Can A Ski Race With 800 Year Old Roots Survive 21st Century Winters?
Like many winter sports, Wisconsin's American Birkebeiner cross-country ski race is facing climate change induced headwinds
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It was on the first hill, locked in a tight formation with hundreds of other skiers, all clad in matching purple jerseys and assorted skin-tight racing gear, our skinny nordic skis chunking in inelegant wedges over the snow, that I began to think that I might have made a huge mistake.
I was just minutes into the American Birkebeiner, the longest cross-country ski race in North America, which winds through 50 kilometers of woods from the very small town of Cable (population: 206) to the not-quite-as-small town of Hayward (population: 2,500) in the northwestern corner of Wisconsin. What was I doing there? It was a question I asked myself many times that day. (Along with, “What if I die here?,” as I muscled up yet another incline, gasping for breath with my face frozen.)
For the last seven years, I’ve worked as an environmental journalist. I’ve reported on how climate change is making life harder for cranberry growers, the injustice of coal ash pollution in the southeast, those attempting to cash in on a warming Arctic, the ocean scientists trying to find climate solutions. It can be a depressing job, documenting the ongoing chaos and the looming danger on our planet. And—much to my surprise—it’s turned me, a lifelong New Yorker, into an outdoorsy person.
My anxiety about the future and my knowledge of the present have made me want to spend as much time connecting to nature as I can. I’ve become someone who can’t stop moving. I try to take advantage of every nice day, to hike all the hikes and swim in new bodies of water. Part of me knows this is silly: humans are a part of nature, and the future world will still be full of beauty. It will still snow, somewhere, on a warmer planet. But I also fear the inevitable losses, and I want to make sure I get a chance to appreciate the incredible and unlikely accidents of evolution and physics that have made Earth the way it is.
So when some friends told me they were planning to ski something called “The Birkie,” I didn’t ask many questions; I just said I was in. I did my research later, mainly while on the course. (I do not recommend this approach.) The Birkie, I eventually learned, has “some of the…most challenging terrain of any trail system in the world,” according to Worldloppet, the international federation of cross-country ski marathons. It has about 4,600 feet of elevation gain, in the form of “rolling hills,” a description that now feels like a prank.
What happens to a place, and the people who live there, when the events that mark their calendars are no longer predictable and reliable?
I learned to cross-country ski in 2016. I don’t do it well, or often. Reliably snowy, cold winters have largely faded from New York City, and cross-country skiing is becoming less and less possible within a few hours’ drive. The Northeast is warming faster than the global average, particularly during the winters. To train for the Birkie, my husband and I took two trips to Vermont. There was so little snow that we could barely ski either time. We resigned ourselves to laps around a small section of a golf course.
I cross-trained as much as I could, making the most of New York’s record-warm winter by going for long runs in Central Park. Even that was fraught: I was grateful for the mild temperatures as a runner, but I had a hard time quieting my bubbling anxiety when I woke up to another April-like day in early February.
The Birkie, and other winter activities like it, depends on the synchronicity of human time and climate time. I read a study a few years ago about how old agricultural proverbs in Spain weren’t useful anymore because they described a climate that no longer existed. What happens to a place, and the people who live there, when the events that mark their calendars are no longer predictable and reliable? How will we adapt to shifts in the cultural practices that make us human?
The origins of the Birkie date back more than 800 years. In 1206, two loyal followers—known as Birkebeiners, or “birchbark-leggings-wearers”—of the recently deceased Norwegian king, Haakon Sverresson, scooped up the toddler heir apparent to the throne, and carried him to safety on skis across mountains and forests in the middle of a civil war. Since the 1930s, Norwegian skiers have honored that trip with a 54-kilometer ski race from Rena to Lillehammer called the Birkebeinerrennet.
In 1973, Wisconsin entrepreneur Tony Wise created his own version, the American Birkebeiner, which runs each year on the last Saturday in February. When Wise put on the first Birkie, there was a reliable 17 inches of snow and the average high temperature was around 27 degrees Fahrenheit. This year, the average high rose to 29.4. From mid-February until days before the race, temperatures jumped up 10 degrees above average, replete with days of heavy rain. Wisconsin might not have headline-grabbing climate-change impacts like more intense and frequent forest fires or hurricanes. But all is not well in the Dairy state. It’s experiencing warmer winters, more floods, and more droughts, all of which are upending the normal rhythms of life.
“All of our seasons in Wisconsin are warming,” said Steve Vavrus, the state climatologist, “but winters are warming faster than any other season since the middle of the 20th century.” In addition to that, northwestern Wisconsin, home of the Birkie, is warming more quickly than any other region in the state.
In 2000 and 2017, the Birkie was canceled because there wasn’t enough snow. The date, distance, or direction have been changed eight times because of warm weather, winter rain, a lack of snow, or open water on Lake Hayward, which was historically frozen, allowing skiers passage to the finish line.
This winter has actually seen more snow than average, Vavrus said. The problem is the warm days in between, which melt the snow. The lack of snow cover decreases what’s known as the albedo effect, or the extent to which a surface is capable of reflecting sunlight, and therefore heat, back to space. As snow melts, less heat is reflected off the earth, our planet warms, and more snow melts—a vicious spiral. (Of course, the consequences of this extend far beyond a cross-country ski race: reduced snow cover is forcing the snowshoe hare north, where its white winter coat still provides camouflage; forest soil that whips between thawing and frozen makes it harder for the logging industry because the soggy ground can’t handle the heavy equipment.)
For much of my time on the course, I was totally alone and it was quiet. The birch trees creaked in the wind; the hills were unbroken white waves.
Like many cross-country and downhill ski areas across North America, the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation, which puts on the race, recently acquired a snowmaking machine. The foundation figured it was essential to the Birkie’s future, even if the race just takes place on a five- or ten-kilometer loop some years, says Blair Flickinger, the head of marketing for the foundation. “We’re investing to ensure that the sport can continue in Northwestern Wisconsin.”.
Olympic gold medalist Jessie Diggins grew up in neighboring Minnesota, and dreamed about competing in the Birkie. “The idea that we could very easily lose it is really sad,” she says. But she also finds it motivating, because of how much is at stake, and all that still can be done to save it. “When you dedicate your life to something, you want other people to be able to experience it too,” she says. In the last few years, she has become an advocate for climate action, through the organization Protect Our Winters.
Even though I don’t depend on this particular stretch of our country for my livelihood or survival, it matters to me that it’s there, a healthy ecosystem for all its residents, human or not. “All flourishing is mutual,” wrote Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braiding Sweetgrass.
I didn’t exactly flourish during the Birkie, but I was grateful for the chance to try.
The day of the race was clear, bright, and cold. It had snowed 5.8 inches in Hayward the Thursday before the race and then stayed cold, with enough time to groom the course to a sparkling, firm corduroy.
That’s not, however, what it looked like by the time I got there, on the heels of thousands of other skiers, almost all of whom had been through the course by the time I started in the final of eight waves, which is reserved for first-timers. The waves begin about five minutes apart and the fastest skiers finish in just over two hours. Shortly after I started my full-day odyssey, the fast people were already finished.
During my many hours on the trails, I discovered that Wisconsin, though famously flat, is actually a land of mountains. Where were the open, gentle hills of dairy farms and wheat fields I was promised?
I inched up and down the course, wiping out on the ice luge-like downhills while some drunk snowmobilers filmed me and laughed. Periodically an elderly gentleman would speed past, only for me to catch him while he rested on the next uphill climb. “We meet again,” I said when I pulled up beside him for the umpteenth time. He laughed. He was 81 years old, he told me, and this was his nineteenth Birkie. Then he took off.
I tracked him down a few days later, after I got home. Tom Smith, from Lakeville, Minnesota, has raced in the Norwegian Birkebeiner, as well as the Marcialonga in Italy and Germany’s König Ludwig Lauf. He didn’t start competing until he turned 51. He told me about his childhood in Duluth, where Lake Superior froze every winter and the baseball field was covered with snow until his birthday in the middle of May. He’s planning to do the Birkie again next year. He hopes his grandchildren and great-grandchildren will get a chance to race it, too.
For much of my time on the course, I was totally alone and it was quiet. The birch trees creaked in the wind; the hills were unbroken white waves. When the sun winked through the bare trees and sparkled on the snow and I had a chance to breathe in the cool air, I no longer worried about dying on the course. Instead, I thought of the Wallace Stevens poem “The Snow Man”: I felt that, for the first time in my life, I had what Stevens calls a “mind of winter.”
Finally, after seven hours, there was a clearing. I passed by the last of the birch trees and pines and slid onto the smooth, flat, frozen surface of Wisconsin’s Lake Hayward. I heard the distant clanging of cowbells, mixing with cheers from people, somehow still standing along the course as the sun began to set. The sky was full of tie-dye swirls of electric pinks, purples, and oranges, and the temperatures were settling back down to the single digits.
On the lake, my cross-country skis began to skate in a rhythm, something that had eluded me for much of the day. I felt like I was flying. Eventually, I heaved myself up over the final hill to the finish line—laughing hysterically, my face in my hands, looking for my friends on the sidelines and unable to believe it was actually over. Out of 3,855 skate skiers, I came in 3,839th, finishing just a half-hour under the eight-hour cut-off time.
My friend Nick, the champion of our group who had crossed the line several hours ahead of me, said that when he got to the end he “couldn’t imagine spending another second on skis.” I didn’t have to imagine: I got to spend close to 10,000 more seconds on skis than he did, almost as much time on the course as the rules allowed–a different kind of victory.
But all that extra time felt like a gift to me, a chance to move through this calm expanse of land. As I crossed Lake Hayward, the only flat portion of the race, I felt so incredibly lucky to live on this planet in a moment in time in which this is all possible.