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Posts from February 2007

Left: Ralph and Steve at the start of the 2007 Subaru American Birkebeiner.

Right: A future Birkie skier, one of over 1,300 kids skiing the Sons of Norway Barne Birkie on Hayward's Main Street.

An Unusual Birkie!
Posted February 27, 2007; updated March 12, 2007

This years Birkie was a real challenge to put on and a lot of fun to ski. It was quite different though. To make the story short, Steve and I each finished our races, got our medals and had a great time. But it was like no previous Birkie in any way shape or form. Read on for the details.

Our train ride to Minneapolis was fine and on time. Especially noteworthy was the Flatiron Steak dinner in the diner. Delicious! In the photo above the Empire Builder is arriving in Shelby, Montana.

Following our arrival by train in Minneapolis we drove to Hayward and planned to ski about 18 kilometers of the Birkie Trail between the North End Trailhead and Highway 00. The snow looked pretty thin but a guy in the warming hut said conditions were OK or even great. We didn't quite believe him so we asked Juliane to stick around for a while before driving to Highway 00. It turned out that was a good idea.

Steve and I skied out to the Birkie trail and took a look. There was about 2 inches of rock hard crusty, rutted, bumpy snow on the trail. We bailed, returned to the vehicle and drove to Eagle River for a visit with Bert and LaNora Kleerup. The festive atmosphere in their home on Butternut Lake was a wonderful way to begin Birkie week.

Rather than ski in poor conditions on the Birkie trail we spent the next few days at the ABR Ski Area in Ironwood, Michigan where there was plenty of snow and the grooming was perfect. Eric and Angela treated us well.

Heading out onto the River Trail which leads to all the other exciting runs at ABR.

On Wednesday conditions took a turn for the worse. In Hayward temps rose to 52 degrees and an afternoon rain added more insult to the Birkie trail.

We stopped by the 00 area of the Birkie Trail and thought there would be no way a race could be run on what was left of the snow. Bare spots and mush covered the trail. Arriving at our hotel we discovered the race was on hold.

A big weekend snow storm was predicted for the Midwest. The question was would it come in time to save the Birkie? In the meantime temperatures had fallen to well below freezing and all the mush on the trail was now ice, you know that flat, hard, gray stuff.

On Friday morning the Birkie Foundation made a difficult decision. They decided to allow only the elite men and women to compete on shortened Birkie and Korteloppet trails. The rest of us would have an "open track" and could ski the course. Credit would be given to skiers completing the course and medals and year pins given out but no times would be recorded.

Trail conditions were rumored to be poor. There would be no track set for classic skiers because there was so little snow. The trail had bare spots, rocks in a few places and lots of hard gray ice. Because of this many skiers opted out this year. Since fewer skiers would start the race, the 10 waves were reduced to 3. Half hour windows were allowed for groups of skiers to start at their leisure.

Upon our arrival at the start there was a guy skating around the start area on hockey skates. Now that was unusual! The predicted snowstorm hadn't come yet and only a dusting of new snow covered the ice. "This was going to be really fun," we thought!

Steve Bantz and I would start with the Wave 4, 5, 6 group which was allowed to start anytime between 11:15 and 11:45 AM. We sauntered up to the start area, dropped off clothing bags, took a few photos and began our race sometime around 11:20. It took a little while to find some snow to start skiing on. We finally saw something kind of white up ahead, walked up there, put on our skis and headed onto the trail.

At the start of the 2007 Birkie. I'm wearing the red hat and purple bib. Steve is on the right with the white hat and yellow bib. It was a little breezy but warm with temps in the 20s.

What we saw then was even more interesting. The main trail was a dirty brown color. Lots of grass and pine needles were mixed in with the snow, which had a consistency of course sugar. Everyone called this the brown sugar trail. Off to the left side skiers were trying to ski on a thin layer of powder on ice. We tried both lines and settled on the powder on ice.

Quite a few folks had trouble with this stuff. It was bumpy and piles of sugar snow were scattered about. It was imperative to ski relaxed and allow your legs to flex up and down over the bumps. Since no times were being recorded most skiers didn't rush things. But there were a few who needed to blow off some steam so soon after the start. This one guy passed me three times. He was trying so hard to go fast that each time he got in front of me he stumbled and fell threatening to knock me down. I'd go around and then he'd come by again with the same result. I wonder if he every got to where he was going in such a big hurry?

At 3 km we skied onto the Powerline section of the trail where things improved. The uphills had snow over ice but was very skiable. Climbing proved pretty easy. The downhills required some anticipation. As I crested a hill and looked down I tried to find a line that had at least a thin layer of powder on top of the ice. Once the line was discovered I would shoot straight down and glide up the next hill as far as possible.

The fewer skiers this year and the fact that we waited until the main bunch of our group had left meant there was more room on the trail around us so it was pretty easy to manage the hills.

At 7 km there is a very tricky hill with a steep drop leading to a hidden curve and more downhill. There are often big crashes on this hill even in the best of snow years. Many skiers walked down. I did too. Most hills were very manageable though and the ice was nice and smooth in a rolling bumpy sort of way. "Remember, keep those knees flexed and cruise over the bumps," I kept telling myself. Snowplow to control speed? Forget it! Just find an open line and head on down. Step turns on the ice were particularly useful too when the trail took a jog.

Another big downhill required walking also because an injured skier was being helped.

A tricky downhill section at 20 km, called snowmobilers corner, always grabs your attention. It starts down, turns left, crosses a bumpy snowmobile trail, then begins a hard right turn as the trail steepens. Spectators gathered there are entertained by crashing skiers. They cheer raucously whenever a skier goes down. As I reached the top of the hill I quickly saw the trail was mostly gray ice. What little snow that had been on the trail had been pushed to the outside of the turn by previous skiers. As I headed for this "snow" so did another skier in front of me. He skied down the first part of the hill, crashed at the turn and the crowd roared. As he went down though he slid right out onto the ice and I quickly skied by. I gave a big yell to the crowd, raised my arms in a victory salute, tucked in the turn and zoomed down the hill.

The finish was at Highway 00 just 2 km away now. But one big uphill required some attention. I knew the finish was at the top of the hill so I planned to give that hill all I had. I skated up and up and up. I reached a flat section and knew there was one more uphill pitch before 00 and I skated that easily.

As I approached Highway 00 a woman on the left cheered and told me I had 2 km to go. "No way," I thought, the finish was just ahead. I was wrong! In order to lengthen the course and make entry into the finish area a little easier the race organizers added a little surprise. I crossed 00 and followed those ahead of me onto a trail I had never skied before. We skied on and on. Eventually a right turn brought us back onto the Birkie trail a little over a kilometer past 00. I was now skiing back to 00 the way we used to ski when the race began in Hayward many years ago.

Oops! Now I remember, there is a steep uphill just before 00. We called it the wall back then and it was the same now. Fortunately I had enough energy to ski a lot farther, maybe 25 km farther and the hill proved easy. Up and over, 500 meters to go.

I heard my name mentioned by the announcer. He congratulated me on having come all the way from Montana for this Birkie. Then he looked back at his computer screen and congratulated me again on the completion of my 28th Birkie. A very different Birkie indeed. Just think number 29 is only 365 days away.

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2007 Montana Birkie Skiers
Bib #
Shari L Barney
Birkie Classic
Randy Beckner
Birkie Elite
Christopher H Buslee
Birkie Freestyle
Karin Camenisch
Birkie Freestyle
Jeff Clausen
Birkie Freestyle
Mary Ann Duffey
Big Timber
Birkie Classic
Justin Easter
Birkie Elite
Peter Hale
Birkie Freestyle
Larry Jent
Birkie Freestyle
Nikki A Kimball
Birkie Elite
Jeffrey P Lepley
Birkie Freestyle
Christy Lohof
Birkie Freestyle
Mary M Maddox
Birkie Freestyle
Martin M Miller
Birkie Freestyle
Michael J Myers
Birkie Elite
Thomas J Osborne
Birkie Freestyle
Tom Owen
Big Sky
Birkie Freestyle
Craig R Pozega
Birkie Freestyle
Daniel J Purpura
Birkie Freestyle
Tom Rowe
Birkie Freestyle
Melody F Scheefer
Birkie Elite
Hans Schernthaner
Big Sky
Birkie Freestyle
Ann T Storrar
Birkie Freestyle
Keif Storrar
Birkie Freestyle
Ralph Thornton
Birkie Freestyle

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Off to the Birkie!
Posted February 16, 2007

Tomorrow morning Steve, Juliane and I will board the Empire builder and ride to Minneapolis. From there we drive into Wisconsin. The Birkie is a week away but we'll spend time visiting Bert and LaNora Kleerup of Eagle River Nordic and Eric and Angela Anderson of ABR in Ironwood, Michigan before heading over to Hayward.

Snow has been in short supply this season and warm temperatures are forecast for this week. The Birkie foundation will be doing everything in their power to bring off a full 51 kilometer race with a Main Street finish.

Be sure to check back February 27 to see how it all came out. I hope to provide some Birkie photos as well as some pics from other locations in the Midwest.

If you are skiing the Birkie - My best wishes to you for a GREAT RACE! I hope to see you there.

Four Days at West Yellowstone
Posted February 16, 2007

Steve and Juliane Bantz and I headed down to West Yellowstone for four days of skiing. It had been very cold there earlier in the month with temps to -40 F.

Juliane and Steve at the Rendezvous Trailhead.

Just in time for our arrival the weather warmed and new snow blanketed the woods. Add to that the fantastic grooming by Doug Edgerton and it made for a memorable ski trip.

Our plan for the week was simple. Eat! Sleep! Ski! Not necessarily in that order.

Steve skis up a long hill on the outer reaches of Windy Ridge. The sun was muted by puffy clouds
that brought periodic mini-blizzards.

Fresh snow came each day. In mid-week about half of the trails were groomed each day. By Friday morning though, everything was in tip top shape. We totally enjoyed every inch of that trail system.

West Yellowstone's trails are wonderfully wide. The set track is placed in from the edge of the trail a good three feet which makes for some of the best classic skiing anywhere. You just can't go wrong skiing West Yellowstone.

About the only disappointment during our stay was that the Wolf Pack Brewery did not open until 5 PM. That meant we couldn't fill our take home growlers with their excellent beer. Oh well, maybe next time.

Our home in West Yellowstone was the Brandin Iron Inn. They have very nice accommodations, reasonable rates and a super free breakfast. For evening meals we frequented the Wolf Pack Brewery, the West Yellowstone Barbecue and Bullwinkles.

Getting ready for the Big Dance
Posted February 13, 2007

I spent this week making some final preparations for my trip to northern Wisconsin and the Birkie. This consisted mostly of checking equipment, waxing skis and, of course, getting in some skiing.

I skied the Whitefish Golf Course on Friday and found 2 inches of fresh wet snow and temps in the upper 30s. The snow had that sticky feel and provided more than normal training. The skis were remarkably faster after I corked in some old Toko Streamline that I found in my wax box.

Saturday I stopped by Izaak Walton and found conditions much more to my liking. Temps in the upper 20s and fresh groomed powder conditions. Great Skiing.

Steve and Juliane Bantz arrived on the Empire Builder on Sunday and we took a trip with Jennifer Gruber to Izaak Walton Inn on Monday. It was fairly cool with a high in the teens. There was several inches of new snow and it snowed most of the day. For these midwesterners the new and falling snow was an oddity this winter.

Left: Jennifer checks out Steve's form at the trailhead.
Right: Juliane gets her ski legs after the long train ride.

The trails were groomed perfectly, the scenery was beautiful and the camaraderie perfect. We had a marvelous time. I see Steve and Julaine usually only once a year these days. Steve and I taught skiing together at Eagle River Nordic back in the day and our friendship is strong. It's a real pleasure to spend time with them before the Birkie.

We spent the entire day skating. Steve and Juliane commented on the wonderful uphill opportunities at Izaak Walton Inn. Here we are skiing the upper reaches of the Essex Creek trail.

We burned up the trails at IWI putting in around 25-30 km. Our plans are to spend some time in West Yellowstone this week, the catch next Saturday's eastbound train for Minneapolis, then drive to Wisconsin for the Birkie. I'll try to report on our West Yellowstone trip next week. Till then, have some great skiing and see you at the Birkie!

A Skate to Train Day at Izaak Walton Inn
Posted February 5, 2007

Ground Hog Day! I never knew the significance of the date. February 2 is the day that is halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Winter is half over! More importantly the days are winding down to the Birkie.

Holy cow! Will I be able to ski well enough to complete the race? Now, I'm not a real ski racer, just a guy who likes to do the Birkie each winter. My main goal is to have a good time. I want to ski as fast as possible but I also want to have my traditional brat and bock beer at Angler's right after the race without throwing it up! Better start training eh?

Bruce, Rhonda and April met me at Izaak Walton Inn on Sunday. They know it's getting closer to race day. They also know their job is to run me around the trails as fast and as far as possible to help me prepare. Fortunately it was just the kind of day for it. The trails were freshly groomed powder and the snow had that silky feeling to it. There seemed to be no friction at all.

I have a fun training run. It begins at the trailhead, goes across Starlight, around our short technique loop, back around Starlight, around Pileated and Essex Creek and returns to the trailhead. What? You don't know these trails? Well just come over and ski with us, we'll show you. This ski is about 10 km. Do it twice and you have a nice little training run with plenty of ups and downs. To get in a few more hills, just add Giant Pine to Pileated and High Line to Essex Creek. You'll be plenty tired but feel good as long as you don't crash.

Left: Bruce and Rhonda near Kendi's Crossing high on the Izaak Walton Inn trail system.
Right: Rhonda flies along Essex Creek.

After lunch we skied again. This time stopping to take a few photos (above). The trees were flocked with new snow. Stumps in the forest and boulder along Essex Creek looked like sundaes with huge dips of ice cream on top. It was a magical day.

A few more "training" days like this and the Birkie will be a breeze. Only 18 days till race day!

Skiing in Glacier - Marias Pass to Lubec
Posted February 5, 2007

I got an email from Bud on Friday. It was short and sweet.

"I checked out Marias Pass," he said. The new powder is perfect for a run to Lubec!"

We met at the diner in East Glacier for a quick cup of coffee then it was off to the Pass. We planned to the middle section on the long trail between the Autumn Creek trailhead and East Glacier. We did the Autumn Creek trail in early January and the run from Lubec to East Glacier in late January. To see posts from these trips click on the link for Posts from January in the left column.

We left one vehicle at Lubec then drove on to Marias Pass. As we were getting out gear out of the vehicle I could hear a train approaching. We had to cross the mainline of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad to get into Glacier National Park. Sometimes long freights will wait at the pass for trains approaching from the opposite direction since much of the line is single track.

We quickly cross into the park and skied into the trees. As I looked back Amtrak's eastbound Empire Builder heading for Minneapolis and Chicago rumbled over the pass.

A short ski through the tree brought us to Three Bears Lake (below). This lake site right on the Continental Divide and drains east toward the Gulf of Mexico and west toward the Pacific Ocean. As we skied across the old dam built long ago by the railroad we had wonderful views of Little Dog and Summit mountains.

Steve Berg, April Carr, Christina Litchfield and Bud Iszler ski along the edge of Three Bears Lake with
Summit Mountain rising above them.

Soon after cross the lake we came to a trail junction and turned east. This begins what I call the Trail of Many Coulees. Out here in Montana we call any drainage that we cross a coulee. April says there are 11 coulees to cross but it seems they never end. Fortunately the snow has filled many of them in making for simpler crossings.

In the photo below we are crossing the "Mother of all Coulees." It is the largest on the trip and requires skiing down into the valley then climbing back out. With scenery like this though who can complain?

Most of the trail is in the forest. This is an advantage because it is often quite breezy along the Continental Divide and the trees protect is from the wind. There are many open slopes too where we could climb up and get in some turns like the ones I'm trying below. It's always amazing to me how flat a slope can look in a photo.

We stop frequently to rest, enjoy the scenery and have a luncheon. Most of us carry a small thermos bottle with hot tea or soup. The camaraderie of good friends along with the wonderful place where we play makes for many good times.