Every year, February has its can’t-miss events you circle or note on your calendar. The Super Bowl. Valentine’s Day. Sometimes Mardi Gras. And for skiers across the globe, there’s the Birkie.
The Slumberland American Birkebeiner, lovingly known as the Birkie, is North America’s largest cross-country ski marathon. This journey along the 32-mile trail from Cable, Wisconsin, to Hayward, Wisconsin, also ranks as one of the top three of its kind in the world. And even though the Birkie has become a worldwide cross-country skiing sensation, it started with humble—yet heroic—origins.
To understand this event, you must understand its heritage. The Birkie is rooted in history dating back to thirteenth-century Norway. During a civil war, the king’s infant son, Prince Haakon, needed to be transported to safety. A pair of skiers, called Birkebeiners because of their protective leggings, safely transported the eighteen-month-old across treacherous mountain terrain to a town many miles away. Haakon would eventually become a revered king who brought peace to Norway. To honor these skiers’ heroics, the first Birkebeiner ski race was created in 1932, and it’s been a Norwegian tradition for ninety years.
Forty-one years later, Hayward-born businessman Tony Wise discovered this story and was motivated to launch the American Birkebeiner, with thirty-five skiers participating in the 50-kilometer cross-country marathon, which was originally from Hayward to Cable. In 1978, Wise also founded the Worldloppet, an international governing body for cross-country skiing marathons, which the American Birkebeiner is part of.
A Skiing Mecca
Today, approximately 10,000 skiers from around the globe flock to Wisconsin every February to participate, and another 30,000 fans take in the event. (To put these numbers in perspective, the combined population of Hayward and Cable is around 3,000.)
Professional skiers love the challenge of the course. However, nonprofessionals are also welcome to take on the challenge, as long as they’re eighteen or older and know how to classic ski. Of course, the best professionals from around the world take on the Birkie, as evidenced by the forty-nine American states and twenty-seven different countries represented in 2020.
Skiers kick off the race at the American Birkebeiner Trailhead in Cable. The route then takes them through the forest, across Lake Hayward, and over the American Birkebeiner International Bridge all the way to the finish line on Main Street in Hayward, where throngs of fans cheer their arrival—an atmosphere one Olympic skier compared to the Olympics itself. It’s a grueling yet exhilarating experience.
Something for Everyone
The American Birkebeiner is the star of this show, but there are several other events to enjoy during Birkie Ski Week, which is slated for February 23–27, 2022. In addition to the main event, which features 50K (skater style) and 55K (classic style) races on Saturday, you can watch or participate in several other races based on age and skill level, including:
- Open Track—a casual, noncompetitive event that opens the festivities
- Barnebirkie—skiing for kids from ages three to thirteen
- Junior Birkie—individual and team races for kids ages eight to fourteen
- Prince Haakon—a mini version of the main race that’s ideal for first-timers
- Korte Classic—a shorter 29-kilometer race
- ParaBirkie—an adaptive event held along the main trail
- Barkie Birkie—a fun event in which pooches pull their pet parents
If you can’t make it to Birkie Week, you can always catch the action by live-streaming or watching replays of the men’s and women’s American Birkebeiner events on the organization’s official website. You can even get a firsthand view of the trails from the comfort of your home by taking a virtual tour. But wherever you take in the action, experiencing the vibe and excitement of the breathtaking Birkie is well worth your time.
For more info, visit birkie.com