In “Into the Woods” (January/February 2013), writer Bill Donahue participates in the annual American Birkebeiner—North America’s biggest cross-country ski hootenanny. Photographer Jake Stangel photographed some of the people who make the trek to tiny Hayward, Wisconsin each year.
Name: Susan Schneeman
Hometown: Lakeville, MN
Describe the Birkie in three words. Total mind-body extravaganza.
Advice for first-timers: You can do it!
Proudest Birkie moment: To cross that awesome finish line!
Number of Birkies: Two in the early 80’s and three in the past 3 years, so five total.
Name: David Ullman
Hometown: Madison, WI
Describe the Birkie in three words. Symphony on skis.
Proudest Birkie moment: During my first Birkie, an older veteran skier told me “Now that’s some of the nicest striding technique I’ve seen all day.” I guess he couldn’t tell I was still trying to figure out how kick wax works…
Number of Birkies: Four
Name: Kurt Gustafsson
Hometown: Brooklyn, NY
Best Birkie moment: Even though I was assigned as a Wave 5 skier for my first Birkie, I still ended in 11th place of starters for my wave overall, and qualified for being advanced up to Wave 2 next time. So not everyone is in it just to win, but there’s always a personal race within the race among each that starts.
No. of Birkies: One, but racing again in 2013!
Name: Brennan Kelly
Hometown: Rochester, MN
What I love most about the Birkie: It’s hard to pick just one (and #1 is the weekend away with the wife, sans kids). Here are a few:
A) The long downhills are a great reward after the big climbs—you just gli-i-i-i-i-ide.
B) The spaghetti dinner at St. Joseph’s.
C) Finally reeling in a skier who has been ahead of you for at least 15k.
D) The huge throng of people with a common cause.
Describe the Birkie to a newbie: I always call it the Boston Marathon of ski races.
No. of Birkies: 2012 was my 12th consecutive Birkie.
Name: Jim Tenorio
Hometown: Menomonie, WI
Best thing about the Birkie?: This Birkie was a very notable one for me. [Note: Six weeks before the 2012 race, Tenorio underwent surgery to have a cancerous tumor removed from his kidney]. Just to be in Cable and Hayward on race weekend is exciting. To be one of the racers is even better. Not a whole lot of people cross-country ski, which is a shame because it’s one of the best forms of exercise around. I’ve got to think that it kept me in good condition, which helped me recover from the surgery as I did.
Advice for newbie skiers: Don’t take it too seriously. If you do, you’ll miss out on having fun, enjoying the scenery of the beautiful Birkie race course, and soaking in the whole experience.
No. of Birkies: 33
Name: Pamela Cutshall
Hometown: Richfield, MN
Best Birkie moment: Skiing up Main Street in Hayward and crossing the finish line after having a perfect race in perfect conditions and a PR in 2009.
Describe the Birkie to someone who’s never heard of it: A crazy, wild trek through the North Woods with thousands of skiers who possess “sisu.” [Sisu is a Finnish term loosely translated as perseverance and acting rationally in the face of adversity.]
No. of Birkies: 5 times with a 6th coming in 2013.
Name: Oriana Zens
Hometown: Dalton, MN
What I love most about the Birkie: The Birkie is such an inspiring event. There are 7 year olds zipping around like pros, and 70 year olds passing you while climbing “Bitch Hill.” It’s always amazing to see such a diverse group of people come together as a ski community in good ol’ small town Wisconsin. What could be better?
What was your best Birkie moment: The first year, the weather was amazing and it was a gorgeous day for skiing. It’s nice to be able to enjoy how beautiful the snow covered trails are, listen to the support of the volunteers cheering you forward, and bond with fellow skiers.
No. of Birkies: 2013 will be my 4th Birkie.
Name: Alex Larson
Hometown: Hayward, WI
Best thing about the Birkie: During the three days of the event there is something for everyone, no matter the skill level or age.
Advice for newbie skiers: Get the k’s in, because it will be even more fun and enjoyable if you aren’t suffering through every kilometer.
No. of Birkies: 3 Kortes, 7 Junior Birkies, 10 Barnebirkies. I’m only 17, so I can’t do the Birkie yet (but I will next year!).
Name: Satchell Mische-Richter
Hometown: Bloomington, MN
Proudest Birkie moment: Last year, when I was slotted for the first wave and was able to start the race with my two younger brothers.
How would you describe the race to someone who’s never heard of it? The Birkebeiner is the biggest event of the year for Nordic skiers in the States. It’s a great social gathering, but it’s also a chance to race on some of the best Nordic ski trails in America.
No. of Birkies: Last year was my first Birkebeiner, and I’m currently registered for the upcoming 54k classic race.