Touring the Birkie By Fat Bike
by Jerry Wright
It all started when I realized that a torn ligament in my foot wasn’t healing. I could still ride my bike, but skiing was quite painful. If I couldn’t ski, I couldn’t do the Birkie. So I talked to some friends, and we decided to be Birkie spectators from the saddles of our fat bikes.
The American Birkebeiner cross country ski race was recently included in National Geographic’s list of Ten Great Races In Amazing Places. The Birkie trail runs from Cable to Hayward, in beautiful northwest Wisconsin. The trail actually is a system of trails on which several races are run simultaneously: the 50 kilometer American Birkebeiner; the 54 kilometer Birkie Classic, the 23 kilometer Korteloppet, and the 24 kilometer Kortie Classic. This year, 3,735 skiers completed the 50 kilometer skate ski race, 1,632 completed the 54 kilometer classic race, 1,302 skiers completed the 23 kilometer race, and 1,079 completed the 24 kilometer classic race. It takes two hours to get all of the racers started, with 21 waves leaving in 5 to 10 minute intervals. The Birkie is truly an amazing event in a great place.
The first American Birkebeiner was 39 years ago. It went from Hayward to Telemark Resort on snowmobile trails and fire roads. Russ, Adam, Jim, Matt and I decided to ride from Cable to Hayward on fire roads and snowmobile trails paralleling the ski trail, with frequent stops where the trail intersected with our route. Essentially, the plan was to do the original race in reverse on our fat bikes.
None of us had ever spent more than 3 hours at a time on a fat bike. This was Jim’s second time on one, and Russ had been ill for a couple of weeks. We decided to leave a truck at Seeley for anyone who wanted to bail out half way.
I estimated the route to be between 25 and 30 miles, and to take about 6 hours depending on conditions and how much time we would spend spectating. It turned out be almost exactly 30 miles and 6-1/2 hours (4-1/2 hours in the saddle, and 2 hours trailside making merry). All five of us made it to downtown Hayward, which meant we had to get back up to Seeley to pick up Russ’ truck!
Our first stop was at a point about 5 miles into our ride and 5 kilometers into the race, with the Power Line Drummers. All four of Saturday’s races went past this spot, so the drummers pounded out the beat for over 7700 skiers in about two hours. We arrived just in time to see the first wave of elite skiers come by.
The Power Line Drummers were started by the Chequama Mamas Cycling Club, so we felt right at home! Alert readers might recognize the Fatman, Gary Crandall, of Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival fame.
From the power line, we headed up Randysek Road to the 15 kilometer food stop near the highest elevation point on the race course. Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival enthusiasts might recognize this area as Seeley Fire Tower Hill. We hung out with the EMTs for a bit, dried out by their fire, and enjoyed some Oakey’s Oatmeal Stout from the Angry Minnow Brew Pub that matt had packed in. Ahh – breakfast!
From the high point, we continued south on Fire Tower Road, an unplowed road that had seen just enough snowmobile traffic to be packed firmly enough to support our fat bikes. It was a great descent, but after crossing Snowmobile Trail 8 the road was much less travelled, so to speak, and we had a harder time keeping aloft. So we spent the next mile or so alternately riding, hike-a-biking, and occasionally falling over!
Boedecker Road was well plowed, so we turned left, then south onto Telemark Road. In a few hundred yards we turned west onto Snowmobile Trail 77. It would have been nice to have ridden some snowmobile trails earlier in the day, but a Bayfield County ordinance prohibits bicycles on snowmobile trails during the winter. Now we were safely within Sawyer County, though, so we followed Trail 77 across the Birkie Classic Trail to Heckler’s Hill, where it crosses the original Birkie trail. The hill gets its name from the crowd that gathers there to cheer and jeer the skiers as they make their way down and around a particularly tricky descent. We arrived there just in time to see Dave Pramann ski by. Dave is the current owner and record holder of the Arrowhead 135, an ultra-marathon held in the wilds of northern Minnesota in the middle of January. He hailed us as he flew down the hill.
We continued on Trail 77 to Janet Road and Highway OO. We considered riding up the hill to the OO Trailhead to see the festivities, but weren’t yet ready for another break, so we continued south on Phipps Fire Lane to the Gravel Pit Road food stop. We’ve held our last two Halloween night rides on the Makwa Trail at this trailhead. We hung out with the EMTs again by their fire, cracked open a few River Pig Pale Ales from the Angry Minnow, and ate some food we had packed.
We saw a lost, older European fellow at Gravel Pit wearing a Kortie bib. The poor fellow had made a wrong turn where the Kortie Classic and Birkie Classic races split back at the 9 km mark. He was now 34 kilometers into a 24 kilometer race, roughly 30 kilometers from where he wanted to have been 11 kilometers ago! He was in good hands though, so we continued on our way.
From Gravel Pit, we again headed south on Phipps Fire Lane, then turned onto Snowmobile Trail 31. Matt snapped a photo of us as we approached Trail 31.
Trail 31 includes the first sand pit on the CFTF 40 course. That sand pit is much more fun on a snow bike!
At the Mosquito Brook Trailhead, the EMTs were selling prime rib steaks. It was clearly time for some real food, so we each bought a steak. They came with baked spuds and fixings, and they were great.
From the Brook, we returned to Trail 31 and headed up Harder Than Bitch Hill Hill. We could hear the boom box from the crowd at the 39KM marker as we climbed. A bit farther, we could hear the crowd at Bitch Hill, and through the trees we could see the skiers who had successfully climbed it. Trail 31 brought us to Highway 77, which was closed for the ski race crossing. We turned onto the closed road and flew down the hill without concern for motor traffic!
After crossing the race trail by Hatchery Creek Park, we turned onto Wheeler Road, crossed the race again, then followed a snowmobile trail back to the race trail.
At that point, we got onto the race trail and followed it a few hundred yards to Lake Hayward. Harold and Jan Treland always have a big party on the ice for the Birkie, where they hand out shots of Jagermeister and beer to any interested skiers. We had to stop!
Trelands’ party also had lots of food, including a huge pot of seafood chowder simmering an a propane stove. I was still full from the Mosquito Brook rib eye, but it smelled so good I had to have a bowl. No regrets whatever! After finishing up the rest of the Stout and River Pig, we mounted back up and headed across the lake to downtown Hayward.
It was great fun, and we all want to it again next year. We’re not sure whether to call it the Bikebeiner or the BikeBirkie, but you can bet it will become a tradition.