Across the Border: The American Birkebeiner in Hayward, Wisconsin

For my family, the American Birkebeiner is a beloved tradition. My parents, aunts, and uncles have all participated in this annual cross-country ski race in Hayward, Wis., and have watched it evolve. My dad did the “Birkie” six times between 1982 and 1987 and did the Kortelopet in 1988. When he first participated, my dad was outfitted in knickers and wooden skis with tar but for the last two races he had carbon skis and skated the race without kick wax. Finally, my dad decided he’d rather ski the trail without crowds and stopped racing. These days, we cheer on my cousin (who I must proudly note is in the elite wave). The Birkie is a highly regarded event in the ski world (it’s North America’s largest cross-country ski marathon), but we have a fondness for it because our family cabin also is in the Hayward area.

American Birkebeiner in Hayward, Wisconsin

American birkebeiner Photo by Darlene Prois

The 39th annual Birkie takes place next weekend (with events Feb. 23-25). The ski race was founded 1973, inspired by the Birkebeiner Rennet ski marathon in Norway. Fun fact: Both events honor an old Norwegian story from 1206, when two warrior soldiers (called Birkebeiners for their birch bark leggings) skied infant Prince Hakkon to safety during the country’s civil war.

The course for the Birkie takes skiers from Telemark Ski Resort in Cable to Main Street in downtown Hayward, on either a 50K (skate) or 54K (classic) trail. The abridged Kortelopet, a 23K race, finishes back at Telemark. The Birkie and Kortelopet races start at 8 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 25 (in waves). The race draws in more than 6,000 Birkie skiers and 11,000 skiers overall. The Birkie is one of the 15 international ski marathons that comprise the Worldloppet and one of the 13 that comprise the American Ski Marathon series.

Lucky for the skiers, Hayward has seen more snow than the Twin Cities and it looks like the weekend’s events will be able to run as planned. Besides the main races, Birkie weekend includes a torch lighting and fun ski, the Cable Natural History Museum family snowshoe hike, the Prince Hakkon 12K ski, a sit-ski for adaptive athletes, and much more.

When I wrote about Hayward in June 2010, I recommended a few must-see stops in the city. I would still suggest a stop at Tremblay’s Sweet Shop for fudge (but it’s closed through March, bummer) and at the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame (to at least look at the huge muskie sculpture). The Hayward area is located about 3 1/2 hours northeast of the Twin Cities. You can get more tips for exploring the area from the Hayward Lakes Visitors and Convention Bureau.

Whether you come to race or watch, it’s quite the experience. I know my family will be there to cheer (Go Mike!).

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