Birkie skiers, fans resolute and hopeful
HAYWARD — In a normal year, this city's downtown would be a snow globe come to life that people dub "Birkieland."
Main Street on the Thursday before the American Birkebeiner cross-country ski race would be bereft of automobiles, filled with trucked-in snow and outfitted with the trademark International Bridge that skiers would traverse toward the finish line of Saturday's main event. Children would christen the trail with the Thursday Barnebirkie, the first races of what is an extended weekend celebration.
"This is what it should look like," said Cindy Swift, holding out her phone to show her bike-and-ski store, Riverbrook, pictured in an idyllic bygone year overcome by pristine snow on all sides at the corner of Main Street and U.S. Highway 63.
But the street this week was clear and the parking spaces filled with automobiles, after an extended stretch of unseasonably warm weather decimated the snowpack. The children's events had been moved to nearby grass fields at Hatchery Creek Park. The cheering hordes still came, hundreds of them. Smiles on young faces abounded. It was so loud at times that amid the unassailable enthusiasm and acres of brown grass and mud it felt like Cowbell Woodstock.
"I love it," said Cheri Statz of Wisconsin Rapids, who rattled vigorously a white cowbell for her 4-year-old grandson, Johann Statz, as he finished the half-kilometer footrace that replaced his Barnebirkie ski. "This is our 30th year and we're going to come up regardless of the weather."
Buoyed by a spirited first act, Birkie organizers continued to hold their breath and hope that Saturday would bring a ski race for the adults.
The National Weather Service in Duluth continued to feed hope in the form of a winter storm warning issued Thursday afternoon, calling for 4 to 8 inches of snow in the Hayward area from today through Saturday morning.
With high temperatures in the 50s, the focus early in the week turned to salvaging some form of Saturday's Birkebeiner between Cable and the halfway point at Sawyer County Highway OO — the northern half of the iconic 55-kilometer course. Below OO, the landscapes were barren and snow was mostly a rumor. Above it, organizers were tending to what little snow remained, adding where they could from dwindling snow reserves stocked up earlier in the winter, and siphoning water from the trail where it had puddled and pooled.
As of Thursday, race organizers' plan continued to be folding all the main adult races — the Birkie, the Kortelopet and Prince Haakon 15K — into a single adult event Saturday. Indications were that any event would likely feature fewer than the original 13,000 registrants, as some people simply weren't going to come.
"We cannot hold a ski event unless we get snow Friday," Birkie spokeswoman Nancy Knutson said in a news release. "So we are in a wait-and-see mode on making that call.
"We will be meeting with trail staff, medical, security and race opps Friday, assessing all aspects of the current situation and making a call on what happens for Saturday's events."
Check duluthnewstribune.com for updates today.
On Thursday, John Clement, 67, of Toledo, Ohio, headed to the race's new museum in downtown Hayward, where several other skiers had congregated wanting to know the status of the race and the weather forecast. He was scheduled to start the race in the Spirit of 35 — a group of 35 racers made up of those who have the longest contiguous runs of participation in the 44-year event. For Clement, this marks his 41st year. He said the ski through the woods is "absolutely gorgeous" and had recalibrated his expectations to suit the reality of the situation.
"To get in a nice ski would be wonderful," he said.
Marv Franson, 67, of Eau Claire, was also set to ski in his 41st Birkie. A volunteer docent at the museum, Franson was all smiles as he and Clement reminisced as old friends do. On Feb. 16, exactly a week earlier, Franson set out from Cable and skied a hard and crisp pack of snow all the way to Wisconsin Highway 77 in Hayward — nearly the complete length of the Birkie course.
"It was a great ski," he said. "It was fast and very fun. That was before the weather set in — and the rain."
Franson credited Birkie staff with "working hard to make something from very little," he said.
Making do was a theme everywhere in town — from shopkeepers such as Swift, who said, "We are getting a lesson in being creative; it's a test in patience, tolerance and understanding that we're not in charge," to a group of four from Italy found strolling the sidewalks just one day after flying out of Milan.
"We'll have to come back, but it's a long trip," said David Magni, 49.
Asked for his best-case scenario, 66-year-old medical doctor Alfred Di Landro said simply, "To try the trail."
By midafternoon Thursday, the parking lot at Hayward High School was full with racers picking up their packets at the race expo. Volunteers were directing drivers to an overflow lot. Inside, the line of skiers started in a darkened hall and snaked up the stairs to rows of tables at which racers were listed by last name — their bibs inside large envelopes. Another, smaller line led them to pick up beanie hats and tote bags.
Diane Sosnowski, one of 22 volunteers from the Chequamegon Lions Club handing out bibs, said the crowds didn't seem to be too diminished despite of the paucity of snow.
"I'm quite surprised; I thought a lot would just stay home," she said. "But I guess they're coming."
Cindy Ferraro is the owner of the Sawmill Saloon in Seeley, near the County Highway OO trail crossing. The Sawmill is the home of the traditional Birkie after-party. Ferraro scheduled two bands and stocked food-and-drink inventory fit for a Viking feast.
"It's going to be a fun day and business as usual whether we have hundreds of people or 25 people," she said. "Hayward will do the same thing. When people come they're not going to be disappointed."
Ferraro was resolute and determined, in part, because her late husband, Gary Penman, would never have wilted in the face of Mother Nature-fueled adversity either.
"My husband moved up here for Birkie," she said. "He always skied. He groomed the trails. He built starting gates. He just loved it. He saw something was going on in Cable and Hayward and he always made it happen here in Seeley, too."
Go to duluthnewstribune.com to watch a video of Thursday's Barnebirkie running race.