I ventured out cross-country skiing in the middle of that big snowstorm a couple weeks ago, and my ski tips ran incognito under the fluff. Finally, all 100 kilometers of world-class ski trails in the American Birkebeiner trail system were covered in plenty of snow. With a bit of a warm, dry start to the winter, I’m sure some folks had been remembering 2017.
That year, it rained. The snow pack melted, and a hopeful-looking snowstorm tracked just a little too far south. For only the second time in the Birke’s 45-year history, the race was canceled. It was a disappointing, but not entirely surprising occurrence. Skiers all over the country have been contending with warmer winters and a shallower snowpack for years. Hayward’s average winter temperature has risen 4.5 degrees since 1950. The Birkie is featured right alongside maple syruping and ice fishing on the ClimateWisconsin.org website as Northwoods traditions that are threatened by a changing climate.
This snow gun helped create 3 kilometers of early season skiing, even while the rest of the Birkie trail took longer than usual to open. Snowmaking is just one piece of the sustainability puzzle, though. Photo by Emily Stone.
So how can cross-country skiing adapt to these challenges? Ben Popp has some ideas. Popp became Executive Director of the non-profit American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation in 2013, and his big dreams and big energy have been making things happen.
In 2018, the Birkie purchased their first ever snowmaking equipment using donations from businesses and the ski community. Two big snow guns now rove trails near the Birkie’s start area. The trail crew began making snow on November 7, 2018, and opened a 1 km loop of ski trail on November 17. Someday the man-made snow could be stored over the summer under an insulating layer of sawdust. It would be ready to use in October, even before temperatures become suitable for snowmaking again.
Making snow is energy intensive, though, which could increase carbon emissions and exacerbate climate change. Popp wants to make sure that the Birkie isn’t setting themselves up for a short term win and a long term loss, so he’s been meeting with the local electrical companies about installing a solar farm to offset the Birkie’s energy use. Warming huts along the trail already derive their electricity from solar panels.
Man-made snow holds up better than natural snow in warm temperatures, so the early season loop at the Birkie start area is still skiable even after unseasonably warm weather. Photo by Emily Stone.
The Birkie’s most important adaptations to the changing snow conditions are unglamorous improvements to the trail itself. Skiers can make do with just an inch of snow on the velvety turf of a golf course. By smoothing the trail and removing rocks, the Birkie may soon be skiable with just four inches of flakes. It helps that the Birkie’s piston bully trail groomers have rubber tracks instead of metal, so that they float better on shallow snow.
Snow is essential, but liquid water is a threat to the trail. To prevent washouts, crew members harden off the surface by removing soft topsoil. They’ve also installed French drains, reengineered slopes, added ditches, put in erosion bars, and even built the trail higher ahead of a rising water table. In the future, the trail may be rerouted away from southwest-facing hills where snow disappears first.
Popp and the trail crew are even looking at the surrounding forest to eke out more gains in sustainability. Bayfield County, who owns and manages the forests along the Birkie Trail corridor, has respected the scenic quality of the trail by not cutting trees within 100 feet of the trail. As dense groves of evergreens intercept snow, hold in heat, and create thin spots on the trail, though, foresters are being given a green light to manage trees in that buffer zone. “Part of the process is educating skiers that forest management is a good thing, and convincing them that it will actually improve their skiing experience,” says Popp.
Skiing isn’t the only game in town, though. Running, mountain bike, and fat bike races spread both revenue and risk across seasons. Having multiple events to help cover the $380,000/year cost of trail maintenance is part of trail sustainability.
As the Birkie tries to lead by example in many forms of sustainability, their skiers are stepping up, too. One skier even facilitated the installation of an electric vehicle charging station at the popular OO trailhead. This winter, the organization will launch its Birkie Green initiative, which seeks to reduce waste through reusable backpacks and cups, and to work with partners who are willing to make similar choices toward sustainability.
Why is this all so important to Popp? “The Birkie is a Northwoods icon,” says Popp, “and preserving some version of it is important.” He feels responsible to the local community who depends on the economic boost that the trail provides. More than 90% of the Birkie’s income comes from greater than 50 miles away, and more than 90% of that is spent within a 50 mile radius. The Birkie also provides unique venues for kids’ lessons, high school races, skills clinics, and more. The trail system is a draw for athletes, vacationers, active retirees, and cabin owners.
Popp’s been drawn to this ski community since he was a child, even participating in the kids’ race before it became known as the Barnebirkie. His passion is contagious. His energy is infectious. He’s a “big picture” guy, and under his leadership, the American Birkebeiner will continue to be a big part of the cross-country skiing picture. In his words, “Come ski! Have Fun!”
*A version of this article was published in Northern Wilds Magazine and is reprinted with permission.