What of the Birkie’s plan for a new start area? It is an interesting idea, with several pros, and several cons. The obvious reason that the Birkie needs to change the start area are several logistic ones. And while, obviously, the Birkie needs to work with what is best for the future of the race, it also must consider the continuity of its race and various externalities from dramatically moving the start of the race. The Birkie has decided to develop the new trailhead while keeping the start at Cable Airport “as long as possible” but it seems that intransigent landowners could make that not a particularly long time. This is written assuming the course is moved away from Cable Airport at some point in the future.
- Hearing request (Bayfield County, PDF)
- Map of new trail (PDF)
- Birkie press release
- Overview map (Google maps), Better imagery (Bing maps), Birkie Trail map (to Mosquito Brook, Gmap-pedometer)
This page thinks, in general, that these changes are a good idea, and we will go over several of the spoken and unspoken pros and cons of moving the start.
First, reasons to move the Birkie start from Telemark to a new start area near Highway 63:
The new trailhead would eliminate the need for the course to travel over privately-owned land. Starting a few years ago, the Birkie was forbidden to allow skiers between the start line and the start of the power lines, except on race day. This was of no real consequence, as the trail could be accessed from other trailheads. However, other portions of the northern part of the trail lie on private land and the landowner has requested exorbitant fees for its use; the new start would lessen the possibility that a landowner could pull their trail easement and disrupt the race course. Moving the race course towards full public ownership would certainly be beneficial.
Part of the privately-owned land is, of course, owned by Telemark Resort, the fortunes of which have been a bit of a roller coaster in recent years. The race has always been tied to the fortunes of the resort, and it has been used for pre-race and race-day activities, but they have been moved twice in the last decade due to financial issues at the resort. Telemark is unlikely to regain strong financial footing any time soon, and the Birkie would, logistically, like to have less connection with the troubled resort.
Telemark also lacks enough parking for nearly 10,000 racers, and, therefore, parking is in Hayward with frequent buses to Telemark. The resort, however, is at the end of a long, winding road, and there is enough parking there that many vehicles are allowed in and clog the road with traffic on race morning. Traffic in to Telemark is one of the biggest issues with the race, and while it generally works well, it is not ideal. Moving the start would both allow for better busing over a shorter distance. in addition, with much more limited parking, other vehicles would not be allowed in and traffic would be significantly less. The Birkie has to bus approximately 10,000 people to the start over a period of three hours, with an average of 50 skiers per bus, it breaks down to about one bus per minute. With enough loading and unloading spaces, these buses could flow freely if not mixed with other traffic. Finally, without the warmth of Telemark, fewer late-wave skiers would be enticed to show up very early and crowd the buses, freeing up space for all. Perhaps the Birkie could even construct a trail from the parking lots to the start; many skiers could be enticed to ski the 1k or so to the start rather than wait on a long bus line.
The new trailhead would also be more accessible to skiers on days other than race day, which in a good winter is 100 days a year. It would add several miles of ski trails to the region, and further enhance the Cable area as a regional center for nordic skiing. Going forwards, it could be developed in to an access point for backcountry lodging opportunities.
Two other issues regard the start area. One is in regard to snow cover. In 2007, when the race was shortened, there were far better snow conditions in the woods than at the start. Even in years with good conditions, there is often grass poking up through the snow. The windblown airport location is harder to maintain even snow cover, and, while it provides a wide start area, the snow is often an issue. Relatedly, the start is staged on an otherwise active airport runway, albeit one snow-covered for winter. Authorities as high as the FAA only allow the airport use one day a year, perhaps one reason why the Birkie and Korte are not staged on separate days.
These are obviously all good reasons that the Birkie should move the start. It takes place on a thinly-covered active airport runway next to a nearly-bankrupt hotel with limited parking at the end of a narrow access road. But there are several mitigating factors which would point towards keeping the current start at Telemark.
The first reason is one of history. The Birkie has always gone from Telemark to Hayward, or (before 1992, in alternating years) Hayward to Telemark. Moving the race would disrupt that continuity. It would also move the start from a defined place to a field, much like the Mora Vasaloppet. Moving the start to downtown Cable would be fantastic, however, it would be logistically more difficult and require a crossing of the Namakagon River (now “crossed” on frozen Lake Hayward).
One lack of this sense of place is the fact that the new start would lack a permeant structure. While Telemark may move in and out of financial relevance, it is a large, permanent structure which is generally usable for race headquarters, skier warming and congregation during the two-hour-long start process. A new start would require enormous tent, or likely several. And during cold years (see 2011) it might be quite miserable for starters waiting for several waves to go out.
Busing to the start will also raise a new challenge. Most Birkie traffic comes from Hayward, from the south. This traffic is turned in to Como Field and the buses depart northwards towards Telemark. The new start is south of Como Field, and buses would be required to leave the Como lot and cross the line of lot-bound traffic twice in their trip to the start, and then sit in the lot-bound traffic on the way back. The race will need to find adequate parking to the south of the new start (preferably on the right side of the highway), use Como for skiers from the north only, and run buses on the relatively-empty stretch of highway in between.
Beyond the start, the proposed new trail will climb several hills in the first few kilometers of the race, including a 100-foot climb less than a kilometer from the start. The current race climbs major hills along the power lines right of way, which allows it to use the tremendous width to avoid major bottlenecks. A 30 foot trail width early in the race course will not suffice for the start; 30 meters would be more appropriate. However, it would be a good chance (excuse) to shake up the start and reapportion the wave sizes so that there were ten evenly-sized waves with 400-500 skiers each, rather than the top waves nearing 1000 with the trail waves seeing only a few hundred skiers. In addition, the early hills provide a major challenge early in the race, separating the proverbial “men from the boys” (and women from girls). Hopefully the new course will continue to provide this challenge (it appears that it would).
Finally, this could be a further nail in the coffin of Telemark. The resort is able to charge high rates for the week of the Birkebeiner since it provides the only trailside lodging, and occupants can simply wake up and walk to the start. With a bus ride or 5k ski between them and the start, Telemark will have to drop rates considerably (although they’ll surely still be full the weekend of the race).
With the Birkie set to go forward with this construction, we hope that they construct a high-quality trail which, if it is required to carry the race in the future, will be able to accommodate thousands of skiers.