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Birkie is canceled because of lack of snow, but party will go on

Elite men's skate skiers leave the starting line of the 2013 American Birkebeiner in Cable, Wis. (2013 file / News Tribune)

The cancellation Friday of Saturday’s American Birkebeiner cross-country ski race called for perspective, and Will Snider delivered.

“The best part of Birkie for me is planning for it and keeping it as a goal,” said the 50-year-old doctor from Helena, Mont., who was in town for the race. “It gets me out all winter long and keeps me feeling good and staying active.”

The course of the iconic race from Cable to Hayward deteriorated throughout a week of warm weather, and a bout of heavy rain on Monday. Denied a late-in-the-week snowstorm that was forecast for Northwestern Wisconsin but veered south of the trail, race officials at midday Friday pulled the plug on any chance of a race.

But they didn’t abandon the party. There still will be events Saturday that they’re calling BirkieStock 2017 — a celebration of the new, permanent American Birkebeiner Trailhead at the start area near Cable.

“It’s certainly not ideal,” said executive director Ben Popp. “Everybody worked hard all year, but everybody also understands we’ve done everything we can.”

Popp said organizers have already begun considering contingencies for the future, including snowmaking and moving the date earlier. While conventional wisdom in the age of climate change may argue for an earlier start, Popp called it an “unfavorable” option for the way it would affect the smaller races that skiers enjoy, and smaller clubs and teams that count on races as fundraisers leading up to the Birkie. An earlier start, he said, might end up compromising the ski culture the Birkie is trying to foster.  

“People see it as a culmination,” he said. “They ski the Birkie and, boom, the skis go in the garage. If we moved it up earlier, it might end up being hard on the other races.”

Just a couple of weeks ago, Cindy Swift, a Hayward shopkeeper and high school Nordic ski coach, was telling registered participants, “It’s going to be amazing,” she said.

But a sudden shift in weather came last weekend in the form of 50-plus degree temperatures and more than an inch of rain Monday.

“It’s a crying shame,” she said of a race being canceled for just the second time in its 44-year history.

Not all the snow is gone. Organizers are creating an estimated 5-kilometer loop for skiers to enjoy during the BirkieStock celebration. The party begins at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, and buses will begin transporting riders to the trailhead from the Como parking lot on U.S. Highway 63 south of Cable. Live music begins at 11:45 a.m., and plays to 5 p.m. There will be a soup tent, beer garden and more. Also, race officials moved the demos scheduled for Sunday to Saturday so participants can peruse the latest ski gear and fat bikes.  

Birkie officials reviewed the trail again Friday morning before coming to the decision to cancel the Birkie, Kortelopet and Prince Haakon races, and not try to hold some kind of shortened timed event Saturday. They had already decided earlier in the week to forego a finish in Hayward because of the condition of the southern half of the 55-kilometer trail.

A winter storm warning issued for the Hayward area on Thursday had infused racers and organizers with hope, but the storm never materialized Friday as it continued on a path south of the area.

“The safety of our skiers is first and foremost in our minds,” said spokeswoman Nancy Knutson earlier this week. “Conditions need to be safe for the first skier, as well as the 10,000th skier.”

The previous time that the Birkie was canceled was in 2000, also because of a lack of snow. It has been shortened several other times because of poor trail conditions, most recently in 2007.

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