BY DAN STEGER
On a March weekend in 2017, I and about 600 other fat-bike enthusiasts headed up to Cable and Hayward for the Fat Bike Birkie. Like most of them I’d come for what you’d expect: beautiful Northwoods scenery, a great ride on a great course and a chance to spend a little time with like-minded souls.
But for me it was more than just another silent sports love-in. It was a homecoming, complete with all the anticipation, apprehension and nostalgia that a homecoming brings.
This was not a homecoming in the usual sense of the word. I’d never lived in northwest Wisconsin and certainly never attended high school there. But for a 10-year period, each February for four days, my family and I took up temporary residence there – the hulking, cavernous Telemark Lodge became our home. We each had a role to play: I skied the American Birkebeiner, my wife graciously took care of us and the kids virtually grew up there.
My daughter Abby recalls, “It was our castle, with those long hallways and walls that gave us splinters.”
From 2001 through 2011, the Birkie, Telemark and Hayward occupied an almost mythic place in my mind. I was not a great skier, spending months training four days a week to maintain wave 2 status; but more than training I dreamed of the Birkie. I dreamt of it not just as an athletic event, but as a social and cultural institution. I loved the history of the race, of Telemark and of Tony Wise and how he made these little towns the center of Nordic skiing back in the 70s and 80s.
I imagined Ellington and Sinatra performing in the lodge, with Emeril Lagasse in the kitchen. I imagined the skiers, grinding up that initial ascent up the Telemark ski hill and over the other side – a descent so steep that most skiers fell, poles snapping, with bodies upon bodies.
My two kids loved this annual pilgrimage. They both skied every race but the Birkie: Barnebirkie, CheqTel 5k and 10k, Prince Haakon, Junior Birkie and finally the Kortelopet. Telemark was their domain. They’d swim and push luggage carts up and down the hallway and cruise the Expo a dozen times, thrilled to pick up a cowbell or carabiner.
In early 2011 things changed. I’d dutifully registered for my 11th Birkie, of course, but the training group with whom I’d skied with for the past 15 years had disbanded. My kids were growing up and moving out, my wife Andrea, quiet saint of our earlier Birkie’s told me she’d had enough. Telemark closed – again. I vowed to soldier on. I’d train alone and stay with friends over race weekend – no problem.
One January Sunday afternoon, cold and slate-gray, I found myself alone at Hyland Lake Park Reserve for a 35k workout. At 3:30, dusk was upon me and I’d finished only 20k. My motivation was draining rapidly. I really, really wanted to stop, go home, build a fire, play a little Miles Davis and crack a beer.
And so I did.
I didn’t beat myself up too badly. There were plenty more weekends for long workouts – no problem.
The following Sunday was gray, cold, dark and after skiing 20k by myself, I felt the same temptation to bail and go home.
And so I did.
The following week I sat myself down and said, “Enough is enough.” No more cheating. If you’re going to survive the Birkie you need to get real serious, now.
But I didn’t.
I’d had it with training. It had become a part-time job and wasn’t fun. If race weekend was to be devoid of family and Telemark, what was the point? I decided to skip the Birkie but resolved to stay active – to ski for fun, to be active as much for enjoyment as for fitness.
This is what I’ve done ever since.
I’ve skate and classic skied, road biked and mountain biked. I’ve loved choosing my activity based on weather or whim rather than the dictates of a training program; but every February my attention returned to the Birkie. I looked for my friends’ results, many of them with 20 or more years under their belts. Was I second-guessing my decision to quit ski racing?
Fed up with no-snow winters, I bought a fat bike. I rode with my son Ben and in relaxed group rides – I loved the culture of the sport. When I heard about the Fat Bike Birkie, I asked Ben to do it with me. He instantly agreed. We would return to the Northland after a five-year hiatus.
A couple months later I was driving north to Hayward. Ben was to drive up later on his own, so I resolved to make the drive a journey of rediscovery, of all the small places I’d known in my ski racing days, especially the ones so small I’d forgotten about them completely. It would be my Hayward homecoming.
I stopped for gas at one of those stations that has cheese curds and beef jerky up-front and center. I discovered that the county dairy co-op where we’d always stopped for cheese was now sporting a “bistro.” Getting closer to Hayward I thought of our old haunts, places we’d stop for a meal or bit of shopping. Coop’s Pizza was a must and I stopped there for lunch. The rush of nostalgia by this time was intense. Not only did I remember all these places, but I was struck by how easygoing ad nice everyone was.
I proceeded up to Cable and the new American Birkebeiner trailhead. I picked up my race packet and headed over to the Telemark lodge. The gravitational pull I felt from this concrete behemoth was strong. I had to go pay homage.
Driving away from the trailhead on McNaught Road I stopped at the powerline. I got out of the car and regarded it thoughtfully. Had I really skied these hills, not once but ten times? Standing there I was deeply humbled. It was hard to escape the conclusion that such feats of grit and fitness were forever behind me.
Making my way down the long, curving road into the Telemark property I was hit by a tidal wave of memories. This was always a moment of great anticipation for the entire family. Each of us looked forward to different things as we approached the lodge, but we all shared a warm, reassuring feeling of coming home.
Today I felt the same but also some trepidation, the way I used to feel when I returned home from college for a Christmas break. As I approached the lodge, passing the ancient wooden “Welcome to Telemark” sign, I knew things would be very different.
The resort was empty after closing several years earlier. I pulled up in front of the building and got out to take a look. The huge wooden logo, with its stylized Nordic warriors, was beat up, the paint peeling. I peered in the front windows, past the video surveillance warnings, at the massive stone fireplace in the lobby. I remembered the kids gasping in delight at the sight of it, at the huge logs that burned there – real logs, none of this natural gas stuff. I remembered the many times I’d sat on the benches that formed a welcoming arch in front of it. Meeting friends there and having conversations. What’s the forecast? How about the wax recommendations? What were everyone’s plans for after the race?
I got back in the car and drove around the side of the building. I saw myself on a frigid Saturday morning walking out one of those doors into the huge, colorful crowd of skiers making its way to the starting line. I’d make chit-chat with anyone nearby, seeking distraction from the nervous knots in my stomach.
As I drove off the property I wondered if I’d ever return to this spot. If Telemark would survive the wrecking ball and once again be my part-time residence in this beautiful silent sports haven.
Later I sat with my coffee and created an Instagram post of my Telemark visit – glowing words about Tony Wise, the race and of this place.
I thought about homecomings of my younger days, days when I was between worlds, one foot at home with my parents and one out in the world, on my own. Driving back to Madison after Christmas break, we’d talk about the great time we’d had, being with family and catching up with friends. What a drag it would be to be back at school, eating our own lousy meals, doing our own laundry.
Then, for a half-hour or so, we’d fall silent, thinking about these two worlds, the old and the new.
Before long we’d see signs for Black River Falls – halfway to Madison.
Back in the car, someone would pull out a cassette they’d made over break or gotten for Christmas. The mood improved, the conversation became more animated. I thought it’ll be nice to not have my mom nagging me about when I come in, to come to dinner and to pick up my stuff. I enjoyed going home but I can’t wait for what’s ahead.