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Birkie organizers 'cross fingers'; threat of rain, warm weather force course alterations

Elite skiers leave the starting line of the 2013 American Birkebeiner in Cable. Warm weather and rain have forced race organizers to make changes to this year's race. (News Tribune file photo)1 / 2
The first wave of the 2009 American Birkebeiner takes off from Cable. (News Tribune file photo)2 / 2

A dynamic weather situation in Northwestern Wisconsin is forcing organizers of the iconic American Birkebeiner cross-country ski race to adjust its course and “cross our fingers” that conditions don’t further deteriorate, a race spokeswoman said Monday.

The 44th Birkie will not finish in downtown Hayward, race officials announced in a news release, because crossing Lake Hayward at the tail end of the 55-kilometer racecourse is “no longer a viable option.”

“It’s just not safe at this point,” said race spokeswoman Nancy Knutson, describing standing water in places on the lake. 


With Monday’s rain further threatening the course — the Hayward airport reported rain and 48 degrees as of mid-afternoon — Knutson said organizers would convene again today to assess any additional damage to the course.

“There are a lot of contingencies on the table right now,” Knutson said. “We’re being optimistic and realistic at the same time.”

More than 13,000 participants and thousands of spectators are expected for the long weekend of activities that — in addition to the main event on Saturday — also features a host of festivities and assorted other races, beginning Thursday with children’s races.

Under normal conditions, the main race from Cable to Hayward would find skiers crossing Lake Hayward before entering downtown for the race’s finish.

On Monday, the course was maintaining a roughly 4-inch base of hard-packed snow that Knutson said was “very groomable.” The first half of the course, north of Sawyer County Highway OO, was holding up best.

“We’ve very confident north of OO at Seeley,” Knutson said. “If we can hold the base and hold the trail north we’ll be in decent shape.”

Organizers are focusing on the increasing likelihood of staging race events north of OO, officials said.  

With a downtown Hayward finish off the table, organizers have also turned their attention to Duffy’s Field north of town as a possible staging point for the finish should the race stretch that far. Due to the course alteration, organizers will not be installing the International Bridge that normally spans U.S. Highway 63 and is crossed by skiers on their way to the finish.

This is hardly the first time the race has had to adjust due to weather. In 2007, facing rain and temperatures north of 50, the race was shortened to 25K. Rain forced a finish at Duffy’s Field in 2002; in 2000, the race was canceled.

The race’s array of snow farms — extra snow collected from places such as soccer fields and used to reinforce the trail — are also “looking light,” said Knutson, adding, “We’re trying to be nimble and pivot with Mother Nature’s curveballs.”