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Storm watch buys time and hope for Birkie

Elite skiers leave the starting line of the 2013 American Birkebeiner in Cable. Forum News Service

There appears to be hope for the American Birkebeiner yet — at least a semblance of the weekend's iconic Northwestern Wisconsin cross-country ski race between Cable and Hayward.

While racers and organizers waited out another day above freezing on Wednesday, attention turned to a winter storm watch issued by the National Weather Service based in Duluth that said significant snow accumulation could be on its way to Northwestern Wisconsin, among other areas, between late Thursday and early Saturday morning.

The storm carries with it the potential for 6 inches or more of new snow.

The 44th Birkie is scheduled for Saturday. Warm weather has played havoc with the course and forced organizers to push all adult events to Saturday, while also ruling out the bottom half of the course that normally brings the race to a finish in downtown Hayward.

"We would love nothing more than to have a ski race," said race spokeswoman Nancy Knutson. "That's what we do. With below freezing temps in our future, along with snow in the forecast, we're going all in with efforts for a ski event of some sort."

Officials are hoping for one of two preferred scenarios at this point — either one would take skiers from the American Birkebeiner Trailhead, east of Cable, to Sawyer County Highway OO, east of Seeley. Such a course would be about half of the race's traditional 55 kilometers. A timed race is preferred, but organizers are also considering a open, untimed race that would ease pressure on the massive field of racers and the race course itself.

"Any event will be predicated on the safety of the snow conditions," Knutson said. "The trail would need to be safe for the first, 50th, 300th, 2,000th and 10,000th skiers alike."

Knutson described the trail between Cable and Highway OO as one featuring "some puddles on the trail." The trail crew is at work siphoning water and repairing portions as needed, she said.

Should snow not materialize and the course continue to take the beating it has throughout an unseasonably warm run-up in the week before the race, a third and less preferred option that has been proffered would be a foot race.

Temperatures in Hayward climbed into the 50s once again on Tuesday, and were forecast to reach the 50s again Wednesday with a chance of light rain.

Contingency plans were coming as fast as the snow was melting throughout the week.

By Monday, an elegant finish over the race's trademark International Bridge in downtown Hayward was out, and by Tuesday all of the ancillary adult events scheduled to take place Friday — including the Kortelopet and Prince Haakon races — had been pushed to Saturday, the traditional day of the signature race.

Birkie executive director Ben Popp had predicted a less than 1 percent chance of even a half-distance race coming off in a video message Tuesday.

"There's a chance we might get some snow and it could happen, and we're moving forward as if it could, but I want to be realistic and let you know that it's very unlikely to happen," he said.

But the Wednesday storm watch issued by the National Weather Service sent hope and even expectations up several ticks.

"Mother Nature hasn't yet shown us her hand, but we're hopeful we'll be able to have a ski race or open track skiing event on Saturday," Knutson said. "If only we had a crystal ball."

Race officials have already converted Thursday's Barnebirkie, Junior Birkie and Barkie Birkie events to foot races in Hayward, beginning at noon.

Thursday's opening ceremonies, Elite Sprints, Birkie adaptive ski and Nikkerbeiner have been canceled for this year. The Birkie Expo will be held as scheduled Thursday and Friday.

On the race Facebook page, organizers noted that 1.1 inches of rain and unseasonable temperatures Monday served to deteriorate the race course beyond any possibility of a normal event.

"The safety of our participants is first and foremost in our minds, followed by our goal of creating the best possible participant experience for all," officials said in a news release.

Check duluthnewstribune.com or birkie.com for updates on race events.

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