Inside the American Birkebeiner: What You Need to Know

Courtesy of the American Birkebeiner Ski FoundationThe Amer­i­can Birke­bein­er Ski Marathon is the largest cross-coun­try ski marathon in North Amer­i­ca and the 3rd largest in the world. Each year it attracts skiers to the north woods of Wis­con­sin to ski por­tions of the 107-kilo­me­ter groomed Birkie trail that spans from Cable to Hay­ward. From its hum­ble Nor­we­gian roots, this race has grown expo­nen­tial­ly into an inter­na­tion­al event that attracts thou­sands of peo­ple each year. Today the Amer­i­can Birke­bein­er has an esti­mat­ed 250,000 skiers who have com­pet­ed in its var­i­ous ski events (includ­ing the 55K Birkie Ski Marathon, the 24K Kor­te­lopet, and 13k Prince Haakon race), and each year attracts over 45,000 skiers and spec­ta­tors to the race course.

To get a glimpse at this year’s Amer­i­can Birke­bein­er, as well as the cul­ture that built and sur­rounds it, the direc­tors of the Amer­i­can Birke­bein­er Foun­da­tion (ABSF) are hap­py to give you a lit­tle insight as to why the Amer­i­can Birke­bein­er, which takes place Feb. 20th of this year, is a win­ter event you should put at the top of your snowy radar.

Inga-and-Warriors-2The Clymb: What is the his­to­ry behind this epic win­ter event?

Ben Popp, ABSF Exec­u­tive Direc­tor: The Amer­i­can Birke­bein­er ski race was the vision of Hay­ward native Tony Wise, who dis­cov­ered ski­ing as a sol­dier serv­ing in Ger­many in World War II.  After the war, he brought his con­cept home to start the Tele­mark Lodge, near Cable, WI, and lat­er evolved the idea into a cross-coun­try ski race through the north woods of Wisconsin.

The ori­gin of the race is steeped in Nor­we­gian his­to­ry.  In 1206, Nor­way was in the midst of a civ­il war when Birke­bein­er skiers, named for their pro­tec­tive birch bark leg­gings, skied through the treach­er­ous moun­tains and rugged forests of Nor­way, smug­gling Prince Haakon, the son of King Sver­res­son and Inga of Var­tieg, to safe­ty. Nor­we­gian his­to­ry cred­its the Birke­bein­ers’ brav­ery with pre­serv­ing the life of the boy who lat­er became Norway’s King Haakon Haakon­s­son IV and for­ev­er changed north­ern Euro­pean his­to­ry by his reign. This his­toric res­cue inspired the cre­ation of three ski marathons: The Birke­bein­erren­net in Lille­ham­mer, Nor­way, the Amer­i­can Birke­bein­er “Birkie” from Cable to Hay­ward, Wis­con­sin and the Cana­di­an Birke­bein­er, in Alberta.

From its hum­ble begin­nings, the Amer­i­can Birke­bein­er has grown to become North America’s largest ski race and the third largest in the world, all in a cel­e­bra­tion of the deter­mi­na­tion and per­se­ver­ance of those his­toric Birke­bein­er war­riors, the “Birkies.”

Each year two peo­ple dress up as these cel­e­brat­ed Birkie war­riors in full cos­tume, and even car­ry a prince doll all 55 Kilo­me­ters of the race as a way to moti­vate oth­ers along the course and pay homage to the Nor­we­gian heroes that the race was inspired by. 

PROIS_ABSF_2015_FINISH-034-2-1024x624Clymb: What is it that gives the Birke­bein­er its appeal? Is it com­pet­i­tive dri­ve or some­thing else that brings peo­ple out­side and into the cold?

Nan­cy Knut­son, ABSF Mar­ket­ing & Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Direc­tor: Our win­ters tend to be crisp, bril­liant­ly blue-skied and most-often sun­ny, not the frigid­ly cold days that are often thought to be found in the North woods. As for the appeal of the race itself, the amaz­ing 107-kilo­me­ter Birkie trail, the decades of tra­di­tion, the charm and beau­ty of the north woods expe­ri­ence, the cel­e­bra­tion and fes­ti­val atmos­phere, these are what dri­ve skiers of all ages to par­tic­i­pate in this icon­ic world-class sport­ing event.

Clymb: Besides fash­ion trends and ski tech­nol­o­gy, what else is dif­fer­ent about the race as it is today com­pared to the first time it ran?

Allan Ser­ra­no, ABSF Event Direc­tor: Fun­da­men­tal­ly it is still the same point-to-point race through the hills and forests of North­ern Wis­con­sin on por­tions of the beau­ti­ful 107K Birkie Trail.  While the race orig­i­nal­ly start­ed in Hay­ward and end­ed at Tele­mark Lodge near Cable, WI, it is now skied in reverse from Cable, WI and ends in down­town Hay­ward, WI, where Main Street is blan­ket­ed in snow and an esti­mat­ed 30,000+ cheer­ing and cow­bell-ring­ing fans greet more than 10,000 skiers as they near the fin­ish line.

There were only 35 skiers on the start­ing line at the first Amer­i­can Birke­bein­er; now, the Birkie races are capped at 10,500 skiers.

In the ear­ly days, and with the ski gear at the time, peo­ple sim­ply cross-coun­try skied, with no par­tic­u­lar tech­nique iden­ti­fied, on one com­mon groomed Birkie trail. Over the years, two ski­ing tech­niques emerged, clas­sic and skate, the Amer­i­can Birke­bein­er adapt­ed and now the course is groomed for both unique ski­ing dis­ci­plines. 

Race-start-2The Clymb: Is there any­thing new hap­pen­ing spe­cif­ic to the 2016 Birkebeiner?

Nan­cy Knut­son: The Amer­i­can Birke­bein­er Ski Marathon has grown the event into 4‑day fes­ti­val designed to offer an event or expe­ri­ence for every­one.  It is a true cel­e­bra­tion of Nordic sports.

The 4‑day fes­ti­val is a per­fect way for any­one to join in or watch the fes­tiv­i­ties sur­round­ing this cel­e­bra­tion of Nordic Sports.

Start­ing on Thurs­day, Feb. 18 there is the Barkie Birkie Ski­jor, the Elite sprints and the Giant Ski Race (teams of six peo­ple on 25-foot long skis race down Main Street), fol­lowed by Fam­i­ly Fri­day and the Junior Birkie, the Barnebirkie (youth tour), the Nikker­bein­er (vin­tage tour) and the Fam­i­ly Fun Ski. There is an event for every­one. The biggest show on snow begins on Sat­ur­day morn­ing with the Amer­i­can Birke­bein­er, Kor­te­lopet and Prince Haakon ski races. Spec­ta­tors should arrive ear­ly and stake their claim along Main Street for the excite­ment and cel­e­bra­tion! Don’t for­get your cowbell!

While the 10,500 spots have already filled to race in the 55K Ski Marathon, with oth­er races and events hap­pen­ing through­out the four days, plus the spec­tat­ing to be had, there is lit­tle to no rea­son not to bun­dle up and check out this year’s events. For more infor­ma­tion includ­ing ski tips, trail infor­ma­tion and all the gen­er­al good cheer of the Amer­i­can Birke­bein­er, be sure to wax your skis and slide on over to the ABSF web­site.

About the Amer­i­can Birke­bein­er® Ski Foun­da­tion and Birkie® Events
Locat­ed near Hay­ward and Cable, Wis­con­sin, the Amer­i­can Birke­bein­er Ski Foun­da­tion, a 501(c)(3) orga­ni­za­tion, is known for its sig­na­ture Amer­i­can Birke­bein­er Ski Marathon held each Feb­ru­ary. Today, the Birkie brand has grown to encom­pass a year round lifestyle that pro­vides healthy, active events for thou­sands of out­door fit­ness enthu­si­asts of all lev­els. From the icon­ic Birkie ski race to the Birkie Trail Run & Trek, and Fat Bike Birkie race—the world’s largest fat bike race—the ABSF and the Birkie Trail attract skiers, run­ners, bik­ers, trekkers, and hik­ers, from casu­al day-trip­pers to elite superstars.

pho­tos Cour­tesy of the Amer­i­can Birke­bein­er Ski Foundation