On Monday nights in January and February at Tower Ridge Recreation Area, the parking lot is full and the ski trails buzzing with young, rosy-cheeked cross-country skiers, approximately 175 of them.
This week, the Kick ‘n Kids and Chippewa Valley Nordic programs were canceled because of icy roads in the region. Maybe the night off came at a good time. Many of the kids and their 25 volunteer coaches have another big day of skiing coming up — this weekend’s American Birkebeiner.
About half the coaches are veteran Birkie skiers, and many of the youths from the two programs will be up north as well with their families. Birkie events are today through Saturday in Hayward and Cable.
North America’s largest cross-country ski race casts a long shadow. One hundred miles to the south, it’s at least partly why the sport continues to grow in popularity in the Chippewa Valley.
Chris Gorzek of Eau Claire, who heads up the Kick ‘n Kids program and was one of its founders, credits the Birkie for getting him interested in the sport.
“The Birkie is how I got involved in cross-country skiing in the first place,” Gorzek said.
“I was super excited about it from then on. The Birkie was the fuel for everything that happened after that,” said Gorzek, who will be doing his 27th Birkie this weekend.
Kick ‘n Kids began in 1994 and has grown to 134 skiers. Another 40 skiers are on Chippewa Valley Nordic ski teams.
With their experience and skills gained via hundreds of miles skiing the Birkie and other trails, the youth coaches like Gorzek have passed along their love for the sport to the next generation of skiers, including their children.
Beth Hougen of Eau Claire also has been coaching with Kick ‘n Kids since it began. An Iowa native, she fell in love with the sport as a Birkie skier soon after she moved to the area.
She’s done 25 Birkies and will be going for No. 26 on Saturday, but now she gets as much satisfaction from teaching the sport as she does from crossing the Birkie finish line.
“The kids are just wonderful. They are a lot of fun and really want to go. It’s important to get them off the couch and keep them active. That’s why we volunteer. We want them to enjoy a sport that could become a lifelong habit — and a good habit,” Hougen said.
Chippewa Valley Nordic coach Ted Theyerl of Altoona will be skiing his 30th Birkie on Saturday and doing so with his son Christian attempting to complete his first one. Ted’s older son, Ben, was one of the top area finishers in the Birkie two years ago and now skis at Colby College in Maine.
“The Birkie has kept many of us in cross-country skiing — really lengthened that out — and enhanced how we felt about the sport,” Theyerl said. “I got to the point where I was looking for the next thing, and that’s where coaching came about.”
Chippewa Valley Nordic includes high school and middle school teams for boys and girls. The high school boys took fifth place recently in the state championships.
Youth ski volunteer Laura Ecker of Eau Claire will be doing her 15th Birkie this weekend along with her husband, Archie. Their son, David, and daughter, Aubrie, will be in the Korte and have been racing with Chippewa Valley Nordic all season.
“It’s nice to work with the kids and get them excited about skiing,” Laura Ecker said. “Our numbers have grown.”
The Birkie has become a great way for the Ecker family to cap off a winter of racing on weekends in Minnesota and Wisconsin. David Ecker took third in the recent state high school meet.
“I did the Birkie the first year I learned to ski,” Laura Ecker said. “It’s a great tradition and a great challenge. Once you do it you feel like you have to go back.”
Other area Birkie veterans like Carl Walter, Sue Lindstedt, Karen Possley, Arlyn Stertz, Bill Barry, Bob Burch, Frank Lowry, Alex Popp and Lars Long also are dedicated coaches with the youth programs.
Many former Kick ‘n Kids and Chippewa Valley Nordic skiers also have moved up to the full Birkie, often with their parents. One former racer, Ben Loomis, made the U.S. Olympic team this year in Nordic combined.
The local youth skiers and volunteers embrace the Birkie motto: ski, run, bike, live.
“You meet up with a nice group of people you like to share your time with, like-minded people who enjoy the fresh air and being outside,” Hougen said.
And, once a year, they get together to ski 30-plus miles through the woods in northern Wisconsin to celebrate the sport they love.
Poling is a freelance writer who lives in Eau Claire.