The more than two feet of snow that fell in early February chilled northwestern Wisconsin, but it warmed the hearts of some Chippewa Valley residents — the several hundred who annually ski the American Birkebeiner.
The windfall of snowfall has turned an iffy Birkie — trail conditions up north were marginal in January — into a Birkie that will have snow aplenty. The 45th running of North America’s largest ski marathon, from Cable to downtown Hayward, will be Saturday, with other ski events beginning today in Hayward.
Diehard Birkie skiers like Karen Possley of Chippewa Falls kept the faith throughout January. She persisted with her training, hoping along with the 10,000 other entrants from 49 states and 23 countries that there wouldn’t be a repeat of 2017 or 2000, when the race was canceled for lack of snow and other years when it was shortened.
“The Birkie organizers were getting a little anxious. With all the snow, Saturday will be a happy day in Birkieland,” Possley said.
The trail had about a 20-inch base and was in “fantastic” shape even before the snow that fell Wednesday, Executive Director Ben Popp said. There’s so much that groomers plan to plow off most of the new snow this week to keep the trail firm, Popp said. Additional snow is in the forecast for Saturday afternoon.
Possley, 63, will be skiing her 25th Birkie. She’s also completed six half-marathon Kortelopets. The Kortelopet, previously coinciding with the Birkie, was moved to Friday beginning last year.
Despite virtually no snow in the Chippewa Valley most of January and not a lot more up north, Possley feels she’s ready for the trek through the north woods and across Lake Hayward to the Main Street finish in Hayward. The retired Stanley-Boyd teacher took frequent trips in January to the Birkie Trail and to northern Michigan to train.
She’s done five races already this winter, including the 50-kilometer Noquemanon in Marquette, Mich., a race that was 17 below at the start. She’s done all 21 of the Noquemanons, many of them with Cheri Uelmen, who died in 2014, and Bob Burch, both of Eau Claire. Possley and Uelmen attended Northern Michigan University in Marquette.
Possley will be in the Birkie’s 55K classic, or striding, race like in recent years. She’s also done many of the 50K skate races. She likes both styles of skiing but says there’s something “beautiful and majestic” about the classic kick-and-glide technique in the narrow parallel tracks — when the kick wax is working.
Starting on a dare
What’s become an annual tradition for her began somewhat as a dare. A friend skied the Birkie back in the early 1980s, so Possley and others who were active in aerobic sports figured they could at least survive the Kortelopet despite little skiing experience.
After finishing it, she remembers thinking, “That was cool.”
Since that first Kortelopet, when wool still was the skier fabric of choice, Possley has been going back to test her level of fitness and her will against the trail’s unrelenting hills. The race, which has more than 4,500 feet of climbing, will even have a new hill this year, a permanent skier bridge crossing Highway OO east of Seeley, at about 22K.
“It’s one of the toughest races I can imagine. It’s not my favorite course. The tradition is what keeps drawing me back,” Possley said.
In the highly competitive Birkie, which draws serious citizen skiers from around the world, Possley placed third one year in her age class in the classic race.
“It’s a good way to keep fit, and you’ve got to have something to do in the winter,” she said. “Doing the Birkie is a really good goal. You’re preparing for it all year.”
Competing in triathlons, including a half Iron Man last year in Wisconsin, and running competitively over the years have kept her in shape when snow isn’t on the ground.
While skiing for the past 35 years, she’s also been active in the Eau Claire Ski Striders and as a youth coach in the region, of late with the Kick ‘N Kids program at Tower Ridge ski area near Eau Claire.
Possley hopes to keep doing the Birkie until at least age 68. That would give her 30 Birkies and would be the 50th anniversary of the event, which began in 1973 with just 35 skiers.
Poling is a freelance writer from Eau Claire.
BLOOMER —The Bloomer Police Commission met with Police Chief Jared Zwiefelhofer Wednesday night about three hunting citations that occurred in November, where he shot a buck with a gun in bow-hunting season, then initially lied to wardens about using the weapon.
Commission chairman Peter Gehring said they have received a formal complaint about Zwiefelhofer, and they will investigate the matter and discuss it at a future meeting.
Zwiefelhofer pleaded no contest to the three hunting citations on Feb. 5: improperly placing bait, possessing a deer killed without bow on an archer tag, and operating an ATV with a loaded firearm. As a result of the convictions, Zwiefelhofer’s DNR privileges are suspended for two years and he must pay $878 in fines and court costs.
The Leader-Telegram submitted an open records request to the Department of Natural Resources to obtain a copy of the incident report. The DNR provided a copy of the report Wednesday afternoon.
The complaint states that a hunter told DNR wardens he was in his hunting blind when he heard three gun shots fired together, then another single shot, on Saturday, Nov. 10, at approximately 3:50 p.m.
About five minutes later, a small, four-point buck limped by him, with blood trickling down one of its legs. At that time, the hunter sent a text to the DNR, telling them of a likely hunting violation. About 20 minutes after that, Zwiefelhofer approached his hunting blind and asked him he had seen the injured deer. Zwiefelhofer apologized to him and walked away.
The DNR warden arrived at the scene, and together with the eye witness, they followed the deer’s blood trail backward. They also came across Zwiefelhofer’s boot prints. They followed the trail back to Zwiefelhofer’s property.
Once there, they observed a pile of corn for baiting deer, and they also observed a trail camera. The warden seized the camera for evidence.
When the warden later interviewed Zwiefelhofer, he initially said he was hunting with a Ten Point Crossbow, and was just carrying his gun while hunting. He claimed he hadn’t fired the gun. He said he shot the deer with his crossbow.
“Zwiefelhofer stated that if he admitted to shooting the deer with a gun it would cost him lots of money,” the complaint reads. “Zwiefelhofer made mention that he was worried about getting in trouble and making the newspaper.”
The DNR warden later recovered the deer carcass. They found the archery wound, but also found a hole that matches a .223 caliber rifle, which is what Zwiefelhofer had in his possession. As they cut into the deer carcass, they found evidence of metal pieces that were consistent with bullet fragments.
The warden determined that Zwiefelhofer had indeed legally shot the deer with the crossbow at first, but then later shot it with a gun in an attempt to put it out of its suffering.
County board member Dean Gullickson, who is a retired DNR warden, spoke at the meeting. Gullickson was upset that Zwiefelhofer had told the DNR warden that he worked alongside a retired warden on the county board, without mentioning Gullickson by name. Zwiefelhofer said he had a low opinion of Gullickson and called him an “(expletive) liar.”
“I have no idea where this came from,” Gullickson said. “I have always been truthful with (him). I am shocked. That is unethical, to use that terminology. It borders on misconduct in office.”
Gullickson asked the Police Commission to fully investigate the matter.
Zwiefelhofer was named as police chief in August 2011. He started with the department as a reserve in 1992.
Last week, Zwiefelhofer announced he would step down as Chippewa County Board chairman, effective at the March 12 meeting. He plans to remain on the board. Zwiefelhofer was elected as chairman last April, and has served on the board since 2010. He wrote a letter of apology to the board for his actions.
It is unclear if he will continue to serve on the county’s Legal & Law Enforcement Committee.
CHIPPEWA FALLS — The Gordy’s Market Inc. grocery store in Ladysmith has officially been sold.
Chippewa County Judge James Isaacson approved the sale of the store during a short court proceeding Wednesday morning. Isaacson said the sale allows the store to maintain operations without interruption.
“These groceries have a short shelf life,” Isaacson said. “The employees need to keep getting paychecks. This is best for all involved.”
Receiver Michael Polsky — a Milwaukee-based attorney appointed to oversee dissolving the grocery chain and selling off its assets in the wake of a $46.2 million lawsuit filed by a food distributor — reached the agreement earlier this month to sell off the assets of the Ladysmith store, located at 400 W. 9th Street.
Polsky wrote in a court document that GMI had already “engaged in extensive negotiations with Great Lakes Foods LLC regarding a purchase agreement for the sale of the Ladysmith assets.”
Polsky met with Great Lakes Foods and its affiliate, Ladysmith Food & Beverage, and reached an agreement to sell the business for $27,000 plus the value of the inventory.
As part of the agreement, the new owners will hire “substantially all” of the employees.
Five other Gordy’s Market Inc. grocery stores will be auctioned off March 6: Chippewa Falls downtown, Chippewa Falls on Lake Wissota, Barron, Cornell and Chetek. The Eau Claire store on Clairemont Avenue, which closed and later re-opened, is not included in this lawsuit, as Gordy’s Market does not obtain its groceries for that store from food distributor Nash Finch.
This was the final hearing before the auction, and Gordy’s Market did not file any last-minute motions in an attempt to stop the auction from occurring.
Lauren Stanley, an attorney in Polsky’s office, attended the court proceedings Wednesday, and she confirmed the auction will take place as scheduled at the law offices of Godrey & Kahn in Milwaukee on March 6. Isaacson will then review and likely approve those auction results at a hearing in Chippewa County on March 8.
Polsky “filed a motion to sell substantially all of the assets of Gordy’s Market Inc., free and clear of all liens,” a court document reads. “The receiver will accept qualified bids from qualified bidders for certain GMI assets.”
To become a qualified bidder at the auction, a company must include an earnest money deposit of $100,000, which Polsky will place in an escrow in a non-interest bearing account. Qualified bidders must submit their deposit by March 1 to be eligible to participate in the auction. Companies wishing to bid on the five stores should have an appointed agent attend the auction. Bids for portions of a lot will not be considered.
The auction will be done in rounds, with each company having 15 minutes to submit a bid, the court document states.
Polsky has set a deadline of April 24 for any creditors of Gordy’s Market to enter claims with the court if they see to participate in any dividends.
In the Nash Finch lawsuit, the food distributor claims that Gordy’s Market owes a total of $46.2 million — $43.2 million in a rebate-able incentive, a $1 million note, and $1.9 million in accounts receivable. The company contends that Gordy’s Market “has no excess cash to get caught up on its delinquent balance,” and the grocery chain is on the verge of insolvency.
When Will Andresen and his two children take off from the starting line of this year’s American Birkebeiner cross-country ski race Saturday, they will travel back in time to honor a deceased family member who was proud of his Norwegian heritage and skiing.
The trio, which in addition to the 58-year-old Will, his daughter Carolyn Warren, 29, and son his son David, 31, will leave their modern skis and lycra suits at home and suit up instead in the clothing Norwegian warriors would have donned 800 years ago. They will be among the more than 10,000 skiers as they re-enact the rescue of a young prince in 1206, who was carried to safety over mountains by warriors in the midst of a civil war.
Whether the young prince’s mom, Inga, skied along with them is unclear, but in this modern re-enactment, Inga, played by Carolyn, will be there. Her six-month old son, Axel, will make a late appearance as Prince Haakon, as they all ski down Main Street in Hayward at the conclusion of the 34-mile route.
As they ski that route, David and Carolyn, who, along with their dad, live in Ironwood, Mich., said they will be thinking of their Norwegian heritage and their bestefar, or grandfather, the late Karl Andresen.
Karl, who grew up in Norway, was a political science professor at UW-Eau Claire and one of the original skiers in the Birkebeiner. He founded the Eau Claire Ski Striders club, which promotes cross-country skiing, and helped design the cross-country trail system at Tower Ridge in the town of Seymour just east of Eau Claire. The system recently was named for him.
“We thought it would be a cool tribute to him, and for our Norwegian heritage,” Carolyn said. “It will kind of feel right to have a different type of Birkie experience.”
People depicting two warriors and Inga are selected to take part in the race each year through an essay contest, with the previous year’s warriors and Inga determining the winner. They serve as race ambassadors, attending numerous events that take place during the days before the race, said Nancy Knutson, communication and marketing director for the Birkebeiner..
Now that the half-distance race, the Kortelopet, has been moved up to Friday, last year’s warriors and Inga skied that 29- kilometer race, as well as the full-length Birkebeiner on Saturday, chatting with skiers along the way.
Knutson said she was in downtown Hayward a couple years ago when Inga and the warriors skied in and the crowd cheered.
“You would have thought rock stars had just appeared on the scene,” she said of the audience’s enthusiastic response.
Will grew up in Eau Claire, then attended Northern Michigan University at Marquette, Mich., where he competed on the cross-country ski team. As a skier, he also developed an appreciation for the snow belt of the Upper Peninsula, where air flowing over Lake Superior picks ups moisture that falls as snow.
After graduating from Northern Michigan, Will went to Ohio for graduate school, then worked in lower Michigan for eight years before finding his way to Ironwood, Mich. and the snow belt.
Carolyn and David both grew up in Ironwood, but neither initially shared their dad’s enthusiasm for skiing. They had to move away from home before appreciating the activity and all that snow. Carolyn’s high school sports were basketball and volleyball. She skied a few times each winter with her dad. When she came to school at UW-Eau Claire, she played soccer her first year.
After college, she taught at Eau Claire’s Lakeshore Elementary School for a couple years, but when the opportunity came to move back to the snow belt, she took it. She is currently a first-grade teacher in Ironwood.
Similarly, David, was involved with the family in Birkebeiner events growing up, but he played basketball in high school and his main snow sport was snowboarding. He went to Northern Michigan, like his dad, but his sport was soccer. However, he began to cross-country ski more at Marquette.
After college, David and his wife, Kierstin, moved to the Twin Cities, but they missed the snow country of the Upper Peninsula. “When we lived in the cities, it was kind of a culture shock. I wasn’t used to brown Christmases or brown Thanksgiving,” he said.
When the chance arose, the moved to Ironwood.
Will said the trio had discussed applying to be Inga and the warriors, and this year they had a real baby to play the prince. However, he didn’t bring it up because both Carolyn and David have been skiing at a high level since returning to the snow belt, and they might not want to take a year off from competing seriously in this year’s Birkebeiner.
For the first time David had qualified to start in the elite wave, which required finishing among the top 200 men in the skating category.
“It would have been an advantage to start in the elite wave, but he’s giving that up,” Will said. “I’m proud of him for being able to make that sacrifice for the greater cause.”
David said that he initially had his heart set on starting in the elite wave, but balancing careers and spending time with his children — three-month-old Sten, and Annika, who is nearly 3 — doesn’t leave much time for training.
Annika is scheduled to ski in the Barnebirkie, a children’s race at Hayward, where she stands to win a medal, and more importantly, a cookie, if she finishes. Kierstin, her mom, will ski the Kortelopet. Carolyn has also started in the elite wave, but she skied the Birkebeiner a little slower last year because she was three months pregnant. Her doctor told her it was OK to ski as long as she kept her heart rate low.
In the essay required to audition for the role of the warriors and Inga, Will wrote that of all the Birkebeiners he has skied, the most memorable was the slowest. The course took 9 hours to complete the year Will accompanied his father on his 30th and final Birkebeiner.
Karl, then 79 and in frail health, skied against doctor’s orders. Many of other skiers wanted to chat with him along the course. He was conspicuous in a red founders bib with the number 1. But he was too winded to talk in most cases.
By the time they got to the last part of the race, a stretch across a frozen Lake Hayward, “it was getting lonely,” Will recalled. As father and son continued their way across the lake, they were greeted by Eau Claire skiers Dave Weiss, Karl’s longtime canoeing companion; his son Steve Weiss; and Steve Sletner. The skiers formed a moving windbreak in front of Karl and escorted him across the lake.
The upcoming Birkebeiner will likely be his second-slowest ever. The race organizers have recommended they cover the course in about six hours, which allows time for chatting along the way.
Now Will wants to repay the kind spirit exhibited by those skiers. The essay he wrote concludes: “This year, we want to be the ones who support our Birkie friends as they ski by in their own race journeys, honoring the past and celebrating the moment, along with Karl’s two infant grand-grandsons, Axel and Sten.”
Knight is the Leader-Telegram’s former outdoors editor who lives in the town of Seymour