, among other areas, between late today and early Saturday.

The 44th Birkie is scheduled for Saturday. Warm weather has played havoc with the course over the past week and forced organizers to rule out the southern half of the course that normally brings the race to a finish in downtown Hayward. Friday’s Kortelopet and Prince Haakon races also were moved to Saturday.

“We would love nothing more than to have a ski race,” race spokeswoman Nancy Knutson said Wednesday. “That’s what we do. With below-freezing temps in our future, along with snow in the forecast, we’re going all in with efforts for a ski event of some sort.”

Officials are hoping for one of two preferred scenarios at this point — either one would take skiers from the American Birkebeiner trailhead, east of Cable, to Sawyer County Highway OO, east of Seeley. Such a course would be about half of the Birkebeiner’s traditional 55 kilometers. Organizers are hoping for a timed race, but they’re also considering a open, untimed race that would ease pressure on the massive field of racers and the race course itself.

“Any event will be predicated on the safety of the snow conditions,” Knutson said. “The trail would need to be safe for the first, 50th, 300th, 2,000th and 10,000th skiers alike.”

Knutson described the trail between Cable and Highway OO as one featuring “some puddles on the trail.” The trail crew was at work siphoning water and repairing portions as needed, she said.

Should snow not materialize and the course continue to take the beating it has throughout an unseasonably warm run-up in the week before the race, a third and less-preferred option that has been proffered would be a foot race.

Temperatures in Hayward climbed into the 50s once again on Wednesday, with some light rain.

On Tuesday, Birkie executive director Ben Popp had predicted a less than 1 percent chance of even a half-distance timed race being held. But Wednesday’s winter storm watch sent hope and even expectations up several ticks.

“Mother Nature hasn’t yet shown us her hand, but we’re hopeful we’ll be able to have a ski race or open track skiing event on Saturday,” Knutson said. “If only we had a crystal ball.”

Race officials earlier this week announced that Thursday’s Barnebirkie, Junior Birkie and Barkie Birkie events would be converted to foot races in Hayward. Thursday’s opening ceremonies, Elite Sprints, Birkie adaptive ski and Nikkerbeiner have been canceled for this year. The Birkie Expo will be held as scheduled Thursday and Friday.

Check back to www.duluthnewstribune.com or go to www.birkie.com for race updates.

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