Birkie Trail update (it’s going to be good)

Some of us went out and skied the North End Trails which just so happen to coincide with the Birkie Trail for a few meters here and there.

The North End Trails, with one roll and pass, are soft and slow.

The Birkie Trail, however, looks great. They’ve plowed a lot of the snow off and tilled everything else in. It has been regroomed since the open track this morning and set up well, and that’s before a nice cold evening. And it will certainly get at least one more groom and till before the Birkie, maybe more. I would assume the Birkie will focus on the Kortelopet course this evening and then maybe go hit the Birkie early in the morning when it’s down around zero.

Anyway, as usual, the Birkie knows how to groom and has the equipment to do it. The course will be solid, and pretty fast. It’s going to be a good Birkie.


Operation Get Jess To The Birkie

Cowbell Fever podcast listeners probably know Jess Marion, one of the Elite Wave Marion Sisters and a top-20 Birkie finisher in 2020. Jess is a teacher and ski coach, and this year the Maine State Ski Meet was the Wednesday and Thursday before the Birkie. No big deal, her husband would fly out with skis on Thursday, and she’d take a flight Friday morning out of Boston and arrive to dinner and freshly-waxed skis for the Birkie Saturday.

But remember that the Unofficial Guide suggests arriving early, because for long-distance travelers, anything can happen. And in Jess’s case, that anything is a foot of snow falling on Friday between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. in the northeast. So Jess had a backup plan: she kept her original Delta flight on Friday morning but the JetBlue flight was sold out. Delta has canceled its first two flights out of BOS on Friday, with no guarantee the later flights will make the trip and if they do, they may be quite delayed.

So, as Jess stood coaching on frozen slush with lousy cell reception, her husband was airborne on his way out, and I was in a car. But I love to play amateur travel agent, so I got to work. What about an early flight out of Bangor on Friday; the snow won’t hit there until 8 a.m., although it’s a long drive and would strand a car hours from her home. Another option was going to be to outfly the weather tonight. New York is getting hit, but DC and Detroit aren’t. Nothing to Detroit, but American does have a late flight from Portland to DC. With seats available. Ding ding ding! Jess: book this, fly to DC, overnight there, and then take your pick of flights to Minneapolis on Friday. Don’t worry about money, this is the Birkie we’re talking about. (As another skier friend of mine says, “this is a problem that can be solved with money.) Sure it may be hectic, but for the Birkie, you have to make sacrifices.

Not exactly what you want to see on a tight Birkie schedule.

Not exactly what you want to see on a tight Birkie schedule.

Watch out for Jess, though, I wouldn’t be surprised if she channels this into a stellar performance on Saturday.

Weather … without even that much speculation

It’s Thursday morning, the sun is rising, and I’m pretty glad that we’re not skiing the Birkie today. The Birkie start area, at 7 a.m., is reporting -20˚. Skiing at -20˚ can be fun, maybe, but standing around at the start waiting to start skiing at -20˚ is almost definitely not fun. But the Birkie events are all later today, and temperatures should reach well above 0˚ today by the time the Hayward events take place. And -20 should freeze the Birkie trail up well.

So let’s get to the details:

Thursday evening may feature some snow in Hayward, but most of the precipitation will stay south of US 8. For those driving later on Thursday from the Twin Cities or through the southern two-thirds of Wisconsin, expect some snow. It won’t be heavy, but 1-3″ of snow from Chicago north to Eau Clare and the Cities is likely.

Friday for the Kortelopet should be cold to start (but not as cold; around 0), but sunny, not very windy, and should warm to about 20˚ by afternoon, so a decent day for spectators and skiers. Reports from Duluth, which has similar snow to the Birkie, is that it is reasonably fast, so it shouldn’t be sandpapery, although the new snow and cold weather may affect this if it isn’t fully groomed in. Hourly temperatures (from the NAM 3k model):

9 a.m.: 7˚
10 a.m.: 11˚
11 a.m.: 14˚
12 noon: 16˚
1 p.m.: 18˚
2 p.m.: 20˚
3 p.m.: 20˚

Saturday for the Birkie will be warmer still, and breezier. We’ve seen this weather before and it’s really quite nice.

7 a.m.: 5˚
8 a.m.: 9˚
9 a.m.: 14˚
10 a.m.: 21˚
11 a.m.: 25˚
12 noon: 29˚

With an afternoon high (the model only runs to 60 hours) from other models around 32 or 33. However, the Canadian model is not quite as warm, with temperatures in the upper 20s. In any case, it should be sunny and breezy, with the winds kicking up as the day goes on and most skiers will face a headwind on portions of the course heading southwest, and out in the open, so especially down Sunset hill and across the Lake. That said, it won’t be a cold wind, so it’s not a bad tradeoff for, you know, not starting at 20˚.

And it should be a lovely afternoon in Hayward, back for the first time since 2020.

Birkie timing? Pretty much perfect

PSA: Remember that the Birkie Trail is closed today through race day. Yes, even with the new snow.

There’s no question about snow for this year’s Birkie (although it sounds like the trail was littered with leaves and pine needles during a windy warmup on Saturday evening, the new snow will cover that). Given the following weather conditions, which would you most like to ski?

  1. 15˚ at the start, 13˚ at the finish, wind chill of 0˚, moderate snow
  2. 10˚ at the start, 10˚ at the finish, wind chill of -5˚, several inches of soft snow the night before, some snow during the race.
  3. 0˚ at the start, 10˚ at the finish, wind chill below 0˚, a foot of new snow in the 48 hours preceding the race.
  4. -5˚ at the start, 10˚ at the finish, cloudy, light winds
  5. -5˚ at the start, 10˚ at the finish, sunny, light winds
  6. 5˚ at the start, 25˚ at the finish, sunny, light to moderate wind
  7. 5˚ at the start, 10˚ at the finish, sunny, light to moderate wind
  8. -5˚ at the start, 20˚ at the finish, sunny, light to moderate wind

Really only 5 and 6 sound like good conditions for a race. 1 through 4 sound like pushing the border of Type II fun. Remember 2014? Option 2 might well resemble that (and option 1 not far off). Option 3 would be better weather conditions, but more soft snow to fall apart on the climbs, turning the race into a much-longer-than-normal slog. 4 and 5 don’t sound too bad, with 5 being a bit better with the sun, but still cold, especially waiting around for the start. 6? It sounds not too bad.

Of course, these are the next eight days in Birkieland, with #6 being Saturday. #5 is Friday for the Kortelopet, which is not too bad given the later start and shorter distance (and sun). The open track race is going to be cold and soft, but with an untimed, smaller field it should stay in good shape. And the extra ski traffic, combined with all of the grooming the Birkie will undertake over the next six days, should create a firm, solid skate deck and rock-hard classic tracks for a pleasant day on Saturday. The only potential downside is that there will be an overall headwind, which may be especially pronounced on the Lake. But that’s a small price to pay for otherwise almost-perfect Birkie weather.

Stay tuned for a final discussion about the weather with Chief Meteorologist Ketzel Levens which will be posted tomorrow or Wednesday.

Weather speculation: one week to go

It’s been a pretty incredible run of Birkies weather-wise since 2003 if you ignore years ending in 7. Still in all, it’s been the best 20-year run for skiing a full course, and to think back that from 1998 to 2002 there was a cancelation, a race that was shortened to 25k and a race that finished shy of the lake.

No such worries this year. Sunday will be a warm day. Cloudy and in the upper 30s and perhaps low 40s. It may be warm enough to melt the top layer of snow a bit as it will be reasonably breezy, but I doubt it will fully transform.

Not that it really matters. Temperatures drop tomorrow night and a long snow event begins on Monday. Most of this snow will fall with temperatures steady at or a bit below 10˚, so it will be a dry blanket of midwest snow and will certainly get blown around a bit as winds Monday and Tuesday will be strong and gusty. What the Birkie chooses to do with it is anyone’s guess, although with the open track event on Wednesday they will probably want to till it into the older base so that the trail sets up well (and it should).

Wednesday through Friday look cold. Well below zero overnight with highs struggling to make it to 10. Wednesday and Friday should at least be mostly sunny with light winds, and given that it’s late February, it should feel warmer. Not warm, but warmer. The snow should be mostly done by the open track event, but I would expect the skiing to be soft.

Then the big question: race day. It’s coming into more alignment that the cold high pressure bringing the cold air should move south and east, allowing slightly warmer air to come in on its backside. Friday night will still likely be cold, down to around 0 if not colder. But Saturday the sun should be out, and the temperature may reach into the mid-20s by mid-afternoon which, with the sun, may feel positively springlike. It’s unlikely to be much warmer, but a slower pattern could result in a colder day. The NWS right now says overnight low around -6˚ and a high of 22˚ and that sounds just about right.

We’ll check in with or Chief Meteorologist on Tuesday on the podcast for a final forecast. See you all soon!

Update from Up Front: Clarifying Ski Marking

Bib order

Those of us lucky enough to have snagged an Elite Wave start got two interesting emails (if you don’t care about this, just skip this post). First, our bib number. In general, in recent years, the Birkie has given you a bib matching your finish from the year before. Finished in 92nd place? You ski in bib 92. Finish in 200th place? 200 for you.

They then inserted other skiers into the unused slots from people not skiing (people who petition their way into the elite wave: IYKYK) and if the Elite Wave started out with more than 200 skiers a few numbers over 200 might be used. (For women, it would be 500+finish place.)

This year something seems to have changed. I’m not exactly sure what it is—and I should note that none of this matters one bit—but they seem to have ordered everyone and then assigned numbers, so everyone is skiing ahead of their place. It may be that they ranked previous year skiers and assigned the bibs in order, and then put new skiers at the end, or that they ranked everyone by expected finish, and assigned the bibs. We’ll know on race day. Maybe.

Ski Marking

The big thing, though, is fluoro waxes. They are banned for everyone, but the ban is being enforced for Elite Wave skiers. Here’s a summation updated with some clarification from the Birkie office of the 800-plus word email which was sent to Elite Wave freestyle skiers:

  • The Birkie is the Worldwide Leader in non-fluorinated sports since FIS is dragging their feet. Thou shalt not use flouros. Fluoros are bad but they make your skis fast. (Although if it’s -4˚, not that much faster.)
  • So they’re bring back ski marking! In the long ago past, there was a ski check at the Birkie. Someone reporting to the TD would mark your skis (with your number, or maybe just an X) with a sharpie and off you’d go. It used to be more of a thing, although I used to also do way more non-Birkie USSA/FIS-sanctioned races, so maybe it still is a thing. But while it’s not required by FIS, it is being used by the Birkie to mark skis which have been tested for fluoros. (The idea is that you have to finish on the same skis you started on, although with an allowance for a swap for broken equipment.)
  • Both women and men will have to check in at the ski control check starting at 7:45, for women until 8:20 (10 minutes before the start) and men until 8:30 (20 minutes before the start). Ski check will take approximately 10 minutes. Once your skis are marked, they can’t come out of the start area.
  • Once their skis are marked, skiers can move freely in and out of the start area, and ski racks will be provided in the start area for the quarantined skis. This will allow skiers to make a last-minute trip to the bathroom or baggage truck.
  • The Birkie is suggesting that skiers complete ski check early to avoid any unnecessary waits; late-arriving skiers will not be accommodated with a later start. Given that this is the first year of this process, I would suggest arriving early and leaving extra time if you are in the Elite Wave.
  • You can have extra warm-up skis, and it seems that you can go in and out of the Elite Wave pen without your skis, but this, too, is not particularly clear. You can’t put them on a baggage truck, so unless you have a parking pass, you can’t really use them. (I guess you could leave them at the start area and pick them up much later.)

Weather Speculation: On the edge

No, the Birkie is not on the edge. It’s more that Birkieland is on the boundary between warmer-than-normal and colder-than-normal for the next couple of weeks (as discussed with Chief Meteorologist on our latest podcast). What does this mean for the Birkie itself? Well, not too much. No big warning signs, although a couple of model runs have trended a storm next week closer into Birkieland in the midweek time frame, which could interrupt some travel plans. The GFS has gone a bit too far west/north for my liking on a couple of runs, but has also trended towards the “midweek snowstorm” idea which is not necessarily bad. Hopefully it’s not a 2014 storm which puts down a ton of snow the day before, messes up driving, and makes for a slow, soft course, but some new snow would definitely help the course get further into tip-top shape.

In any case, other than that, not much new to report. We’ll have a podcast out later this week looking at the weather and race details, and then another pre-race weather podcast next week, so stay tuned for that!

Weather Speculation: Two weeks

Two weeks out from the Birkie means that we now have eight GFS model runs which have gotten to Birkie morning (the other major models only go out 10 days, the GFS 16). 16 days out models tell us very little. They’re not going to tell us an exact temperature, but if, for instance, several model runs were showing a big warm-up or a monster snow storm, it would be more likely that we would expect that. So we’re really just looking at trends at this point, and continuity between model runs.

First, let’s look at the NCEP’s 6 to 10 and 8 to 14 day outlook (as of this writing Saturday morning). The 6 to 10 calls for near normal temperatures. The 8 to 14 forecast suggests above normal temperatures for the week leading up to Birkie, and above normal precipitation. That said, Northern Wisconsin is on the edge of both categories: there’s a 40 to 50% chance of above normal temperatures (and therefore, a 50 to 60% chance of near or below normal) and a 33 to 40% chance of above normal precipitation. A bit above normal is fine. What we wouldn’t want to see would be a 2017-style huge red blob centered over Northern Wisconsin: two weeks out from that race, the models suggested 80% and 70% chances of above normal temperatures, and that’s what we got.

So if we let the butterfly flap its wings eight times, how does it play out on the GFS? Mostly fine. Birkie morning temperatures range from -2 to 23 degrees. Birkie afternoon from 14 to 21. The trail received several inches of snow this week, which is excellent news, and the general consensus is a couple of chances for more snow in the next couple of weeks. The models suggest an active storm track south of Birkieland, with heavy snow in the Madison-Milwaikee-Chicago area some time later this week and then again potentially the middle of next week. A couple of perturbations have lifted the storm track north towards the Birkie, which would be good, but we wouldn’t want to see a model trend far north, which could bring rain and warmer weather. This has only shown up once in the past week, so seems unlikely at this time.

Yet even that model run doesn’t push temperatures past 40˚, so it might just make for a transformed base. The models keep Hayward on a rollercoaster between -20 and +30, but don’t have a setup suggesting a big push of warm air. So, with a deeper snow base and reasonably good forecasts for the next week and trends for the week beyond, we seem to be in a good place two weeks out from the race.

Weather Speculation: Where we stand now

With less than three weeks until race day, let the BirkieGuide Unofficial Official Weather Speculation commence. Also stay tuned to the podcast for weekly checkins with BirkieGuide Chief Meteorologist Ketzel Levens.

So, where are we now? Birkieland this year has been cold and dry. There was early snow, an unprecedented severe weather and warmup in mid-December, and then a cold, dry pattern since. Snow has been higher to the north of the Birkie Trail, but Hayward has seen only 7.1 inches of snow this year. The only saving grace is that with temperatures averaging almost 10 degrees below normal, it hasn’t melted. So ice on Lake Hayward should at least be solid (there won’t be any big melting flows to disrupt it, and it’s already Pisten Bully-thick).

The main concern right now is that with relatively low snowpack, a major warmup would spell disaster for the Birkie Trail. So, what does the next two weeks have in store? According to the major models, not much. There may be a few days in the 30s, but the cold snowpack should be able to handle that and transforming a bit of the top might improve conditions. And most of the models show a bit of snow—some of which is falling today—in the next 10 days. The Canadian is most bullish on snow, but also has the highest max temp. So it’s a tradeoff.

240 hour outlook:

  • ECMWF: Max temp 34˚, 4″ snow
  • GFS: Max temp 32˚, 6″ snow (384 hours: 8″), previous run 36˚/7″
  • CMC: Max temp 41˚, 11″ snow


Pivotal Weather / Tropical Tidbits

For race day? Out this far it’s anyone’s guess. So it could be 30 below or 30 above, sunny or snowing. But most likely, we’ll be lining up on the start line.