Traveling from Afar

Every year, hundreds of skiers trek from places like Minneapolis and Madison and Menomonie to the Birkie. For them, they get in their car, stay somewhere, ski the race, and drive home. Easy as blue wax over binder on a cold day with fresh powder.

Then there are the people from Boston, Burlington, Boulder and Burbank (okay, not sure about Burbank). For them, it’s a bit tricker, what with rental cars, lodging, plane tickets and the like. More like a day that starts with a snow, then goes to rain, and then, right when your race is about to start, freezes solid with a washed out track (no, I am not repressing memories of the 30k at Nationals in Rumford in 2004), or a day with icy, klistery tracks where an inch of wet snow blows through right as the race starts (a race two months later), or … well, you get the picture. As someone who’s skied the race from both ends of the geographic (wax) spectrum, here are some suggestions on what to do if you’re coming from further away.

Arrive Early. This is a suggestion frequent to the rest of the guide, but it is especially important if you’re flying in or driving a long distance. A snowstorm anywhere along your route can severely crimp your style. Tim Donahue—of the illustrious Manhattan Nordic Ski Club and their sweet subway map ski suits (and a fellow Macalester grad to boot)—was sidelined by a blizzard in 2010. Flying in Friday is folly, but if you must, get a morning flight in. Thursday is far superior. And check the weather. If snow is expected, most airlines will waive change fees. Get on an earlier flight if your flight looks iffy. Call in sick to work. You don’t want to miss the start.

Book a hotel really early. If you’re reading this, it’s too late to book somewhere to stay. For 2018. Hayward and Cable host 20,000 visitors on Birkie Weekend. Hayward and Cable have a combined population of about 3000. So there are not enough hotel rooms. We answer this in more detail elsewhere but the general deal is to plan early, look further afield, or suck it up and sleep on the floor at the Middle School. (Or camp in a tent at the start: I know people who do this. Okay, a person.)

Fly to MSP. Or DLH, MSN or EAU. Basically, MSP is a big hub for Delta, and you can fly there direct from pretty much anywhere (with the exception of places like Montreal, Portland Maine, Burlington Vermont and some small towns out west). Sometimes it’s not even really expensive (especially when Sun Country has their annual Cyber Monday sale and Delta often matches; if you can plan that far in advance, it’s usually a cheap flight!). It’s less than three hours from Hayward, so a multiple-hop flight elsewhere won’t save you any time and probably cost more. MSN has a decent number of flights and is sometimes a lot cheaper, but it also happens to be an hour and a half further from Hayward. Duluth and Eau Clare are closer, but they are tiny airports. DLH only has service to ORD, MSP and DTW on United and Delta (an improvement over a few years ago when they only had the flight to MSP) and is usually more expensive. EAU only has flights to Chicago on United. Each is a bit more than an hour and a half from Hayward.

Flying with skis is easier than you might think. Airlines haven’t (yet) started charging hundreds of dollars for skis, probably because a lot of gravity skiers provide a lot of business flying to Jackson Hole and the like and would balk at $150 fees for ski bags. While ski bags aren’t free (unless you have free bags with an airline, and if you check bags twice a year, round-trip, it’s worth paying credit card fees for the bags) they are subject to regular baggage fees.

But here’s the rub. Most airlines consider a ski bag a pair of skis in a bag and a boot bag. What is a boot bag? I have no clue. I say that it’s a bag with boots in it and generally don’t get any guff. I often pack other things in it, too. Gravity skiers have big boots and big bags, so you can get away with packing two pairs of boots and some clothes in there. It’s worth buying a boot bag for two reasons. First: they’re big. You can put a bunch of stuff in there, and your boots on top. Second: they look like boot bags, so you don’t have to argue with the agent about whether it’s a boot bag or not. Or cut out a Salomon logo and glue it on to a bag. Boom. Boot bag.

Can you just put your boots in a random bag and call it a boot bag? Sure. For a while, I used an old fabric briefcase as a boot bag. It got some looks from airline employees, and maybe once I had to open it, but it worked. When I saw a boot bag on sale at a ski shop at the end of the season, though, I jumped at the opportunity. Since it looks like a boot bag, I now have a much larger bag, and never get asked questions. If you put things other than boots in a boot bag, they can charge you for an extra bag. The best policy is to avoid that question altogether.

So: use the boot bag. Don’t abuse the boot bag. Mine has two wings that fold out and would let me damn near carry a wax bench inside. I generally keep them zipped shut. Why? Because if I showed up with a chock-full boot bag that was obviously not just boots, I might wind up paying extra, and the airline might become more vigilant at looking for not-just-boots boot bags. (My favorite reaction from an agent: “now that’s a boot bag.” She went on to explain how people would try to check huge duffel bags as boot bags. I chuckled along with her, not mentioning the half-dozen non-boot items in mine.) In any case keep it within reason.

On United, at some large airports, they’ve gone to a “print your own bag tag” scheme. To check skis, select two bags, and then say you have an “exception item.” This will show skis and boot bag, select that, and wait, as it will prompt a visit from an employee. (Since you still have to go show your ID and boarding pass to a person, I don’t understand how this actually saves time or money, but I’m sure a consultant was paid a lot of money to come up with this process.) They scan an employee ID to approve your exception item, and you put the tags on your bags. On Delta, I have not seen this setup yet, so you get to talk to a person. I haven’t flown on American or other non-legacy carriers with skis … yet.

I’ve also had an agent refuse to check the two items as one (this was in Oslo, of all places; half the people in line had ski bags). If this happens, be courteous, but firm. Pull up the airline’s policy on your phone. Read it to them. Gum up the line. If they still refuse, pay the money, save the receipts, and then demand a refund from the airline. But if you are steadfast in your “this is your policy, please follow it” stance, you shouldn’t have any issue.

The author's Triacs wrapped in Darn Tough socks. (You really should get some Darn Toughs.)

The author’s Triacs wrapped in Darn Tough socks. (You really should get some Darn Toughs.)

For packing your skis, here are some tips. First of all, wax them before the race as much as possible. You don’t want to have to fly with an iron and a bunch of waxes and a form unless you want to pay a lot of baggage overage fees. If that happens, pay someone to wax your skis in the Midwest. But, especially if you’re skating, you should be able to throw on most of your wax at home, and then do the final scrape and coat in Birkieland. Definitely leave a layer of wax on your skis in your bag, though, and scrape them when you get to Wisconsin.

Second, you can cram multiple skis in to your ski bag. (Airlines have policies on the number of skis which you can check which vary by company, but as long as you’re in one bag, you should be fine.) So bring classic skis if you want (remove any klister), an definitely a pair of warm-up skis (don’t bring these to the race, though, but for days before while your wax is drying or your final coat is on) and whatever else. You may want to wrap something soft around the tips (and, if you’re otherwise short on space, stuff some other clothes in there for padding). But I think that’s unnecessary. My general thinking is that skis are pretty hard to break if they’re in ski ties in a ski bag with the tips wrapped. If you have a huge bag and they’re just flopping around, then you probably want them to be secured with clothing or … more skis. If they’re snug, they’re probably fine: skis are pretty hardy.

Now, poles. A lot of people worry that they will break all your gear, and, frankly, they might. Skis are hard to break: you have to have someone run them over with something or take a massive spill or ski in to a tree (been there), but a bag being placed on them is probably fine (considering that they can handle your body weight thousands of times during a ski race). So that’s the deal. People have tricks to help with this, but if they run over your ski bag with a baggage cart, there’s not much you can do (other than file a claim and buy new skis). It’s a risk you take flying. (Or buy a hard shell ski case for several hundred dollars, but I’ve traveled with skis dozens of times to no ill effect.) If you want, you can wrap clothes around your skis and poles to try to soften blows. (I generally do this, at least for poles. My latest technique, shown above, is to tie all my socks in knots around the poles. It’s also an excuse to bring a lot of extra socks.) Some people find foam cylinders to put around the poles: probably a good idea. Some put poles in PVC pipes: not a bad idea, but they wind up taking up a lot more room. You’re taking a risk. The key to managing risk is to understand risk …

Boots are easy. One #Protip: you can put bottles of New Glarus in your boots so it doesn’t break on the way home.

Claim your bag at oversize luggage. That’s where it should come out. If you see your bag going around the carousel, grab it before someone’s oversized suitcase comes down and crushes your CT1s to smithereens. This shouldn’t happen, but I’ve seen it and gone sprinting across the terminal and climbing on to the carousel (not kidding at all) after my bag because someone put the ski bag in the normal queue.

Finally, it’s sort of luck-of-the-draw about how much staff know about ski bags. Some baggage agents don’t know that boots and skis qualify together as one piece of baggage, some will talk your ear off about skiing (especially in Minnesota; I had a great conversation once with an airline employee whose child was on the ski team at high school and loved it). MSP is pretty good with skis, actually, since they see a decent number of skis come through. (In 2008 or 2009 or whenever JOs were in Houghton everyone flew to MSP and I was picking up a friend at the airport and there was a pyramid of ski bags waiting for vans. This doesn’t quite happen for the Birkie, but you are probably not going to be the only one with skis.)

Stay Hydrated. The most important thing that you can do once you’ve checked your skis in to the airport is to keep your water bottle filled. Once you’re on the airplane, there will only be one drink service, and you don’t have to run back and forth begging for a bit more water. Oh, and it’s really dry on the plane. Bring your own water bottle; you need to stay hydrated before the race.

The trick here—the secret, as it were—is that the TSA has no problem with empty water bottles: they only care about the full ones (that apparently blow up airplanes). When you’re waiting in security, drain your water bottle (preferably in to your belly, otherwise in to a receptacle). Stash it in your bag and go through. Once you’ve cleared security, find a water fountain (or if you’re coming from Boston or Milwaukee: a bubbler) and refill your water bottles. Long flight? Bring a couple of bottles; I’ve easily gone through a liter in two hours. It beats buying $4 water bottles at the airport (that’s money you could spend on wax, or beer).

Rent a car. Luckily, weekend car rentals are cheap. I’ve never paid more than $100 for a four-day rental for the Birkie. MSP has rentals right at the terminal, and they agents usually will make a comment about you and your ski bag (something like “oh, yah, another one of you going up to the ski race”). You don’t need four wheel drive. If it’s snowing, the roads will be slick, but it’s not like there are a lot of hills to navigate on the way to the race. By which I mean it’s really flat from Minneapolis to Hayward. If you’ve never been to the Midwest before, it’s really flippin’ flat. (The race isn’t but the roads sure are.)

Driving to Hayward is the topic of much discussion. Google Maps will send you via 35E to 8 to 63. That’s a solid route, but sort of conservative. Usually 35 to 70 is a bit faster. If you want to take I-94 to highway T to 12 to 63, that’s an option as well. If you want mostly interstate-caliber driving, going via Chippewa Falls is a bit longer, but has faster speeds the whole way. If and when the Stillwater Bridge is built (in time for Birkie 2018?) it will change the equation considerably, since the highway already extends northeast in to Wisconsin a ways. But that’s a few years off.

Go skiing not in Hayward. There are options for skiing in Birkieland, and they are tending to leave the trail open later in the week (it used to close Wednesday). However, if there is snow in the Twin Cities (or Duluth) there are many fantastic ski trails to ski on right in town. And you came to ski, right? If you’ve never experienced skiing in the Twin Cities—and especially if you are coming from somewhere without good local ski trails—set your jaw to dropped. Timberland on the way up in Cumberland is a good option to break up the drive. That is, if there’s snow. If there’s no snow, the Twin Cities can be pretty depressing in the winter.

There are, according to Skinnyski, 53 trails encompassing 562 kilometers of ski trails within an hour’s drive of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. You read that right. 562k. 350 miles. Groomed. The distance from Milwaukee to Minneapolis. Most are free or cost $4 for a day pass (which generally aren’t checked on weekdays, but there’s a $65 fine if it’s checked—generally on weekends—which at least goes to the trail funding, not that I know that first hand or anything). Having said that, a lot of trails are on golf courses or are short or don’t have any big hills to climb. Here, with a slight bias towards the East Metro, are my favorites. Find all of these and recent reports on skinnyski.com.

  • Battle Creek (Saint Paul). 15 minutes from MSP. Battle Creek has fantastic trails with big hills and 4k of lights. It used to have pretty horrible grooming. Then volunteers took over from the county, and it now has pretty awesome grooming. Only about 8k of trails, but an 8k loop that you can ski again and again and never get tired of.
  • Theodore Wirth (Minneapolis). Home of the City of Lakes Loppet (Which, as an aside, you should plan to fly in to ski some time. It’s a great race, unique and urban, and you can easily make a weekend trip out of it, especially if you don’t mind flying out Sunday afternoon and missing the Superbowl.) and JOs in 2011. Lots of hills (not quite any A climbs, though), and some of the best golf course skiing around. The ski trails have two main sections, those on the golf course near the chalet and those near Eloise Butler Flower Garden and Quaking Bog in the woods. You can ski a pretty continuous 20k and only take your skis off twice for roads (or 30k to Uptown via the lakes) or just ski the Back 9 and Par 3 a few times and scoot over for some loops of the Bog and Butler. And don’t be surprised by the views of the Minneapolis skyline; it’s only two miles away.
  • Terrace Oaks (Burnsville). Only about 7k of trail, but lots of fun, close to the airport and highways. It usually holds snow well, too, and has some good hills.
  • Woodland Trails (Elk River). This is more of a trek but the skiing is totally worth it. It is volunteer-groomed, and they don’t have any fancy equipment. They have sleds, lengths of culvert and metal screens. So while you don’t get corduroy, you get some of the best snow conditions around. The groomers call themselves “slaves” and consistently turn out some of the best skiing in the area, and on some of the most fun trails. Another 15k system I can ski again and again.
  • Murphy Hanrahan (Burnsville). A little further (although not far from MSP) and definitely the best trails in the Cities. Pass the strip mall and trailer park (seriously) to get there. A caveat is that they need the most snow to open of anywhere, and that you might not want to ski these trails the day before the Birkie, since they have more climb per kilometer than the Birkie Trail. The trails wind through hardwood forest with some heart-pumping uphills and screaming descents; you’d think you were miles away until you crest a hill and get a view of the suburbs and the skyline of Minneapolis in the distance. If there’s snow, it’s definitely worth a side trip.
  • Other trails worth skiing include French, Baker, Carver, Lake Elmo, Lebanon, Elm Creek (the best snowmaking, probably), Green Acres (more snowmaking) and others. It’s pretty hard to go wrong. And you can always check Skinnyski to make sure you don’t.

If you fly in to Duluth check out the trails in town, or in any direction from town, but especially north. Giants Ridge, anything up the North Shore, Brule, et cetera. Lots of skiing to be had.

Find a race if you get in a week before. There are several options to choose from, so here are some suggestions. If you want high-level action, head down to Madison to check out the Capitol Square sprints. You’ll ski loops around the Capitol with a bunch of Supertour skiers. If you want a marathon, head up to Bemidji for the Minnesota Finlandia. If you want a race close to the Cities, the aforementioned Woodland Trails in Elk River have a 10 and 20k, or there’s the 10k Snowflake/Inga-Lami races out at Baker (these races are both on Saturday, so you’d have to choose one). If you want the most unique race and basically a flat, 10k time trial, head up to Ashland, Wisconsin for the Book Across the Bay. Race (or just ski) 10k across a frozen bay of Lake Superior from Ashland to Bayfield at dusk by candlelight, and then stand in a hay-filled tent and breathe in mold while you drink beer. Black snot and a hangover is fun (but the race is a blast). All this with nearly 4000 of your best friends (the third largest skiing event in the country, behind the Luminary Loppet and the Birkie itself). And don’t expect to win any of these races—someone pretty decent will probably show up for any of these fields.

Check out the non-ski things in the Cities. There’s not all that much to do in Duluth other than ski in the winter, but there is in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Both have arts and culture (museums, live music, theater—Minneapolis has the second most theater seats per capita in the country behind New York, food, drink) and are definitely worth a trip. You can make a very nice day with a morning ski at Wirth and an afternoon at the art museum and an evening show at the Guthrie.

Eat at the Nook. The Twin Cities have fantastic hamburgers, and for my money the best one is at The Nook in Saint Paul at the corner of Randolph and Hamline. Try a Jucy Lucy (there called a Juicy Nookie) which has cheese melted inside. Or, after the race, go for a Nookie Supreme, which is a stacked burger dripping and oozing with cheese. It’s beyond compare. You’ll definitely find me there on Sunday. (Apparently there are good burgers across the river, too, but to quote pretty much every old-timer Saint Paulite ever: “Minneapolis? Now why would you need to go there?”) Anyway, I’m drooling. Let’s move on to …

Buy Beer. But not on Sunday in Minnesota. In Wisconsin, you can get beer pretty much 24/7 at convenience stores. The Marketplace in Hayward has a good selection, but pretty much everywhere has New Glarus, and what else do you need? You can’t get New Glarus outside Wisconsin, so you might as well partake while you are there. Also, you’re in Wisconsin. It’s pretty much against the law to not drink. If you want Surly, you can only get it in Minnesota. But it’s so good. One year, a Surly fan commandeered 240 poorly-sealed cans and gave it out to late-wavers on the lake. Since it comes in cans, it’s pretty easy to check it in your luggage for the trip home. And it’s always fun to fly with a suitcase full of beer. (Remember the airlines’ 50 pound weight limit, and that a pint of beer weighs a pound, and that my friends didn’t run in to this ever.) You just can’t buy it in Minnesota on Sunday (or after 10 p.m., or 8 in some counties). But at least now Surly has a big, huge restaurant you should check out. In any case, yay, blue laws!