2019 Birkie Experience
Kate Houle, Communications Specialist

When you are surrounded by snow for five months of the year, learning to ski is a really good idea. Not only is it great for getting active in the outdoors but it helps stave off cabin fever. Ultimately skiing can help to protect one's mental and physical health as the snow mercilessly continues to pile up. In the Northwoods, one might consider strapping skis to their feet and attempting to glide around on that cold white stuff “self-care.” You don’t have to be fast or competitive, but you should ski. And if you want to, you can be fast and competitive too. To that end, five Conserve School staff members participated in the American Birkebiner ski race on Saturday, February 23rd in Hayward, WI. One novice and four experienced skiers to be exact. 

ski racers after the race

*Phil DeLong, Director of Student Support, and Michael Salat, History Teacher, at the finish line!

Before I get into that, if you are not already into Nordic ski culture, you might not know what the Birkie is. I certainly didn’t and neither did my husband, the aforementioned “novice” who just completed his first Birkie! Here’s what you need to know: The American Birkebeiner, or “The Birkie,” is North America’s largest cross-country ski race! Many consider it a homecoming for cross-country ski racers from around the world. It traverses 50 kilometers from Cable, WI to Hayward for skate skiers, and 55K for classic skiers. There are skiers from around 49 states and 36 countries. It is part of the “Worldloppet” circuit of 20 international ski marathons and part of the American Ski Marathon series of 13 races. It is North America’s largest cross-country ski marathon. It is a major boost to the tourist economy of Hayward, WI, and is considered a holiday amongst locals. Students get three days off of school for Birkie festivities! If you want to read more about the royal origins of this ski race and really geek out on some Birkie history, read here.

Andrew, skiing with a smile

*Andrew Deaett, Science Teacher, skate skiing past at "OO," approximately 1/4 through.

In order of ski/Birkie experience, Conserve School staff members Phil DeLong, Michael Salat, Andrew Deaett, Martha Torstenson, and Rob Houle completed the 2019 Birkebeiner! This was Phil’s tenth Birkie, Michael’s seventh and Andrew’s third. It was both Martha and Rob’s first ever Birkie; though Martha raced on her high school ski team in Minnesota while Rob grew up in sunny Florida and just learned to cross country ski last winter! It was an exciting time for all of the skiers and Rob felt particularly grateful that his colleagues enthusiastically helped him prepare for the race imparting knowledge that they have gained through their years of experience. He got the advice that he needed to complete the race both mentally and physically and reports that he was smiling through all seven hours that it took him to complete it. Also, gear suggestions! The Conserve School ski family (ski nerds), patiently guided Rob through the extensive and mind-boggling waxing procedures required when one invests in racing skis. I am not even being hyperbolic when I say that Rob had seven different kinds of wax on his skis on race day. And in the end, he got the glide wax right, but because of the weather on the day, none of them were the “right” kick wax. Who knew wax could be so complicated?

Rob skiing, happy

*Rob Houle,Technology and Media Specialist, "the novice" passing through "OO."

Every year the weather and snow for the race are variables that the race registrants anxiously anticipate. After all, they have to know what kind of wax to use! The 2019 Birkie was a warm one, with the temperature hovering around 33 degrees Fahrenheit for the duration of the race and according to the skiers, with “snow conditions like mashed potatoes.”  As a spectator and photographer of the event, I was happy for the warmer temperatures and the fact that it didn’t rain, something that had been forecasted as a strong possibility. 

Mrtha skiing through town

*Martha Torstenson, Math Teaching Fellow, skiing through town, almost at the finish line!

At Conserve School, cross-country skiing is a significant part of our Outdoor Skills curriculum and we make it a priority to be both prepared and resilient in the outdoors in a wide variety of temperatures and weather situations. Not only were there five staff members skiing the Birkie this year, but there were a significant number of Conserve School alumni who were also participating in the race as skiers, volunteers and spectators. Other Conserve School staff past and present went to cheer on their friends and coworkers. If you are not familiar with the cross-country ski world, you might not know that the Birkie even exists… But in these parts, if you are winter sports, or silent sports enthusiast it is a big deal and a reason for thousands of people to congregate in the small Northwoods town of Hayward, WI!

happy racers after the race

*Phil and Carolyn Delong's son (on the right in the pink cheeta get-up) came all the way from Japan to ski the Birkie with his dad!

After the race

*Happy DeLong family, post race!

The race attracts around 17,000 skiers and volunteers in a good year. An estimated to 30,000 spectators come to enjoy the festivities as well! A study by the University of Wisconsin Extension estimated the four-day “Birkie weekend” brings approximately $4 million to the local economy while Sports Destination Management magazine estimated in 2016 that Birkie was expected bring $20 million to the local economy. I got both of those figures from the Journal Sentinel. Either way, it brings in a lot of money and there is most certainly a positive, joyous and party-like atmosphere all around town as well as a lot of Subarus.

science teacher and alumn after skiing the birkie

*Andrew catching up with CS15 alumn, Mitchel Hinson after the race.

As for the group I was with - all current or former Conserve School staff (a group of eight of us, including 3 skiers all were generously hosted and housed by a former Conserve School teaching fellow, Kate Witkowski), we followed along with all of our skiers on the Birkie App and went to cheer them on at checkpoint crossings where the app anticipated them being at certain times throughout the race. Since they started in different waves, were skiing at different paces, particularly Andrew who was Skate Skiing, and all had varying degrees of experience it was a challenge for us to keep up with them. We, the spectators and cheerleaders, all felt quite exhausted chasing them around all day! We had to remind ourselves that they were the ones skiing 55k! 

three staff members who skied the birkie

*Andrew and Martha finished the race hours earlier and there was a snow storm on the way, but they stuck around Hayward to cheer on Rob as he crossed the finish line of his first race! 


Here are some post-race “hot takes” from the two Birkie-first-timers:


“55K is far...You get free chocolate milk at the end...Worth it.” - Martha Torstenson, Math Teaching Fellow


“...Now I know I can do that… If I ever need to.” - Rob Houle, Media and Technology Specialist

Photos contributed by Kate Houle, Communications Specialist.