For whom the bells toll: Parish helps Hayward host Birkie

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Skiers in the Feb. 23 American Birkebeiner ski-marathon race to the finish on Main Street in Hayward as thousands of spectators encourage them with cheers and cowbells. (Photo credit: © American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff
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When the Hayward community welcomes tens of thousands for the American Birkebeiner ski-marathon each February, St. Joseph’s Catholic Parish has a front row seat and VIP status.

The Birkie, as the American Birkebeiner is popularly known, is the largest ski-marathon in North America, and part of an international federation to promote cross-country skiing, the Worldloppet. Comprised of the best ski racing around the world, each of the 20 countries on the Worldloppet circuit is only allowed one race location.

Located in the Hayward-Cable area, the American Birkebeiner trail covers more than 100 kilometers. The Birkie race course is 50K for classic Nordic skiing and 55K for skate or freestyle.

Pastor of St. Joseph’s parish, Fr. Gerard Willger, receives a text message when the elite skiers are on Lake Hayward, making their way toward the International Bridge and Main Street finish line. Fr. Willger then starts ringing the church’s bells – along with two other churches – to announce the lead pack is approaching the finish.

But ringing the bells is just one of many ways the parish is supportive of and involved in the continent’s largest cross-country ski event.

Marketing and Communications Director for the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation
Nancy Knutson said, “We are grateful to St. Joseph’s parish and their staff for their ongoing support of the ABSF.”

Under the leadership of Executive Director Ben Popp, the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation does much more than organize a world-class ski race. Over a five-day period, Birkie Week events are held for all ages and levels of Nordic skiing experience – all under the organization’s mission statement.

Its purpose is “to promote and conduct the finest international cross-country ski competition; to serve as good stewards of the American Birkebeiner Trail; and to support healthy and active lifestyles among people of all ages and abilities.”

Thursday events include the Barkie Birkie Skijor, in which the athlete is attached to a dog by belt and towline; the Barnebirkie, in which 1000 skiers ages 3-13 participate and celebrate with medals, cocoa and cookies; the Junior Birkie for 6-10 year olds who race 1.2K, 3K or 5K courses; and other fun ski events held on Hayward’s Main Street, where more than 68 dump truck loads of snow are groomed.

A ski expo with dozens of vendors takes place Thursday and Friday at Hayward High School.

On Friday, there are adaptive races for sit-skiers, standing adaptive and visually impaired skiers; the Kortelopet, which is a 29K event; and the 15K Prince Haakon, in honor of the infant future king of Norway, whose rescue by Birkebeiner (which means birch-legged referencing the birch leggings they wore) warriors skied him to safety during a Norwegian civil war in 1206.

The headliner event takes place on Saturday. Skiers start at the trailhead near Cable and follow the legendary trail until skiing across Lake Hayward, up the International Bridge, which spans four lanes of Highway 63 in downtown Hayward, and crossing the finish line on Main Street.

Final events on Sunday focus on ski and fat bike demonstrations.

This year, Olympic champion Kikkan Randall was present for the week, racing the Birkie as honorary starter and participating in a Fast and Female Champ Chat on Sunday, which sought to encourage and inspire young female athletes to embrace a healthy, active lifestyle.

“The event is a huge part of our community and region,” Popp said. “It enables and inspires a year-round lifestyle that is active, healthy and outdoors! Our goal is to promote a multi-generational experience that gets people young and old excited about embracing the silent sports and promoting a way of life. Promoted around the world and embraced by the global ski community, the benefit it brings to our region is far beyond just an economic boost, but an opportunity to showcase to the world what Northern Wisconsin is all about!”

For 2019, there were approximately 13,500 registered skiers with a total of 40,000 visitors for the various events. The long weekend brings in an estimated $4 million of spending, a major boost to the local economy.

A 2014 study showed silent sports, including cross-country skiing, bring in almost $15 million annually to Ashland, Bayfield and Sawyer counties.

Forty-nine of the 50 United States were represented, all but Oklahoma, along with 23 countries: Norway, Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, France, Germany, Austria, Poland, Switzerland, Italy, Russia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Taiwan, Japan, Australia, Brazil, Canada and the U.S.

Acknowledging the “amazing things that St. Joseph’s does for the Birkie,” Knutson added, “St. Joseph’s is in the heart of the Birkie action, and they have long collaborated with the ABSF by generously allowing access to facilities, properties, participating in the celebratory ringing of the bells, and by feeding many a hungry skier at their annual spaghetti feed.”

The Friday meal, organized by parishioner Dawn Leuthe, is the longest-standing spaghetti feed to help skiers “carbo load before the big race.” Knutson noted the hours were expanded this year to include Kortelopet skiers and spectators.

St. Joseph’s Parish Center is the location for the official Birkie Press Conference after Saturday’s race, as well as dorm-style housing for the Birkie’s ski patrol.

Fr. Willger also appreciates his invitation to the annual VIP party Wednesday evening of Birkie week, as well as the privilege of being asked to say the opening invocation at Friday morning’s international breakfast for the elite skiers and supporters of the Worldloppet.

In his weekly bulletin commentary from the weekend prior to and of Feb. 22-23, Fr. Willger noted, “This is one of the biggest weekends of the year for Hayward. If you are a visitor, welcome. I hope your experience was great, safe and rewarding. If you are a year-round resident, thank you for your flexibility, hard work, understanding and support.”

He shared that every year, he hears many appreciative comments for all that the St. Joseph parish provides for the entire community.

“We are proud of what northern Wisconsin has to offer,” he added. “I am proud to be a part of this parish, because we have such great people like you who work so hard in providing so much care to our guests. I say thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Another astounding Birkie statistic is the number of volunteers it takes to coordinate all the events and activities. According to the ABSF, there were more than 2,800 volunteers for 2019.

One of those is a parishioner at St. Joseph’s and long-time Birkie participant Joe Timmerman. He spoke with the Catholic Herald while helping serve the Friday afternoon spaghetti feed.

After reaching his goal of becoming a “Birchlegger” – attainable after skiing 20 Birkebeiners – he decided, “I’ve done this race for 20 years, I’ve lived off these volunteers, it’s time to give back.”

Six years ago, he and wife Eileen (“Bean”) stepped up to run the registration and start of the Barnebirkie kids’ event. He likes watching the next generation of skiers and their families enjoy outdoor activities together – “Kids are getting out there, they’re not just getting screen time.”
A retired forester for the DNR, Timmerman moved to Hayward in 2000 but has been participating in the Birkie he figured since 1989.

“I love living here!” he said, and mentioned he never complains about the tourists. “This is why we have nice restaurants, things to do and places to go – it’s not local money that supports this stuff.”
Timmerman was on the ABSF’s Board of Directors for eight years, many of which he served as treasurer. He remembers when the Birkie budget hit $1 million.

“It’s now at $3.5 million,” he said, crediting Popp for most of that.

“He is the consummate idea guy and fund-raiser… He’s golden, unbelievable,” Timmerman praised.

He shared that Popp has been able to get the right people involved and broadened the Birkie from one race to a year-round lifestyle. The organization’s tagline is “Ski. Run. Bike. Live!”

One way they promote this is through sponsorships and developmental grants. According to the organizations website, birkie.org, the ABSF had awarded more than $490,000 to cross-country ski programs across the country through 2018.

Popp and wife Megan exemplify their commitment to the Birkie lifestyle through their own involvement with silent sports in the Spooner area. The couple, who have twins sons in seventh grade, help coach both middle school cross-country running and ski teams, assist with the same high school programs and have helped grow the “Rails on Trails” youth ski program.

An estimated 100,000 visitors use the Birkie trail annually. And the year-round healthy and active lifestyle that the ABSF works hard to promote brings more than just visitors to the region — it brings some of them home.

Margie Schull is the secretary and bookkeeper for St. Joseph’s parish. She was cheering on her 27-year-old daughter who raced in Friday’s Kortelopet. A physical therapist who had been living and working in the Twin Cities, Schull’s daughter changed employers and moved back to Hayward, motivated by her love of the silent sports and the lifestyle the area offers.

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