Outdoor Adventure: Number 42
A picture perfect day to ski the Birkie
By Mitch Mode
Special to the Star Journal
In the waning stages of my father’s slide into the darkness of Alzheimer’s we would go for drives. I would drive out of town onto the country roads where greenery and lakes, fields and woodlands, sun and clouds were all stitched into a quillwork of a Wisconsin summer. We both enjoyed these times.
Conversation at times was strained; it was always one-sided. How could it not be? He had lost a lot. We did the best we could.
There was an afternoon in July when the sun filled the world and the heat shimmered and it was as wonderful a day as one could imagine and on that afternoon I took in the dome of blue sky and told my father, “There is not a cloud in the sky” and drove on.
“I skied on a day of dreams for rarely does a skier have the alchemy that produces perfect snow and perfect weather.”
Minutes later, an eternity for the ragged memory of an Alzheimer’s victim he said, gently, so as not to offend me, a manner of courtesy he never lost: “You said there was not a cloud in the sky but over there…” He let the words slide away and lifted his hand and pointed to a scrap of white cloud in the majesty of the blue sky! The only cloud in sight; the only fragment of a cloud in the entire, now-mostly-cloudless sky.
Since that day I never, ever, use the phrase, “There is not a cloud in the sky,” without turning full circle, face lifted skyward to see if, in fact, there is not a cloud in the sky. It is my father’s gift, one of many.
Sixteen kilometers into the running of this year’s American Birkebeiner on the top of a gentle rise on a picture perfect day a skier in the track near me exhaulted, “What a day! There’s not a cloud in the sky.” And I, slow skier that I am, took the time to slow ever more, turn my gaze upward, inspect the sky and, after all that, reply, “Not a single one!”
But by then he was gone. I skied on with thoughts of my father in my head. The Birkie is a long race; you have a lot of time to think.
The Birkebeiner took place on a day made for skiers. It was mild at the start, mid-teens but there was a gentleness to it and the chill did not last. The temperature rose with the sun, climbed to 20s and then the 30s by late morning. Mid afternoon it topped 40. All under the growing power of sun of late February that, at times, was alone in a cloudless sky. Add to that near-perfect snow and it was a Birkie for the books. Had you written a script for a one-of-a-kind day to be on skis you could not have done better than what was served up this time.
I ski, by way of honoring those skiers who have completed the most Birkebeiners, in the first group that start the race, hitting the trail at 8:10. Behind me will come near 7,000 other skiers. Ahead of me on this day one skier who skied out fast and left me and the rest behind. So in a fluke of timing and race conditions I skied, in this huge race, totally alone for over 10 kilometers.
I skied that day as I had skied all season, at a steady pace, comfortable, not pushing too hard; I’d need energy late in the race. But more: I skied in a sense of awe and wonder at the day, of the beauty of late February Wisconsin woodlands where I have spent winters all my life. I skied the hills of the landscape under a cerulean blue sky among stately trees and crystal white snow in a world of beauty. I skied on a day of dreams for rarely does a skier have the alchemy that produces perfect snow and perfect weather.
The fast skiers who started after me caught me and passed me about a dozen kilometers into the race. Then the floodgates opened and for the rest of the race a torrent of faster skiers left me in their wake. Which is fine with me. One gets out of the Birkie what one puts into it; they’d done the work, I had not. They had the legs; I did not.
I never know if I can finish the race. I stand at the start with a potent cocktail swirling in my guts; anxiety and excitement, self-doubt balancing the comfort of experience, questions with no answers. Along the trail an occasional skier would see the color of my bib (which indicates the general number of Birkies skied) and say, “Great job on number 42.” I’d say, “Forty-one and a half. I’m not there yet.”
I play the mental game: There is a major feed area about halfway; I push to get there. After that there are still 29 kms to go. I count them down. When I get to the sign that indicates 15 kilometers remaining, then and only then do I think that I can finish the race. Until then I am not certain. After that I think I can hang on, come whatever.
My thoughts wander during the race like clouds in the sky; I do not focus solely on skiing. My mind lifts to my father’s words on the cloudless sky; thoughts drift to my mother who died during the week of a Birkebeiner years ago; memories come to me of races and racers and how things come and go and how some things never leave us.
It is not an easy race. There is the distance and there are hills and there is the mental game. But there is, at the end, Main Street in Hayward and the finish line and I cross it and someone says, “Hey, 42 Birkies! Nice job!”
I thank them and then look up. I want to see if there are any clouds in the sky.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800.