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.