If one steps outside of the comfort of their cabin on Birkie Saturday, they may be able to hear bells ringing from Hayward’s Main Street. The American Birkebeiner is the largest ski race in North America at 50k with both classic and skate ski styles represented. “The Birkie” (what it’s more commonly called) was founded back in 1973 by local legend, Tony Wise. Hayward has never been the same since its inception and whether you’re a skier or not, the American Birkebeiner is something that everyone should experience at least once in their lives.
Locals have been known to either love or hate the Birkie. Many will pack their bags, buy plane tickets, and get the heck out of town for the town grows from 2,318 to 10,000+ people in a matter of days. I don’t blame these people for leaving town because for many people it can be a stressful time due to the added traffic and detours. But for those folks that are brave enough to stick around and enjoy the festivities; there’s nothing like being camped out on Hayward’s historic Main Street come Birkie Weekend. (I can almost smell the beer and brats now.)
Let’s face facts—Hayward is a small town. Everybody remembers when Walmart came to town and on most Saturday nights, one can walk the streets of Hayward and wait for a tumbleweed to roll by. Just because Hayward may not have huge retail stores and fast food chain restaurants, it doesn’t mean that it’s not ready to host thousands of travelers from far and wide. Our several ma and pa restaurants separate us from other small communities and the atmosphere that surrounds the Birkie and many other events is something unique to our area. The hospitality is something that locals have come to take pride in.
Due to the large influx of people coming into the area, our hotels burst at the seams with skiers and family members. Hotel rooms need to be booked several months in advance and rooms are very limited. While keeping that in mind, many locals open up their homes to these world travelers for a place to sleep and catch a meal or two. My mother has made her home available while I was growing up, and we got the opportunity to have three elderly men from Japan stay at our house as well as a gentleman from Australia. I even got to play a game of “H-O-R-S-E” with one of the Japanese men while they were waxing their skis. I didn’t realize it when I was younger, but as I’ve grown older, I have come to appreciate meeting these people from many different cultures.
Small towns often get associated with simple mindedness and closed doors. “If you’re not a local, you want something from us and we aren’t buying.” While I can’t speak on behalf of the entire Hayward community, I feel that we are different than most small towns. Yes, there may be jacked up trucks that drive up and down Main Street on several occasions, but I’d like to think we are conscious of different cultures and perspectives. By hosting the American Birkebeiner and other events throughout the years, it has allowed us to open ourselves up to different people other than our own and I believe there’s something to be said about that. We learn so much more than what a skier from Norway talks like.
The Birkie is something that I believe everyone should experience at least once in their lives because it’s as though the Olympics are taking place in this small northern Wisconsin community. You can travel from as near as the Twin Cities or from as far as Italy, but everybody speaks the same language when it comes to ringing in a skier as they reach the homestretch of Main Street.
- Dalton Hessel