Fresh snow. Northwoods vibes. Winter athletes. And lots and lots of cowbells. Simply put, there is nothing quite like the American Birkebeiner & Kortelopet. As the first- and second-largest cross-country ski races in North America, the "Birkie" and "Korte" are truly world-class. Take it from me: If you haven't experienced the "greatest show on snow," then you are seriously missing out. Here are just 10 reasons why Birkie Week ought to be on your bucket list:
- It's basically the Super Bowl of Silent Sports.
In 2018, about 13,500 skiers from 49 states and 36 counties made their way to northwestern Wisconsin to take part in Birkie Week. And there's roughly another 25,000-30,000 spectators who flock to the area just to take in the excitement and cheer on the racers.
- Cross-country skiing is liiiife here.
I confess: As a kid, I didn't understand the excitement behind cross-country skiing. Now? Different story. Whether a classic or skate skier, cross-country skiing is both challenging and rewarding. And for those there to cheer on racers instead of strapping on skis? It's a total thrill to watch!
- The Birkie Trail is world-renowned.
A big part of the appeal of this four-day festival of winter fun is the trail itself. The Birkie Trail is over 100 kilometers long and draws skiers, runners, hikers, and bikers year-round from casual-trippers to elite superstars. The Trail has nine trailside cabins complete with wood stoves and running water – no wonder the Birkie Trail was named the No.1 cross-country ski destination in the nation!
- Olympians get their start here.
When I was in town filming the Birkie for Discover Wisconsin, I met up with 2018 U.S. Olympian Annie Hart, who got her start in Hayward participating in the Barnebirkie, later the Kortelopet and eventually, the Olympics. This race is serious business.
- There's something for everyone. Really!
The Birkebeiner is a 50-55k race. So let's not kid ourselves: It ain't for the faint of heart. But luckily, there are plenty of other options for those of us who aren't quite ready for the big leagues. The Kortelopet 29k (or "Korte") is essentially the "half-marathon" of the event. Starting in Hayward and ending in downtown Hayward, it's approximately half the distance of the Birkie. What's more, there's the Prince Haakon 15k and for kiddos, the Junior Birkie and Barnebirkie!
- The finish line is EPIC.
Both Birkie and Korte skiers end their races by skiing toward the finish line on Main Street in downtown Hayward. As a spectator, I have to admit, every one of them looked like a total rockstar.
- The history is fascinating.
In 1206, Torstein and Skjervald, two Birkebeiner warriors, smuggled a baby prince to safety (on skis) during a Norwegian Civil War. Then, in 1973, 35 brave souls paid homage to the "Birkebeiner skiers" of 1206 by donning their own skis for a 50-kilometer trip from Hayward to Telemark Lodge in Cable. Details here for my fellow history nerds!
- The volunteerism is beyond impressive.
Clad in orange vests, there are more than 2,600 volunteers who work tirelessly to make sure logistics are runnin' smoothly, and skiers and spectators are participating safely.
- Location. Location. Location.
Let's be honest: How many reasons do you really need to visit the Cable-Hayward area? Mehhh, not many if you ask me! Northwest Wisconsin is the epitome of the "Northwoods" and the views are particularly unique in February. (Just make sure you pack a few extra layers...)
- Two words: BIRKIE FEVER.
If there's one question I got asked more than any other while I was in town, it was, "Have ya caught Birkie Fever yet?!" It's a real thing, people. It's intense. It's palpable. It's very contagious. And yes, I did catch Birkie Fever. I'll catch ya on the Kortelopet route in the near future 😉
Have you attended or raced at the American Birkebeiner? If not, would you? Comment below!
Mariah Haberman is a host and the director of Discover Wisconsin, the state’s leading media brand. Watch the show Saturdays at 10 a.m. on FSN Wisconsin’s outdoor block or online at DiscoverWisconsin.com. Follow Mariah on Facebook (facebook.com/mar1ahha3erman) and Instagram (@MariahHaberman)