Quirky Chequamegon Bay ski race turns 20

As many as 3,000 skiers and snowshoers are expected to cross Chequamegon Bay on Saturday evening for the 20th annual "Book Across the Bay" between Ashland and Washburn. "We'll be prepared for up to 3,000 people," said Laurence Wiland, who owns He...

Over 2,800 people registered for the Book Across the Bay event last year. Photo by Amber Mullen, Ashland Daily Press


As many as 3,000 skiers and snowshoers are expected to cross Chequamegon Bay on Saturday evening for the 20th annual "Book Across the Bay" between Ashland and Washburn.

"We'll be prepared for up to 3,000 people," said Laurence Wiland, who owns Heart Graphics in Ashland and is a member of the race committee. "My prediction would be a little short of that. We take walk-ins on race day. We've had years when we've signed up a thousand people or more on race day."

The event, in which participants follow a 10-kilometer course outlined by luminaries and lit by the stars, has grown far beyond its original expectations, said Wiland, who was among the founders.

"It was meant to be a little local, get-out-and-do-something-different-when-you're-getting-sick-of winter type of thing among a group of friends," Wiland said.


One of that group was a board member for Washburn's library, so it was decided to stage it as a fundraiser for the Friends of the Washburn Public Library, he said. "That's where the 'Book' came in."

They advertised it by word of mouth and figured maybe a hundred people would participate that first year, Wiland said. Instead, more than 350 people showed up.

Ben Thoen was 6 years old then, but he remembers the first Book Across the Bay fondly, he said. His father and some friends took responsibility to make sure the participants felt welcome when they arrived in Thoen's hometown of Washburn.

"I remember very vividly being in my dad's truck while he and his friends were lighting this massive bonfire," said Thoen, who now lives in Duluth and works as corporate chef for Black Woods Grill & Bar.

By the time he was in middle school, Thoen was making luminaries and later putting them on the course. Six years ago, he joined the race committee. And although he lives and works in Duluth, he has stayed heavily involved in Book Across the Bay.

"It's something I believe in 100 percent," he said. "It's a unique, funky way to give back to the community."

The founders "never in a million years" would have believed the event would grow to its current size, Wiland said. Ten years ago, they realized it had gotten to the point where they needed to incorporate as a nonprofit. Any proceeds go to charitable organizations in the region, he said. The amount has totaled close to $150,000 so far.

If the scale has grown, the quirky, small-town feel has remained, organizers say. Book Across the Bay doesn't try to compete with the American Birkebeiner - the massive, highly competitive cross-country ski race from Cable to Hayward a week later. The entry fee is kept low - $20 for those who sign up early, $25 now - and the competitive aspect is downplayed.


"I would like to think the spirit of it has remained the same," Wiland said. "It's an event, not a race. Mostly, it's weekend warriors and people out with their kids."

But over two decades, Book Across the Bay can brag about something many other winter events in the region can't: It has never been canceled. Because Chequamegon Bay is shallow and sheltered, it has been reliably ice-covered by February, Wiland said.

On a couple of occasions, staging the event has required some creativity, he added. One year, when there was little snow on the ice, organizers used "crunched-up ice" to provide a trail. On a warm year, participants had to cope with some puddles and slush, but they made do.

"People realize we're trying to pull off something a little strange, and we go with it," Wiland said. "We don't get a lot of complaints."

Ice conditions are favorable for this year's event, and the weather forecast is promising, he said.

Although the group has hired out some of the technical aspects of the event, it's still largely a homegrown project with as many as 300 volunteers involved, Wiland said.

They've never advertised, but area chambers of commerce have touted the Book Across the Bay. The group originally picked a weekend when nothing else was going on, Wiland said, and turned it into an attraction.

"We think it's a great thing for the community," Thoen added. "The hotels in Washburn, Ashland and Bayfield fill up. The outdoors shops get a nice bump."


The details

  • What: Book Across the Bay
  • When: 6 p.m. Saturday
  • Where: The race starts at Maslowski Beach on U.S. Highway 2 on the far west end of Ashland and finishes on the bay near Thompson’s West End Park in Washburn.
  • To register: Walk-in registration and bib pickup from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at Thompson’s West End Park. The cost is $25 for adults; $20 for children and students; and $50 for families of parents/guardians and dependent children.
  • Parking: Although limited parking will be available at Maslowski Beach, parking in Washburn is recommended. Shuttle service from Washburn to the starting line begins at about 2 p.m. and continues until the start of the race.
  • Also: Post-race activities include a heated tent, a chili feed and live music. Daytime events include Book It Kids’ Fun Race and Bike Across the Bay, both based at Maslowski Beach.
  • To learn more: Online at For more on the Book It Kids’ Fun Race, call (715) 682-3590. For more on Bike Across the Bay, call John Murphy at (715) 209-8169.

2318402+Book across the bay.jpg

What To Read Next
The system crashed earlier this month, grounding flights across the U.S.