Skiing with Walter Rhein
The night before the 2016 Birkie Tour, the Packers lost in the divisional round of the playoffs to the Arizona Cardinals. Jeff Janis caught a Hail Mary in the closing seconds to force overtime and for a moment we all believed fickle fate had elected to don the green and gold. A quick Arizona score proved that not to be the case. It’s especially cruel to answer the prayers of an entire state only to crush them to dust almost before the glow wears off. When people tell me I have a sick sense of humor, I just reflect on the jokes the cosmos likes to play.
The next morning, my friend Cory came to pick me up at the AmericInn in Hayward. He pulled up in his Subaru Outback and I was grateful to have a warm vehicle for the short ride to Birkie Ridge because the thermometer was hovering around absolute zero.
“Did you watch the game last night?”
I’d known Cory since high school, but hadn’t seen enough of him in the last 20 years. Hard to believe it’s been 20 years. Where does the time go? He came in to say hello to my two infant daughters which he knew mostly through Facebook.
“Your girls are adorable,” he said to my wife. She already knew, but never grows tired of hearing praise for her children. That went for me, as well.
I’d brought my whole family along for the trip and was looking forward to thawing out in the hot tub after the Tour. Whenever I find myself overcome by time slipping by and how ever-fleeting are the moments I have for friends, I gather up my kids. It helps.
“Ready?” Cory said, nodding at the frosty window.
I gathered up my bag and began the long walk down the hotel hallway.
Cory had been our class Salutatorian. He’d eventually received a PhD in Chemistry. Needless to say, when you have a conversation with the guy about ‘Breaking Bad,’ he takes it in a different direction than you’d expect.
I’d been nagging Cory to do the Birkie for years. I nag everyone to do the Birkie. You can expect that from a guy who has written a book about doing the Birkie, but the constant recruitment is about more than gaining new readers.
Time goes by too fast in regular life.
During the Birkie, time slows. The nonsense is peeled away, and you live several lifetimes in the hours it takes to complete the journey from Cable to Hayward. You live these lifetimes concurrently with all the competitors who complete the event with you. I can’t think of any other activity that puts time back in the bank.
Time goes even slower when it’s twenty below.
Cory had done a Kortelopet back in high school. He’d also run a few marathons that I knew of and an Ironman-distance triathlon. He was fit as a fiddle and knew how to ski, so that put him way ahead of some of the people I’ve dragged up to Telemark at 3 a.m.
The Birkie office had offered a package discount if you pre-registered for any three of their events. I usually ski and run the marathon, so I decided to sign up for the Tour as well, since it essentially came free with the package.
“I can’t believe you’ve never done the Birkie,” I chastised Cory on the way up.
“I can’t believe it, either.”
“It’s good practice to go and ski the trails on a day like this,” I continued, “it’ll give us a dry run for how to dress if there are similar temperatures on game day.”
We sat in silence for a moment.
“But I’m pretty sure this cold is going to have me ready for home after one loop.”
Cory laughed, “Fine by me!”
This was to be my first Birkie Tour. I’d heard about the event, but hadn’t really understood the draw. Essentially it’s an organized ski on the Birkie trail with support, but no timing. You set out when you want, and check in when you return. It’s all the difficulty of the Birkie, but without the frenzy of race day. In short, it’s an excellent event for people preparing for their first Birkie, or anyone looking for a long ski on immaculately-groomed trails.
We pulled in to Birkie Ridge and didn’t have to say much, instinctively knowing this was exactly where we wanted to be. The drifts had been pushed into rows to make a temporary parking lot, and the big tent sat in the twinkling snow respiring steam like a living creature.
There’s something about the morning light of a very cold day. The snow crystals harden into diamonds, and the fog of respiration makes your eyes water. You’ve all seen the footage of the huddled fans from the Ice Bowl: white steam, teeth clenched together, frost collecting on hats and shoulders. The moment had been recreated at Birkie Ridge. What could be more Wisconsin than that?
I procured a couple packets of adhesive toe warmers and handed two sets to Cory.
“I only need the two for my toes, what are the other ones for?”
“Put them on your thighs between your thermal tights and your ski suit,” I said. “It’s a little trick I learned from huddling at the start waiting for the gun to go off.”
I stuck a couple more toe warmers into my pockets. It puts me at ease to know I have a heat source on my person when I head out on a ski.
It felt strange going under the big ‘START’ banner at a Birkie event without a cannon going off or throngs of people surrounding me. I decided the casual nature of the moment felt good.
The snow squeaked as we pushed ourselves along, but the hard crystals didn’t break and offered considerable resistance. We realized the new corduroy was nearly impassible, but glide could be found in the tracks of our predecessors.
“Man, this is tough going.”
“It’s all good,” Cory said. He was obviously delighted, I knew he would be.
We pushed along, slow but steady, watching the sun set the snow crystals ablaze along the trail. Even in our current digital, video age, it’s impossible to record how beautiful an ultra-cold ski trail can be. It’s similar to exploring an alien world. We talked about our jobs and our kids and the twenty years that had passed, and darn it if we didn’t more or less get caught up.
We ran into Bjorn from Out There Nordic Sports at the first aid station. He’d stopped to apply kick wax and howled a salutation which was the epitome of all skiers: beard frozen, steam rising up all around, he seemed possessed of a deep, sincere happiness.
“You’re skating?” he asked, like I was a lunatic.
“Yup, I’m a lunatic,” I replied.
He laughed again, the kind of laugh that tickles you on the inside, because it draws frozen air into your lungs.
Cory and I skied along. On a big hill I dropped my GoPro, but got lucky and noticed when the camera fell. When I checked the pictures later, the image of me stooping to retrieve the camera nestled in the track turned out to be the best image of the day.
Fate making jokes again.
Cory was fit enough to ski three or four laps, but he hung back with me. Even when you’re dressed right and you’ve used all the skier tricks you’ve accumulated over two decades, the sub-freezing temperatures still start to penetrate.
“I’m ready to go back and get warm,” I said as we approached the turn-off to Birkie Ridge.
“Fine by me.”
We passed an aid worker and I made a joke about hypothermia, so he made me stop for a moment and reassure him that I was kidding. Cory was happy to talk to him, he was having a blast.
The tent at the finish was a welcome change. There was delicious food, warm drinks and good people. Brian Gregg was there acting as an ambassador for the event. I talked with him for a moment and asked what wax he used when it was this cold. He just shrugged and gave the same old line about cold powder and base hardener. Maybe there are people with more effective tricks, but they aren’t sharing them.
“My friend Frank and I once made a prototype ski with a heating element in the tip,” I told Cory.
“How did you power it?”
“Battery in a water bottle carrier.”
“Did it work?”
We polished off our food and made our way back to the car. It doesn’t take too long to freeze solid when your clothing is wet and you’ve stopped moving, but with the heat blasting, the mind can relax. I looked forward to eating dinner with my family and splashing in the pool. My residual angst over the Packer loss had evaporated; that usually takes a couple days.
“That was fantastic!” Cory said, “I’m so glad you talked me into this.”
“I know, right? You’d think everyone would learn to just do whatever I told them instantly and without argument.”
We drove back to the hotel, and Cory came in again and once again told my wife how beautiful my children are. She never gets tired of hearing it; I don’t either.
“Thanks!” Cory said again, before leaping back into his car and heading home to his family.
Once again, too soon, the shared time was over.
But you remember days like that for a long time. They leave a permanent echo, which you can still hear on the Birkie trail whenever you return. Fate always gets the last laugh, so you might as well laugh, too.
I’m looking forward to the Birkie Tour again. If you see Cory and I out there, stop and say, “Hello.”
About the Author:
Walter Rhein is the author of “Beyond Birkie Fever” and “Reckless Traveler.” If you’ve read either of these, please leave an Amazon review! Walter can be reached for questions or comments at: WalterRhein@gmail.com