It wasn’t the Bikini Birkie …

That was in 1981. There was just enough snow left in Cable to have a race that year on Birkie day, although barely. What happened then? There was snow, but then it was warm. It rained. They considered moving the race to Ironwood. But Telemark had snow (it once was home to the largest snowmaking installation in the country, in 1961). Eventually something was cobbled together.

Friday (February 20) the elite race went out at 7 a.m., before the temperature got too high on a 6 kilometer course for eight laps (only 30 finished). International tour groups and Americans from afar went out at noon for 7 laps as temperatures reached into the 60s; 74 crossed this line. By Saturday, the snow was down to 1.83 kilometers, a few dozen skiers went around this course 23 or 12 times to finish their Birkie or Korte. (Results here.)

Then a colder snap brought snow, and a few weeks later, everyone else got to ski the race.

2024 worked out better, I think we can all agree. And if it snows next week (fat chance) you know the Birkie will get out and groom the trail.

Birkie 2024 Tips

Greetings Birkie skiers! It’s almost time for Birkie 2024. I went to the Korteloppet today so you didn’t have to and have some takeaways you may wish to consider to have the most enjoyable Birkie. In no particular order:

  • The buses are … interesting. The Korte only had buses from Birkie Ridge and probably should have had more. Expect that there may be some long lines, and get ready to wait at the end of the race as well (it was about a 40 minute wait this afternoon to leave the venue, but at 18˚ it felt longer than that). Since all spectators are taking the buses too, if you have a bib, you can probably pull rank and jump to the front of the line. (This may especially be the case for Elite Wave skiers, since they’re the only ones starting between 7 a.m. and 1 p.m.)
  • Do not expect to have cell data service at the race site. Some phones worked fine. Many did not. Placing a call on the cellular network, which may use a different band than the data network, may work better. If you’re planning to meet someone, pretend like it’s Birkie #25 (i.e. The ’90s) and come up with a location and time rather than relying on your phone.
  • The course should be firm, although uphills will likely become sugary. Expect it to be fast otherwise, and try not to snowplow the hills.
  • There are a couple of road crossings, expect these to be soft and dirty. If you are deciding between using your best skis or not, take this into consideration.
  • The beer tent was taking credit cards, but some cash for brats may be a good decision.
  • It’s about a 10 minute walk between the start area and the celebration zone.
  • There are a lot of opportunities to watch the racers on course. If you go out on the golf course you may be able to see skiers come through many times. The kilometer or so between the celebration zone and the start area is mostly blocked off, but you can probably end-around and find some hills (generally the hills are on the far side of the course) if you want to cheer on your favorite skier (Jessie Diggins).
  • Thursday’s mud has transformed into Friday’s mostly frozen mud, and with temperatures around 0 tonight, Saturday’s completely frozen mud. In the morning. By afternoon the sun may be thawing out the mud, so plan to bring boots especially if you’ll be lingering into the afternoon.
  • When you’re done racing, change into dry clothes. Even in the sun, a long line for the buses may not be fun.
  • Sunday’s classic race may be interesting, too. The course should refreeze overnight, but by midday it will probably warm up both on and off the course. Expect klister, klister and more klister, and mud.

Is this optimal? No, optimal would be a beautiful course and a Main Street finish. But will there be skiing, beer and bratwurst? You better believe it.

Skiing the Birkie in the second-warmest winter on record

It’s been warm in Birkieland. In Duluth, which has the longest nearby record, December averaged 30.1˚, nearly 15˚ above normal, barely cooler than November which, itself, was a bit above normal. January had a cold snap and only came in 8˚ above normal. February has been hot, and projects to around 27˚, or 14˚ above normal based on the current forecast. And these aren’t the 30-year averages NOAA uses but the record going all the way back to 1874. (This is “meteorological winter” of December, January and February for those of you keeping score at home.

But this isn’t the warmest winter on record. There was no Birkie that winter. Because the warmest winter on record, with an average temperature more than 3˚ warmer than this year, was the winter of 1877 to 1878, also known as “the year without a winter.”

Here’s a chart of temperatures in Duluth for this winter so far. There was that one cold snap in January, several record warm temperatures, and periods where the low temperature was higher than the average high for weeks on end. It’s ugly, but the Birkie has managed to make enough snow to put on some semblance of a race.chart(1)



Now, here’s 1878:

chart(2)Even this may be deceiving: the DNR notes that the observation site was down by the harbor in 1878, so if it had been up the hill, it would have been colder. (It’s at the airport now, which wasn’t a thing in 1878 since the Wright Brothers were 7 and 11.) The Twin Cities is running at or above 1878 this year! 1878 would have been tough to ski the Birkie, especially since at that time the only way to create ice was to saw it out of ponds in winter.

1878 was likely a strong El Niño, too. Not that they knew about the ENSO, or the MJO, or what the weather was going to be tomorrow. 1879 was a more normal year, and there were some cold years a few years after (Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “The Long Winter” chronicled 1880-1881), so it was an outlier, much as we hope this year will be.

The coldest winter in Duluth? Well, it’s a tie, between 1875 and 2014, although the station location change means that 1875 was probably colder.

Mind your units!

The Birkie has a course preview up, and for the most part, it is quite informative. You can follow along as they ski the course, see where the hills are (and aren’t) and add up the total climb which comes out to … about 250 feet per lap.

Wait, really? That seems awfully … flat. Sure the race won’t feature the Power Lines, or Firetower Hill, or Boedecker, or OO, or that sneaky climb with 23k to go, or the Mosquito Brook Grinder, or Bitch Hill, or Sunset Hill, or the 77 Grinder, but 200 feet over 10k is an average of just 1.5% up or down which is just not a lot of climbing.

It seems flat because it is flat! The units on the course preview are all mucked up. On the upper left, the elevation is shown in meters and reads in at 135m. But the Birkie is actually at about 440m. Down below at the lower left, the course is shown in feet, at about 440 feet (give or take) when that should be meters. So instead of multiplying by 3.28081 (if you thought i had to look that up, how dare you!) they divided. So the 250 feet of climb per lap is more like 250 meters.

That 27 foot climb up the Bauer wouldn’t homologate. But it turns out it’s a 36m climb, and the total height differential on the course is 43m, with 160m of climb over 3.75km (here’s the 3.75km homologation, and all the courses at Telemark). The rest of the course is relatively flat, but since it uses a good deal of the World Cup trails, there are definitely hills to be found! In fact, the homologation notes that “[Total Climb] is at the higher end at 160m.”

While the citizens race will leave out a couple of these steeper hills, it will climb much of it. This isn’t some namby-pamby European loppet up and down a river valley. This is the Birkie. It wouldn’t be the Birkie without hills.

Update: another answer, via Nordic Insights via some USST folks via Strava (I guess they’re allowed on the course early) is just about 213m per lap. So the 50k race will have about 1000m of climb, which, it turns out, is just about the same as the normal Birkie.

Birkie weather podcast

It may not be the Birkie we’ve been hoping for, but there’s still weather to discuss.

Also note that the Birkie has official information posted about this week’s events, so check it out if you want details. I know little more than what Ketzel said that the snow is decent (I’ve also heard “good enough”) and here’s the course preview. Hint: click “watch on youtube” and watch it at double speed.

For those interested, here is Thumper helping edit and produce the podcast. (He would much rather have been pet.)


The 2024 Birkie will be … something

So what’s happening with the Birkie this year? Rather than rehash everything here, I’ll direct you to the Birkie website, their youtube Q&A and suggest you listen to the podcast, since the most recent episode is all about the 2024 race plans.

Some TL;DR:

  1. Most of this is subject to change if the Birkie gets a significant snowfall between now and race day. No way to finish in town without water skiing, but a loop race is possible.
  2. For most skiers, an open track. For Birkie classic skiers, a race on Sunday. For Birkie skate skiers, different start times. For everyone, open track options on Thursday and Friday.
  3. No new timing for waves. Given 2021, the 2025 race will look back to 2020, 2022 and 2023 for wave placement.
  4. A big celebration area in Cable. Beer, brats and entertainment. Main Street just transported 50k north. (Except there may be beer hand ups at the laps rather than just on the lake.)
  5. Ski three laps and you get your pin.

Some discussion:

  • You could probably get some extra skiing in if you wanted, by skiing extra loops. I doubt they’ll pull people after 3 laps, with the exception of slower skate wave 1-2 skiers where they’ll need to clear the course for Jessie. (But you could go out and ski later, probably.)
  • You can definitely go out and cheer for the Supertour (i.e. Jessie) and get to ski your Birkie, which wouldn’t have been the case before the changes.
  • PH and Korteloppet skiers get just about the right amount of skiing in for their race. Birkie skiers get a bit less (other than elites).
  • The course will probably be flatter than the regular Birkie and probably faster. Please don’t snowplow the hills!
  • They’re taking the elevator shaft out of the course, not because it’s that hard of a hill, but because it scares people.
  • The region really needs you to come. Go get a beer in town. Get a pizza. The economy is suffering this year.
  • But if you can’t justify the travel, at least the airlines will generally give you a voucher if you cancel rather than having to hope for a weather waiver like 2017. Unless you purchased a “basic” fare. In which case, I can’t help you if you can’t first help yourself.
  • And come back in 2025!

Weather podcast and resources

New podcast with the inimitable Ketzel Levens and if you listen and are interested in some of the things we talk about, here are some links. I’m not going to try to explain, well, any of this, but just give some places to go for a deep dive:


Sudden Stratospheric warming

CONUS — Continental United States

NWS Duluth

Climate Prediction Center 8-14 day outlook

CFSV2 weekly temperature anomalies

NWS Forecast Points

As for Birkie weather … we’re a couple of days closer to the race and not much has changed. Here and there a model shows a snowstorm crossing Wisconsin a few days before the race, but most likely we’re looking at a manmade course, with the possibility a late-breaking snowstorm lets the Birkie run a long-loop course to OO and back. (I am assuming they would rather do that than try to pick up thousands of skiers at Rosie’s or Duffy’s field at a makeshift finish line). The lake is unlikely to survive a warm week and some rain, and the weather thereafter does not look cold enough to refreeze it. It’s not looking to be a perfect Birkie, but hopefully we can salvage something.

What does 50km of snowmaking look like?

Well … something like the Marcialonga.

The Marcialonga started in 1969, and has always been in a marginal climate for snow. 1975, 1989, 1990; well before climate change was on the tip of anyone’s tongue, the race was being canceled every few years (and shortened others). The course ranges from a low of 800 meters before the final climb into Cavalese and is at nearly 1500 meters near its high point; with mountain snow elevation-dependent, there is often snow on some of the course but not the rest. But the race always goes on, with a 70-kilometer-long, 6-meter-wide ribbon of manufactured snow laid across the valley.

So, what would it take to have a manmade snow Birkie? It’s a heavy lift, but not insurmountable. The Birkie is wider than the Marcialonga, and with the classic trail, it would require about 650,000 square meters of snow to be manufactured (including the classic trail, 500,000 with just the Birkie trail), as opposed to about 420,000 square meters for the Marcialonga. A bit more, but same order of magnitude. How much snow is that? It’s about 160 acres. About four Buck Hills. About half of an Afton Alps.

There should be plenty of cold water from the river, plenty of power (from, well, from the power lines) and plenty of room to store the snow. The big issue that the Birkie would face would be moving the snow. The Marcialonga makes snow in several areas along the course and then moves it around. The whole course follows a river and parallels roadways, so there is plenty of water and it’s easy to move the snow. Downhill areas don’t have to move snow, they just pump it onto their slopes since nowhere in Afton is more than a kilometer from anywhere else.

The Birkie probably has the most interesting terrain of any big race, but it doesn’t follow the river. Or a road. There’s only really water available at two points along the course: the start and (near) the finish (and maybe Mosquito Brook). The rest of the course would require pumping groundwater (a lot of groundwater) and also bringing in power, and then finding somewhere to store all the snow. Just probably not going to happen.

So a Birkie operation would have to be a blow-and-truck operation. This would probably mean setting up snowmaking in three or four locations, probably at the start, in Seeley at the base of OO, near Mosquito Brook, and near the airport. Then blowing as much snow as they’ve blown near the start this year (if not more) at each location, keeping it in piles, and then, if there’s not natural snow, shuttling it off to the race course. A dump truck can carry about 15 cubic meters, enough to cover the trail by about 5 meters. So, 200 trips per kilometer, or 10,000 trips for the whole course (and that’s just the skate course). With three or four snowmaking locations, each trip might take, on average, an hour to complete. 10,000 hours would require about 400 truck-days to distribute the snow across the course, so to lay down enough snow that it wouldn’t just melt in a warm snap would require a huge fleet of dump trucks running 24/7, say, 100 trucks and 200 drivers for four days. It’s basically what the race already does for Main Street, multiplied by about 100. Just getting that fleet in place seems … tricky, to say the least!

Plus, the snowmaking operation piece would have to take place throughout the winter ahead of the race each year, even if 80% of the races might not need it, which is a lot of investment in something unlikely to be needed. One question is whether snow could be stockpiled. In Vermont, Craftsbury has experimented with storing snow during the winter under tarps and wood chips; the Birkie could theoretically save some of the snow from winter to winter, top it off each year, and then keep it as a sort of strategic snow reserve. This would have to be in some well-placed shaded area on the north side of a steep slope (probably available near Telemark) but the cost to move snow there from elsewhere on the course might be more expensive than just making it in place.

There’s no good solution, and while we’ve had a good run of Birkies, every 10 years we might have a dud winter like this one (or 2017, or 2007, or 2000, etc). The Birkie can do the math on snowmaking, but it might not easily pencil out.

Want more weather? Stay tuned for a podcast dropping soon!

2024 Birkie will be … interesting.

The Birkie had a webinar tonight and the news is … not so good.

The lake had 9″ of ice a week ago. Now it has 4″. Snow is still missing from the Upper Midwest, aside from the piles made in Cable. The next two weeks look warm. Unless there’s a change in the weather that is known to be extreme, the Birkie is not going to look anywhere near normal.

My prognostication:

Most likely: they spread the snow out into a 10k loop and have a lap race. I’d guess that there might be enough snow for 12k and they’ll have people ski it three times. Maybe the times won’t mean anything for next year’s wave placement, given how conditions may vary over the course of the event. Maybe it will be open track for everyone. Maybe some sort of mass start for elites and then rolling starts for others, or maybe wave starts for everyone. Definitely people will be spread out over days like 2021.

Second most likely: there’s enough natural snow for either an out-to-OO-and-back race or a point-to-point race ending shy of Hayward (at either Fish Hatchery or Duffy’s Field).

Third most likely: there is a threaded needle with enough cold to freeze the lake and enough snow for a full race. This would have to occur over the course of two weeks, since the next 10 days won’t make any ice or snow. The Birkie only needs about 6″ of snow to hold a good race, but if there’s a little ice on the lake and it snows, it will insulate the lake from a cold snap. So we need either cold and then snow or, if the lake opens up, snow on open water and then cold weather to freeze it up. In either case, this would require a 2021-like polar vortex to freeze the lake. Not impossible, not that likely.

Fourth most likely: No race. Warm temperatures won’t really do a number on snow whales, but warmth and rain may. Luckily, the weather in the next few days looks relatively dry, so the whales will probably survive enough that they can get the ks they need. But if it’s 50 and raining the week before the race, well, let’s hope that it’s not the case.

One month to go

And … right now, there would be zero Birkies held.

The good news is that there is a month until the race, not a week. The 8 to 14 day outlook shows that the next week will not be conducive to making the Birkie trail go from green to white. Some model runs have been cutting off the huge ridge which will pump above-freezing temperatures to the Arctic Ocean in the Yukon and Nunavut (really) and tempering the meltdown. Some aren’t. The next two weeks are not going to be kind to the cause.

The longer forecast is … not as bad, but this could just be regression to the mean. Luckily for us, the Birkie keeps the trail in terrific shape, so we only need a few inches of snow to hold a perfectly good race (for instance, in 2012, the was bare ground in Spooner but the race itself was fine) and near-normal temperatures plus a bit of precipitation equals Birkie. Hayward this month has not only been warm (near normal for now, but the next few days look quite warm) but also dry. Right now the dry weather is almost as concerning as the warm weather. It’s hard to ski the Birkie on frozen grass.

Do you want to hear commiseration and potentially hope in more depth? If so, Ketzel Levens will be joining us soon on the podcast to discuss further!