The country's largest cross-country ski race, the American Birkebeiner, surrendered to Mother Nature on Friday and canceled this weekend's premier race, delivering a gut punch to thousands of skiers, race organizers and western Wisconsin towns that depend on the annual economic boost.
A weeklong brush with springlike weather destroyed snow-covered trails that had been in near-perfect racing condition a week ago. But organizers and skiers held out hope Thursday that an incoming storm would give them what they needed for Saturday's races, which were expected to draw 11,200 skiers from 40 states and 23 countries.
"As of now, we barely have 10 snowflakes on the ground from it," said Ben Popp, executive director of the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation. Organizers inspected the trails Friday morning and called off the race for only the second time in the Birkie's 45-year history. The last time it was canceled was in 2000. Weather has forced the 50-kilometer course to be shortened several other years.
On Friday, with 7,000 skiers already in the Cable and Hayward areas, organizers scrambled to make the best of a bad situation, not only for those who made the trek to western Wisconsin, but for the restaurants, bars, lodging and other businesses that count on the revenue.
"Yeah, they're all here, so we just have to figure out a way to get them out on skis, get them out on snow and have a big old party and enjoy the Birkie family," Popp said.
With a winter wonderland turned to mush and puddles, Birkie crews hauled snow from wherever they could find it, including from dirty snowbanks at the nearby airport. "It's crappy snow, but we'll take anything that slides," Popp said. "We're stealing every piece of snow that we can find to try to build up a 6-kilometer loop for an open ski so people can get out on the trail and to the Birkie party at the start line," Popp said.
Even with the will to salvage a winter weekend hit by spring, disappointment hung in the air.
"It's unfortunate," said longtime Birkie skier Steve Skarvan, 58, of Mahtomedi. "As an athlete and participant, you anticipate the Birkie all year long. This race is a culmination of all your efforts."
Skarvan originally planned to ski his 15th marathon this weekend but dropped to the shorter Kortelopet race because a lack of snow this season meant a lack of training. But the 29-kilometer Kortelopet also was canceled.
"Fundamentally for me, it is such a great event — get into the North Woods and experience all that the area has to offer," he said. Skarvan said the recent uneven winters had him and others discussing whether the annual Birkie weekend should be moved to an earlier date in hopes of more winterlike conditions.
Popp has heard similar suggestions but believes moving the race to an earlier date would hurt other regional races and the towns that depend on them. Not only would the Birkie conflict with those races but it could cut participation in those that would come after it. Many skiers end their season with the Birkie, Popp said.
Instead, organizers could take steps to withstand unseasonable weather. The trail surface could be smoothed because it would take less snow to cover it and snow-making equipment could be bought, Popp said.
"If we had a mountain of snow right now we might be able to move it to 20K worth of trail," he said. "The Birkie is a big part of these towns' fortunes, and we have to make sure this event happens year after year."
A 2013 University of Wisconsin study found that skiers, bikers and runners pour $15 million into the three-county region around Hayward.
Skiers, snowmobilers and those who ride fat bikes help drive the winter economy, said Chris Ruckdaschel, executive director of the Hayward Area Chamber of Commerce. But the Birkie delivers the biggest one-weekend punch for the tourist-dependent community of 2,300 people, he said.
The racers bring families and friends, swelling the towns with another 40,000 to 45,000 people, he said.
But with the race canceled, businesses will see fewer people. The hit likely will be softened because many skiers were already in town when the plug was pulled. Other skiers will arrive Saturday to use reservations that can't be canceled, Ruckdaschel said.
"People understand you can't change Mother Nature," he said. A festive atmosphere emerged on Friday as racers probably realized that "they're not going to have to ski 50 kilometers on Saturday," Ruckdaschel said. "The Birkie is not for the faint of heart."
Duane Lee, an 18-time Birkie finisher, began training in September, doing intervals and long workouts on roller skis, skiing loops on man-made snow in the Twin Cities and traveling to northern Minnesota and Michigan where snow fell more abundantly.
"Your whole season is geared up for [the Birkie]," he said. "It's definitely a big letdown."
But like other skiers, Lee will trek to Ironwood to ski on snow-covered trails this weekend but stay and spend money in the Cable-Hayward area.
"[The Birkie] is more than just a race," he said. "It's a get-together with friends and family and other racers. We want to support the local community that works so hard on this."
Steve McCormack, a Birkie and Kortie veteran from St. Croix Falls, Wis., also didn't let the lack of snow keep him from the area. Donning hiking boots instead of skis on Friday, he walked the trails along the Namekagon River.
"It's beautiful," he said. "There's just a dusting of snow on the trail. It's beautiful."
Staff writer Bob Timmons contributed to this report.