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Into the Woods

For cross-country skiers, one winter destination rises above the rest: humble Hayward, Wisconsin, where, for a glorious weekend, their obscure sport is king.

At first, there was no snow at all. None. All winter long, on a website called Skinnyski.com, my cross-country ski cronies had been lamenting the drought in Wisconsin as though it were a plague of locusts, and now, as I piloted my rental car east out of Minneapolis, I beheld its grim aspect: the brown, trampled grass, the trees naked of leaves on a dark landscape, the parking lots swirling with dust.

But then, starting in Spooner, Wisconsin, there were little semi-white patches in the woods. Old snow, tired snow, gray snow, but still—snow. I fixed on these little islands of hope, and as I drove north, through Trego and Earl and Springbrook, the roadside became whiter and fresher, evidence of a few recent flurries. In certain windswept spots the snow wholly covered the stubbly grass, and I could imagine myself gliding along over its gleaming crust on narrow race skis.

I am a cross-country ski fanatic, and I was on a pilgrimage, late last February, to North America’s biggest cross-country ski hootenanny. The American Birkebeiner, which takes place during three giddy days in tiny Hayward, Wisconsin, sees almost 12,000 people take part in 10 separate races. World-class skiers show up, as do rank-and-file Wisconsinites who race in Viking helmets and windbreakers and papier-mâché headgear fashioned to look like wedges of cheese. There are short races for children and novices and sit-ski races for the disabled. There is the skijoring race, in which contestants are towed by harnessed dogs. And then there is the race I was entered in—the marquee event, Saturday’s 50K skate marathon. The pros finish in roughly two hours, and regular folks plod and scrape in behind, streaming across the finish line on Main Street all afternoon.

The Birkie is a gathering of tribes that summons ski racers from around the world. I flew in from Portland, Oregon, where, on snowless streets, I train throughout the year on wheeled roller skis, dodging the sarcastic taunts of motorists. I watch ski-race videos narrated by hoary old champions who wax apoplectic in Norwegian about finish-line sprints. And I continuously meet people who don’t get it. They ask, “But why would you do that instead of real skiing?”

So for cross-country skiers, the Birkie looms as a genial, ephemeral wonderland where our sport reigns supreme. For a few days, ski love permeates a raw frontier town. St. Joseph Catholic Church throws open its doors for a prerace spaghetti dinner. The gymnasium at Hayward Middle School fills with a trade show touting dozens of permutations of ski wax. And for one glorious morning, the Wisconsin National Guard surrenders its local armory for race registration. The Birkie comes at winter’s ripest moment, when the snowpack is most likely deepest–and, sadly, already beginning to melt. The Birkie feels, every time, like a last fling.

I arrived in Hayward as 1,100 schoolchildren were competing in the series of kids’ races known as the Barnebirkie. Yellow school buses were everywhere. I watched as one pulled up to the curb and the skiers spilled out, 48 of them, middle schoolers dressed in Hawaiian shirts and old parkas and those thin, brightly colored acrylic ski hats often sold in hardware stores. They latched on their skis and began frisking over a snowy church lawn. They giggled; they pelted one another with–well, not snowballs really but, rather, handfuls of dry, dusty powder. They fanned out like so many bright sprinkles on cake frosting. They cut tracks going every which way.

These earnest students from Lake Harriet Community School in Minneapolis were not Olympic prospects. But even as they warmed up, they skied with heart and panache. I watched as one bony, giraffe-like boy high-stepped his way over the snow, not gliding at all but rather running on his skis, his movements quick and sneaky, as though he were channeling Charlie Chaplin. There were long Nordic conga lines, with skiers poling in precise synchrony, and there were a few children skiing off to the side, soberly rehearsing their technique.

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Lake Harriet’s skiers were racing the Barnebirkie 3K. A minor event, certainly, but still, every contest at the Birkie is at some level an existential experience: a test of the soul out in the chill winter air. The leader of the Lake Harriet group, physical education teacher Jon DePerry, seemed to recognize this, for when he summoned his skiers to circle around him, there was a solemn note to his mirth. “All right, you guys,” he bellowed into the megaphone of his cupped hands, “you’ve got your skis. You’ve got your Hawaiian shirts. Now do Lake Harriet proud!”

The kids swarmed off to the starting line, and I strolled into the armory, where a woman named Barbara Klippel was seated behind an information desk with another volunteer. Klippel is 79; she taught kindergarten in Hayward for 30 years. She is a small woman, slightly hunched, with white hair and glasses, and possessed of such serene kindness that, in her presence, I felt as though I were her most beloved student. After almost every remark I made, she blossomed with approving joy. “Bill,” she kept saying, “that’s wonderful.”

I waited as she helped a few parents rushing off to the Barnebirkie, and then we talked about training. Klippel, of course, was racing as well. Not in the 50K skate-technique marathon against me but, rather, in a longer and arguably more difficult endeavor: She was skiing the 54K classic-technique marathon, and she was on the cusp of a crowning achievement. One must complete 20 Birkie marathons to become a member of Hayward’s distinguished Birchleggings Club. Klippel had finished 19. It all began after she badgered her late husband into buying her a pair of skis one Christmas 40 years ago.

“He said, ‘You’ll never use those,’” Klippel told me. She skied her first Birkie in 1981. Four years later, she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She underwent chemotherapy and then resumed skiing. In 2005, though, while stepping back to admire a painting by a former student, she tumbled down a flight of stairs, fractured her skull, and lost consciousness for several days. Ever since, she has skied in a bicycle helmet.

In 2011, Klippel was at last poised to break into the Birchleggings Club. She trained diligently. But then, just two weeks before the race, she crashed on a steep hill and fell backward. It was 8 degrees outside, and her water bottle, tucked into her hip belt, had frozen. She broke a vertebra landing on it, which meant she had to wince her way out of the woods, uphill, for two kilometers–and then scratch her race entry. “I was heartbroken,” she told me.

Despite that, Klippel set her sights on the 2012 Birkie, only to encounter one of the sparsest snow years in Midwestern history, which made training even more of a challenge. “It’s been very icy,” she had told me when we spoke on the phone in January, “and when it’s icy, I just can’t go out. I’m brittle now. I’m brittle. So I just sit at home and I fret. Or I go over to the Comfort Inn and ride the exercise bicycle.”

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As we chatted in the armory, Klippel acknowledged that things had gotten better. She had, in fact, put in 25 days on the snow by the time I reached Hayward. One Saturday, she said, she skied five hours without stopping–a decent warm-up for a Birkie journey that would likely take her eight hours. “I guess I’m as ready as I can be,” she told me.

It was late afternoon the day before the big races, and the armory was almost empty now. A camo-clad Guardsman with a crew cut was sweeping the floor with a shop broom, and when he came near, Klippel began to lift her feet. “That’s all right,” the soldier said warmly, “you’re good. You’re good.” He kept working around us. We talked a few minutes more and then left, both of us, to go wax up our skis.

That evening, I wanted to limber up, so I went out for a gentle ski, just 45 minutes, on the Birkie race trail, which begins near the town of Cable, Wisconsin, and wends its way 50 kilometers south to Hayward. The snow was dry and fast, a delight compared with the slush I ski on Mount Hood, east of Portland. I felt like I was floating over the hills. The cold air stung my skin. The aspens lining the trail shivered in the slight breeze. When I crossed County Highway OO, I came to a small log cabin with a concrete floor and no running water. A few skiers were hovering by the fireplace, warming their hands. We were imbibing the tonic of the north woods, and we were also connecting to a noble past. A hundred and seventy-odd years ago, Scandinavian émigrés cut America’s first ski tracks in the upper Midwest, toiling over the undulating white land on long slabs of birch.

Skiing was utilitarian in those early days–a way for mailmen and deer hunters and traveling ministers to hack through the drifts. But it did not take pioneers long to apprehend the harum-scarum pleasures of racing. In 1907, the first U.S. National Cross-Country Championships were held on a nine-mile course in Ashland, Wisconsin, near Hayward.

Racing was a short-lived fad, though, and it wasn’t until 1973 that Hayward local Tony Wise conceived of hosting North America’s first cross-country ski marathon. Wise called his race the Birkebeiner in homage to Norwegian legend. It is said that in 1206, in the midst of a civil war, two warriors from a rebel group known as the Birkebeiners saved Norway’s infant prince, Haakon, by whisking him to safety through a mountain blizzard on skis. Haakon later became king.

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The Prince Haakon myth still looms large at the Birkie. In 2009, when Minnesota skier Matt Liebsch charged onto Main Street with a comfortable lead in the 50K skate, he paused just before the finish to scoop up his infant son, Grant, from the sidelines. He crossed the line with the boy in his arms, and the crowd went insane.

The hot spot of “Birkie fever” is the main hall of St. Joseph church on the night before the big races–the classic and skate marathons. The meal there is called a spaghetti feed, and fittingly so; when I visited after my warm-up ski, an industrial ambience prevailed, as though cattle were involved. More than 200 pounds of pasta was served. The stockpile of Styrofoam bowls on hand was impressive in itself, and in the kitchen, amid clouds of steam billowing from the dishwasher, small armies of gray-haired parishioners labored away, overseen by a man in a Green Bay Packers cap.

Out in the dining area, a vast buffet of desserts–cookies, brownies, slices of lemon meringue pie–sat atop a row of long folding tables like a huge pointillist artwork. The room was aroar with human noise (I overheard at least six conversations about ski wax), and the profusion of drab gray metal furniture lent a splendid sense of democracy to the proceedings. All present, elite skiers and hackers alike, were seated in cheap folding chairs beneath the harsh fluorescent light. When 2010 Olympian Caitlin Compton Gregg happened into the room, no one stood up and cheered. They just waited for her to pony up her seven bucks and chow down.

The cheers are saved for the next day, on the race course. The Birkie’s organizers start both marathon races in waves, with 200 elite men going first, followed by the elite women and 10 successively slower waves for each ski technique. I was slotted into Wave 2, which was awkward. I had come to Hayward strong enough to ski just a few minutes behind the lead packs in Wave 1, so on race morning, it was quickly just me and two other guys way out in front of more than 500 skiers as our wave clambered away from the start on a wide-open airfield. Spectators rattled cowbells as I skated by. Improbably, a few kilometers in, a man lurched from the woods, scrambling after me in his boots to urge me onward. “You’re running third in your wave,” he bellowed. “Third in your wave! Yes! Yes! All the way to town!”

I lunged up the hills, pushed off the crests to get speed, and glided going down. I stepped around the turns, poling hard. I felt strong–and also like part of a swarm. Every five kilometers or so, we skied into a feed station, and it was like coming to a thrumming little village. Volunteers stood trailside in the cold, stomping their feet as they held small wax paper cups of energy drink. Supervisors stood by, dressed in thick parkas, steam rising from their coffee cups. Party music blasted away–”Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Jukebox Hero,” that sort of thing–and there was a happy chaos of cups and pulpy orange peels underfoot. At one station, a cup somehow caught on the tip of my ski, where it rattled for a second before I plucked it off and kept going.

Barbara Klippel’s race, I would later learn, was a little less frenzied. It began with a prayer. A youngish friend of hers, Eric Maki, who had majored in Finnish at the University of Minnesota, huddled with her at the starting line, beseeching the Lord in Finnish. (“I don’t know how to pray in Norwegian,” he said later, apologetically.) Then Klippel began moving forward–deliberately, with an entourage. Her daughter, Sue Scheer, skied slightly ahead with Maki, checking for hairy turns and icy spots in the track. Another skier trailed Klippel, playing defense against racers who stormed up from behind. Early on, Klippel’s wax wasn’t working; her skis were scarcely gliding down hills. Scheer stopped and switched skis with her mom. “Our goal was to keep her moving,” she said.

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It was a long slog, though, and by Gravel Pit Road, at around 32 kilometers, the whole group was singing. They sang “If I Had a Hammer” and “Climb Every Mountain,” inducing nearby racers to join in the chorus. Maki began warbling in Finnish, and each time a semi-famous competitive lumberjack skied past (this happens frequently in Wisconsin), they shouted, “Yo ho!” When Klippel came upon a covey of former students in their 30s, they clustered jubilantly around her. “Mrs. Klippel!” they exclaimed. “Mrs. Klippel, you’re the best kindergarten teacher in the world!”

Klippel’s husband, Jim, who died in 2006, had no interest in skiing. His hobby was ice fishing, but every year, to humor his wife, he volunteered at the Birkie’s kilometer 44 aid station. “He’d wait for me there,” Klippel once told me. “He’d give me a kiss and a hug, and then he’d say, ‘I’ll see you at home.’”

I thought of the Klippels as I crossed a field and arrived at the 44K mark. I knew I was almost finished. The trail fed onto the ice of Lake Hayward, and soon, at around 49K, I was sprinting into the wind almost oblivious to the screaming trailside voices. I could see six or eight Wave 1 skiers ahead of me, weaving and slowing down, and I wanted to pick my way through them so I could ski unfettered up the narrow trail that came off the lake and cut left toward downtown. I passed them. I felt nothing but competitive hunger now. In photos I’d see later of myself crossing the finish line (and passing–yes!–one last skier), my face was contorted into the ugliest of grimaces. But it was a grimace of triumph. I finished in two hours and 37 minutes.

My prize for finishing 306th? Well, a beer, at least. A cold one, served in a Mason jar at a jam-packed bar called the Moccasin. Oh, the Moccasin! How to capture the ghoulish splendor of that screwball Valhalla? The Moccasin is not exactly a tavern. If you read the sign outside, it’s officially a “Wildlife Museum,” and various local hunting trophies–an albino deer, a golden eagle, a pheasant, a bear–sit taxidermied there inside backlit glass cases set into the wall like aquariums. The largest musky fish ever caught (67.5 pounds, landed by one Cal Johnson in 1949) is preserved for all time. Leinenkugel’s Original and Fat Squirrel are on tap, and these elixirs flowed profusely for a veritable who’s who of cross-country skiing. Skate race winner Tad Elliott was here, as was Olympic hopeful Colin Rodgers. I saw Nathan Schultz, a onetime hero on the legendary Subaru factory team, teeter away from the bar with a tray full of Jägermeister shots.

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I had reached the Moccasin while these luminaries were still there! I was so happy that, in the dark and the din of the bar, I lost all sense of time. Earlier I had made plans to meet Barbara Klippel out on the lake, to join her for the last triumphant push into town. But by the time I stepped outside into the warm sunlight and made my way to the lake, I could find nothing but glad confusion. The masses of Waves 6 and 7 were now toiling in, and some guy from Minneapolis had set up an impromptu free beer stand to greet them. “Do you want your can opened or closed?” he repeated as racers poled past him. I kept asking whether anyone had seen the race’s only helmet-clad senior citizen, and finally one man (who was very, very certain, albeit slightly toasted) insisted that Klippel had just gone by, minutes earlier.

I began flailing after her, heading toward town. In the process, I zoomed past a couple of straggling racers. I was no longer racing, of course. I didn’t even have a racing bib on, but this nuance was lost on some spectators, who were, let’s face it, on the tail end of a well- lubricated afternoon. “Awesome finish!” they shouted. “You’re killing it, dude!”

I gave up the chase. I slowed down and then (half in the bag myself ) drifted into downtown, and for maybe 50 yards I just kept skiing along Main Street. I felt light on my feet, the warm ardor of the crowd washed over me and my fellow skiers, and the sun on the snow was so bright, so undiluted, that the moment seemed pure. It was perfect joy.

I found Barbara Klippel, finally, the next morning, after she’d received a standing ovation at the Birchleggings breakfast. She had done it: her 20th Birkebeiner marathon. “I’m really not that tired,” she told me, “but this is my last Birkie. It really is.”

A few minutes later she was changing her tune–and toying with the prospect of traveling, a year hence, to Sweden, to take part in a 30K women’s race. “I’ll be 80,” she mused. “I’ll be in a new age group.”

But Klippel did not talk about skiing for long, because for her, the season was now officially over. The National Guard had reclaimed its armory, the ski-wax makers had decamped from the middle school gym, Main Street was once again just a street, not a finish line. “After the Birkie,” Klippel said, “I just put away my skis, and then I redecorate my house. I take down all my miniature snowmen, and I replace them with little statues of birds, to welcome the springtime.” A

CROSS THE WORLD ON CROSS-COUNTRY SKIS

The Birkebeiner is the U.S. stop on the Worldloppet, a prestigious global circuit of 15 cross-country ski marathons. Below are four other significant stops.

SWEDEN

The Vasaloppet is a race of superlatives. At 90 kilometers, it’s the longest Worldloppet event. Established in 1922, it’s also the oldest. The race pays tribute to the flight of King Gustav I, who, according to legend, rallied his people to independence while evading his Danish pursuers in 1520. vasaloppet.se

NORWAY

The Birkebeinerrennet, like its American counterpart, commemorates the winter rescue of a baby Prince Haakon. Competitors must don a weighted backpack that symbolizes the prince. birkebeiner.no

JAPAN

In 1986, the Sapporo International Ski Marathon became the only race in Asia recognized by the Worldloppet. Held on the second Sunday in February, the event coincides with the end of the Sapporo Snow Festival. www.shsf.jp/ski

AUSTRALIA

The only Worldloppet event in the Southern Hemisphere, the Kangaroo Hoppet takes place at the end of August. The 42K course sweeps over the Bogong High Plains in the state of Victoria’s Alpine National Park. hoppet.com.au

Get to know some of the Birkebeiner skiers who Bill Donahue met while participating in the race. Photos by Jake Stangel. This appeared in the January/February 2013 issue.