Over the past 24 years, William Johnson and Roxanne White haven’t missed the fabled American Birkebeiner cross-country ski race in Hayward, Wis.

But they haven’t skied a single kilometer in any of those marathon races through the northern Wisconsin woods.

Johnson, 66, and White, 62, are among the 2,100 volunteers from the region and beyond who power North America’s largest cross-country ski race.

More than 10,000 skiers (from 49 states and 36 countries) and as many as 30,000 spectators will flood into tiny Hayward (pop. 2,300) and nearby communities for this year’s 44th Birkie and two other shorter races Feb. 23-24.

Coordinating the 50-plus-kilometer Birkie race from Cable, Wis., to Hayward, the 29K Kortelopet and the Prince Haakon 15K race requires volunteers like Johnson and White.

Lots of them.

“Oh, my gosh, if we didn’t have the volunteers, we couldn’t put on the race,” said Ronda Tworek, head of volunteer and participant services for the nonprofit American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation, which holds the races.

The foundation only has about 15 paid employees, so volunteers are responsible for everything from directing traffic to handing out food and water at trail aid stations, to distributing awards at the finish line.

Included are about 300 medical volunteers to tend to injuries or health concerns in a grueling race that can humble even the most prepared skiers.

“It’s a huge event, not just nationally but worldwide, and it all happens because an army of people who volunteer to make it happen,” said Ben Popp, executive director.

“They want to make our little area of northern Wisconsin shine on the world stage, so they come and volunteer,” Popp added. “It’s so unbelievable.”

Said Tworek: “Being a volunteer is a way to experience ‘Birkie Fever.’ ”

Language isn’t a barrier

Johnson and White live in little Frederic, Wis. — about halfway between the Twin Cities and Hayward. Both have been involved in various bike races over the years and appreciated the volunteers they encountered.

“It was my way of giving back,” said White. “It’s very rewarding — just an amazing thing.”

Johnson echoes those thoughts. “The skiers are so appreciative,” he said.

Johnson cross-country skis, but never got into ski racing marathons and has never skied the Birkie. White doesn’t ski. “I made a valiant attempt, but I don’t have a good sense of balance,” she said.

Both started working the Birkie in 1994, and later became chiefs at the Gravel Pit aid station, about the halfway mark of the Birkie. (They are among more than 50 race chiefs.)

They are in charge of the station and the 40 to 50 volunteers who staff it.

“It’s my responsibility to make sure I have enough volunteers,” said Johnson. “I spend the better part of all year touching base with people.”

Many return yearly.

It’s organized chaos at the station as thousands of skiers pour through.

“We go through 450 gallons of water and we have 12,000 paper cups available,” Johnson said. “We also go through eight or nine cases of bananas and four cases of oranges.” A sports drink also is served.

Volunteers do more than hand out fuel to skiers. They offer encouragement, emergency repairs and console those who drop out of the race. They point the way to the medical tent, if needed.

The number of foreign skiers, many from Scandinavian countries, adds to the international flavor. Johnson hangs flags of many of those nations at the aid station to welcome them.

“Discouraged Norwegian skiers may say something that sounds like ‘dreet lump,’ “ Johnson advised his volunteers in a fact sheet he distributes. “It’s an expression of frustration and mildly profane. Politely agree.”

Said White of the Birkie: “It’s just an incredible experience.”

Volunteer pride

Getting 2,000 volunteers each year is a challenge, but many, like Johnson and White, make it an annual event.

“They come from all over — Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, Ohio and elsewhere,” said Tworek. “The majority come back each year. About 25 percent of our volunteers are new every year.”

Many just volunteer their time. But the Birkie Foundation also pays a nominal amount to nonprofit groups to bring volunteers. Those groups can use the Birkie as a fundraiser.

“It’s a neat way to bring groups of people in to help us out,” Popp said. “It’s a win-win for us and the organizations.”

But it’s not just one day of work for some volunteers. Some have been working for weeks to prepare for the race. “We had chief meetings back in July, and we had volunteers coming in early January,” Popp said.

At the end of the day, the success of the Birkie for skiers and spectators is dependent on the volunteers. Those visitors are most likely to interact with the volunteers.

“When people say they love the Birkie, it’s a reflection on the volunteers, not the staff,” Popp said.

Meanwhile, some volunteers, like Johnson, keep on giving before and after the Birkie.

“I groom our local ski trails,” he said.


Doug Smith is a retired Star Tribune outdoor writer. He’s at doug.smith23@charter.net.