Without official timing or records for the short ski course, an area near the end of the route turned into a gathering area last year for those who attended the American Birkebeiner.

One year after being canceled for only the second time in its history, the 44th annual American Birkebeiner not only is back but is returning bigger and better than ever with more skiers and race improvements.

In 2017, the cross-country ski race from Cable to Hayward was called off after a week of temperatures in the 50s. “Everyone was disappointed,” said Ben Popp, executive director of the race, citing skiers, volunteers and race staff.

This year “old man winter is showing up, and we’re ready to do some skiing,” Popp said enthusiastically earlier this week. “Winter didn’t start off well, but it’s really come around the last few weeks. We’re going to have great ski conditions.”

The Hayward-Cable area received several inches of snow earlier this week, adding to a solid base on the trail of four to eight inches. Temperatures for the coming days, in the 20s and low 30s, look ideal, with more light snow possible.

“It could be one of those perfect Birkie forecasts,” Popp said, noting that pleasant temperatures also are welcomed by the 2,500 volunteers and the 20,000 to 30,000 spectators.

About 13,500 skiers — including several hundred from the Chippewa Valley — are expected to take part in the various events starting today. They include about 7,000 skiers in Saturday’s 50K freestyle and 54K classic Birkie and close to 3,000 in Friday’s 29K Kortelopet.

Registration for the Birkie was capped in December, but the estimated 13,500 overall participants still will set a record, Popp said. So much for the cancellation dampening race enthusiasm.

“My favorite part of the race is seeing everybody come to town and just having a great time. Staff and volunteers take so much pride in the event and what it means to the community. The payoff in the end is you realize the work you do is meaningful and purposeful and really changes people’s lives,” Popp said.

In some regards, this year is the start of a new era in Birkie history with several improvements.

The Kortelopet is being held the day before the Birkie for the first time. Previously Korte skiers started with Birkie skiers and looped back to finish near the start line.

The Korte start line has changed to the Highway OO trail crossing, east of Seeley, and the race will finish in downtown Hayward for the first time — giving the half-marathon entrants the thrill of coming up Main Street.

“A lot of people are skiing the Korte for the first time at the new start area. Over time, we’ll actually have room for bigger numbers in both races (by having them on separate days),” Popp said.

The Birkie has a new permanent start area as well, on land purchased by the race foundation. The new start is near the old Telemark Lodge start line, outside of Cable. It includes a building where skiers can get out of the cold while awaiting their wave starts, instead of huddling in a heated tent.

Other changes this year include new and/​or improved permanent structures at food stops along the year-round multiuse trail and a widening of the international bridge where skiers cross over Highway 63 downtown. The wider bridge, over all four lanes instead of two, will improve traffic flow during the races.

“We’re looking for continuous improvement to make the race more relevant to skiers, to enhance that experience,” Popp said, noting a capital fundraising campaign that has made many of the changes possible. “We’re creating an infrastructure to make the Birkie sustainable over time.”

The 13½-foot-high bridge recently was featured in downtown Minneapolis during Super Bowl week. It started going up on Tuesday in Hayward, and workers also were ready to connect it with Main Street with 65 dump truck loads of snow.

The race has drawn entrants from 49 states — only Oklahoma is missing — and 36 countries, including elite skiers from Europe who usually challenge for the title. An American won in 2016. Minnesotans represent 41 percent of the skiers and Wisconsinites 40 percent.

The American Birkebeiner is the largest cross-country ski race in North America. Founded by Tony Wise, it began in 1973 with 35 skiers, including three Chippewa Valley residents, John Kotar and the late Karl Andresen and late Dave Landgraf.