The country’s largest cross-country ski race, the American Birkebeiner is canceled, upsetting thousands of skiers, race organizers and western Wisconsin towns that depended on the annual economic boost.
“After days of unseasonable weather, rain, and a predicted snowstorm front missing the Hayward (Wis.) and Cable areas, the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation regretfully announces the cancellation of the 2017 American Birkebeiner, Kortelopet, and Prince Haakon cross-country ski races,” race organizers posted Friday morning on the Birkie website.
The only other time the race was canceled by mild weather and bad conditions was in 2000.
Organizers, trying to salvage what they can, came up with alternatives to skiers who still want to make the trek to the Cable-Hayward area. Last year’s event attracted more than 13,000 skiers from 46 states and 22 countries.
Longtime Birkie skier Steve Skarvan, 58, was naturally disappointed, but he had anticipated bad news. He would have skied his 15th marathon this year but had dropped to the shorter Kortelopet race because a lack of snow has meant a lack of training. The Kortelopet, which was set for Friday, was canceled earlier this week, with the hope that it could go Saturday, too.
“It’s unfortunate,” said Skarvan, of Mahtomedi, about Friday’s news. “As an athlete and participant, you anticipate the Birkie all year long. This race is a culmination of all your efforts.”
Skarvan said the recent uneven winters and its impact on traditions like the Birkie have generated a lot of questions in his mind and likely that of the wider skiing community about the possible role of global warming. Or if the date of the Birkie should now be moved up with the hope of better conditions.
“A week ago we could have raced the event, and if the race were to be moved up would that have changed the scenario?” he asked.
Skarvan said he has sympathy for the organizers and community members Up North who work hard to accommodate the masses and make the week of Birkebeiner ski events a success — and have for years. “Fundamentally for me, it such a great event — get into the North Woods and experience all that the area has to offer.”
Birkie organizers are coming up with a five-kilometer loop for skiers Saturday. The day’s events also will include live music and demonstrations for skiers who want to try out the latest ski gear and fat bikes in hopes of more winter next year.
Organizers of the 44th annual race have been on tenterhooks the last couple weeks as unseasonably warm weather and the scarcity of new snow took its toll on its trails for the week’s race, including Saturday’s jewel, the marathon. Skiers and race officials held out hope that a winter storm overnight and into Friday would improve conditions.
“Unfortunately, no snow fell last night,” organizers posted on their website early Friday morning. “The Birkie team is headed out to check on the trail this morning. After reviewing conditions and meeting later this morning, we should have an update for you by midday. The safety of our skiers is first and foremost in our minds. Conditions need to be safe for the first skier, as well as the 10,000th skier. If we find that the trail isn’t safe for all skiers, we have alternative plans in place.”
Earlier this week, the springlike weather that hit the Midwest had organizers scrambling to make the best of a bad situation. Several Birkie Week events were canceled and the iconic finish for the ski race marathon in downtown Hawyard was nixed.
Contingency plans were made and options considered, including:
• A one-way, timed raced for the marathon, Kortelopet and Prince Haakon races from the Birkie trailhead to the Hwy. OO trailhead.
• An untimed, open-track, looped-event on the Birkie Trail (north of Hwy. OO) for the three races if there is enough snow but conditions are unsafe for “a competitive race.”
• If there is no snow worth skiing, there will be a Birkie run and street party downtown.
Birkie organizers already have canceled Friday’s events, from the opening ceremonies to the elite sprints and adaptive races.
Ben Popp, the foundation’s executive director, said earlier this week that the race has been shortened or canceled nine times in its 45-year history.
The Birkie ski week and its other trail events contribute more than a cultural tradition to the Northwoods of northwestern Wisconsin. A 2013 University of Wisconsin study found that skiers, bikers and runners pour some $15 million into the three-county region around Hayward, with Birkie skiers a big piece of that. About $6.4 million of that tourist revenue ends up in the form of employment income locally.
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