After 50 years, ‘Birkie Fever’ still running hot for northern Wisconsin cross-country ski race

People cross-country ski
Ernie St. Germaine skis during his 50th and final Birkie ski race on Tuesday in Cable, Wis.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Updated: 7:35 a.m.

Long before the American Birkebeiner grew into the largest cross-country ski race in North America, attracting more than 10,000 skiers from around the country and world, it was a far-fetched idea of Tony Wise, an entrepreneur from Hayward, Wis., intent on luring more people to his hometown.

Wise discovered skiing while serving in Europe during World War II, and founded the Telemark downhill ski area outside Cable, Wis., in the 1940s.

In 1973 he launched what has become known simply as the 'Birkie’ — modeled after the original Birkebeiner long distance ski race in Norway.

People wait to ski while lined up
Thirty-five participants skied the inaugural American Birkebeiner cross-country ski race that left from Hayward, Wis., in 1973. Ernie St. Germaine, the only person to ski all 50 Birkies, is fifth from the left.
Courtesy of the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation

But for that first race, Wise needed skiers. One of his first recruits was Ernie St. Germaine.

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“I said ‘sure, nothing to it.’ I’d been alpine skiing and I thought I can do that,” St. Germaine said, recalling how he borrowed a pair of wooden cross-country skis from an old Norwegian named Lyman Williamson.

“He clipped me in the bindings and I lifted my heel up and I said, ‘How am I supposed to ski in these?’ He said, ‘My boy, you just glide...’”

The 50-kilometer course is notoriously challenging, winding up and down steep hills through the woods. That first race ended by climbing, and then descending, an alpine slope at Telemark.

“And of course we didn’t know how to stop. And we came flying down shoulder to shoulder. There was a little banner, and a card table. And there was all of those alpine skiers up on the deck, laughing and scoring us on our falls as we crashed across the finish line,” St. Germaine said.

That first Birkie left him exhausted. And incredibly sore. It took him three days before he could walk on the soles of his feet. He swore he would never do anything “that crazy foolish” again.

But he was back for a second year, and then a third. “By then it became a habit and it became a way of life. You thought about it all year long,” St. Germaine said. It’s an obsession that longtime skiers call “Birkie Fever.”

People cross country ski
Skiers follow Ernie St. Germaine as he embarks on his 50th consecutive American Birkebeiner ski race in Cable, Wis., on Tuesday.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

On Tuesday morning this week, St. Germaine, now 76, lined up to ski his 50th Birkie. A member of the Lac du Flambeau Tribe, he bowed his head and made a silent offering of tobacco at the starting line.

St. Germaine is the only skier to participate in every race since it was founded. This year the race has been shortened to 30 kilometers, on a loop of artificial snow. Still, he was excited.

“I’ve just been saying to everybody, let’s do it,” he said. “Let’s go do it. I’m ready.”

‘Birkie Fever’

St. Germaine wore a glittery gold bib, and glided down the trail on custom-made skis featuring his name and photograph.

He carried with him — as he has every race for the past 12 years — ashes of his late friend Dave Landgraf. Landgraf skied the first 38 Birkies with St. Germaine, until he died in 2011 when he was struck by a car while riding his bicycle.

Dave’s wife Laurie Landgraf was there to cheer on St. Germaine. She skied her first Birkie in 1981.

“I was not expecting it to be as difficult as it was,” she said. “It took me five and a half hours. But you know, like they say, you get ‘Birkie Fever,’ and you just want to keep doing it.”

She would go on to ski 25 Birkies.

“It’s just such a sense of accomplishment,” Landgraf explained. “And you are out in nature. And you’re embracing the fact that yes, you are a Midwesterner, and you love winter. And once you are able to do it once, you think, well, I could probably do it again.”

Further down the trail, Bob Sarsfield and Lorenzo Draghicchio, both from the Milwaukee area, cheered on St. Germaine as he passed.

People cross country ski
“I just love to ski. And that’s what I hope people get from my life in skiing,” St. Germaine said,
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Sarsfield skied his first Birkie in 1980. He had never skied before in his life.

“On the day of the race. I put the skis on. I went to the end of the driveway where we were staying. And back again. That was my training.”

He managed to finish, but remembers thinking, “No way in hell am I coming back to do this ever again. This is brutal.”

“But after a little while you forget about the pain and everything else. And you say, you know, maybe if I train a little bit more, it'll be easier the next time.”

He said it never gets easier, and it’s only gotten harder as he’s gotten older. And yet, at 76, he returned this year to ski his 29th Kortelopet, the shorter distance race, after finishing 14 Birkies.

“It’s the camaraderie,” Sarsfield said. “It’s being with like-minded people who like to get out and do stuff. It’s fresh air, it’s sunshine, and then you come up here with thousands of people having the same kind of fun.”

A community event

“Birkie fever” spread quickly. Nearly 1,000 skiers signed up for the 1976 race. In 1981 registration surpassed 6,000 for the first time.

“It evolved into something so much more than just a race,” said Ben Popp, executive director of the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation. He says founder Tony Wise realized the Birkie had evolved.

“Yes, he saw it as a way to bring people to northern Wisconsin. But what he also saw was it was something that was really celebrating a lifestyle and a sport and things that he loved.”

Then in 1984, Wise went bankrupt. He proposed moving the race to northern Minnesota. But the community came together to keep the race in Wisconsin.

“So it’s really this thing that started out as one man’s vision to have this tiny ski race to now something that really is the identity of who we are as a community,” Popp said.

This year more than 13,000 skiers registered for the Birkie and a variety of other events, from 49 states (all but Mississippi), and 20 other countries.

Three thousand volunteers help put on a series of events. The races end on Main Street in downtown Hayward, where thousands line the street cheering and clanging cowbells. Spectators are known to offer shots of alcohol to skiers as they struggle across Hayward Lake near the end of the race.

It’s a recreational ski race that also draws elite athletes. This year Jessie Diggins and Gus Schumacher, who just became only the third American man to win a World Cup ski race last weekend in Minneapolis, will be among a host of world-class skiers participating.

A mass of people cross country ski in front of large building
The start of the 2023 American Birkebeiner ski race in Cable, Wis.
Courtesy of the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation

“It’s kind of like going into U.S. Bank Stadium and getting to throw balls with Kirk Cousins,” Popp said. “No, you don’t get to do that. Here, you literally get to line up next to the best skiers in the world and have that enjoyment of participating in literally the same event.”

The focus now, Popp says, is ensuring the race continues for the next 50 years. The race has been canceled twice since 2000, most recently in 2017, because of warm temperatures, rain and a lack of snow. It would have been been canceled again this winter if the Birkie foundation hadn’t invested in equipment to make artificial snow.

After the race was last canceled in 2017, Popp said, “that’s when we really had the realization that we aren’t immune from climate change.”

Since then the foundation has spent about $600,000 to make artificial snow, and has a plan to raise $2.8 million to built out its snowmaking capacity.

This year organizers have fashioned a 10-kilometer loop of artificial snow, about 18 inches thick, that begins at the Birkie trailhead and winds past the old Telemark Lodge. Racers have to ski loops, and only the elite skiers will complete the full 50 kilometers, but the event will go on, spread out over four days of racing.

“We know how vital it is to our economy and region, as well as just the ski community,” said Popp.

A legend retires

A small contingent of that ski community welcomed Ernie St. Germaine as he crossed the finish line of his 50th Birkie, his arms raised.

He hugged his grandson Benjamin and his daughter Stephanie, who said her dad has become something of a celebrity around the region.

“There’s so many people in the community that root for him, especially during Birkie time,” she said. “Everybody knows Ernie St. Germaine.”

But St. Germaine said his 50th Birkie will be his last. 

“I’m retired from the Birkebeiner,” he said. “I’m not retiring from skiing. And the reason I’m not retiring from skiing, because I want my grandson, I want him to learn to love skiing the way I do.”

People cross country ski
Ernie St. Germaine puts his arm around his grandson Benjamin after completing his 50th Birkie.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

That’s why he’s continued to ski all these years. He’s not a fast skier, he said. “I just love to ski. And that’s what I hope people get from my life in skiing.” 

He said as he raced he thought of Tony Wise, the race’s founder; of his friend Dave Landgraf, who if he was still alive would have been skiing his 50th race; of other founding Birkie skiers; and of his grandfather, who helped raise him. 

“And I thought, my goodness, this little Indian boy from the reservation. I remember him saying, ‘Do something in your life that people will always remember.’”

And he has. “Wow, 50 of these. Did I really do this? You set out to do something,” he said.

“Don’t quit. Don’t quit.”

Correction (Feb. 22, 2024): A previous version of this story misspelled Ernie St. Germaine’s name. The above story has been updated