When snow starts to accumulate in northwest Wisconsin, Lynn Larson slips on his boots, grabs his cross-country skis and poles, and heads for a groomed trail south of Cable, Wis. (pop. 836).
“When the sun hits the snow crystals after a fresh snow, it reminds me of a line from a Bob Dylan song, ‘I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it,’” says Larson, pastor of the Cable United Church of Christ.
For 15 years, Larson, who learned to ski while growing up in southern Minnesota, has participated in North America’s largest cross-country skiing marathon—the American Birkebeiner—which has been held in the Cable area each winter for more than a quarter-century. This year’s marathon is scheduled for Feb. 23.
Larson once finished the 51-kilometer (32-mile) marathon with a broken hand and one ski pole, another time with skis of two different lengths and colors, and on a third occasion with his boots lined with birch bark to plug the holes.
“It’s in the genes; I don’t have a choice,” says Larson, whose eight great-grandparents all immigrated to the United States from Norway.
Larson trains for the marathon on 136 miles of groomed trails in the Cable area. Typically, snow starts to fall in northern Wisconsin in mid-November, with up to 30 inches accumulating each winter.
Cross-country, or Nordic skiing, first arrived in northwest Wisconsin with the Scandinavian settlers, who used it for transportation more than a century ago. The American Birkebeiner, popularly known as the “Birkie,” is based on hundreds of years of Scandinavian skiing tradition.
The late Tony Wise founded the marathon in 1973 at the Telemark Lodge in Cable. He got the idea for the event from the Birkebeiner Rennet, a citizens ski marathon held in Norway since the 1930s.
“The race commemorated the heroic rescue of the infant king-to-be—Haakon Haakonsson—by skiing Vikings called Birkebeiners,” says Phil Van Valkenberg, who worked for Wise in the late 1970s and early ’80s and now is vice president of marketing at Telemark Resort.
Birkebeiners were named for the protective birch bark leggings they wore. The word literally means “birch legs.” Skiers who’ve competed in 20 American Birkebeiners become eligible for the Birchlegging Society, says Shellie Milford, assistant director and registration coordinator for Cable’s annual event. In addition to a plaque and pin, these skiers are recognized by their special purple race bibs and priority starting line positions in each of the 11 waves of skiers beginning the race.
Larson once carried the ashes of an area resident, Wilmer Hasset, whose last request before his death was to be able to complete his 20th Birkie. Hasset was awarded the honor posthumously.
At the first American Birkebeiner, 34 men and one woman were on the starting line for the 32-mile marathon from nearby Hayward, Wis., to Telemark Lodge in Cable. Today, the race starts in Cable and finishes in Hayward, drawing up to 7,000 skiers from around the world.
In the early 1980s, when the race fell on hard times because of poor snow and economic conditions, residents of Cable and nearby Hayward came together and formed a nonprofit foundation to continue the Birkie. The group has organized the event ever since.
“The Birkie is strongly supported and could not happen without all the local volunteers,” says Naomi Shapiro, who lives in nearby Clam Lake and has handed out snacks to Birkie skiers in years past.
Two thousand volunteers are needed for all manner of jobs from office work and souvenir sales to manning food and aid stations, massaging sore muscles, and helping with timing results and award ceremonies. Some area residents with extra rooms open their homes for lodging.
“It’s everyone in the community, not just a business person who volunteers time,” explains Kathy Rasmussen of Lakewoods, a fourth-generation family owned resort in Cable.
Larson concludes: “If you’re not skiing, then you’re volunteering.”