New silent sports complexes brighten Wisconsin brand

Fifty years ago this Saturday 35 intrepid cross-country skiers took off on wooden skis from the Lumberjack Bowl in Hayward WI to the Telemark Lodge in Cable. The American Birkebeiner is still is the longest cross-country race in North America at 50 kilometers (31 miles) for free style and now 55 kilometers for diagonal striding.

The first Birkebeiner race was a poorly groomed, unmarked track through farm fields, across country roads and through the forests of northern Wisconsin. I counted the significant climbs once, and the number is 39. First time skiers from all over the world can’t believe the difficulty.

This weekend more than 13,000 skiers will participate in the famous “Birkie” and its accompanying events, which include the Barkie Birkie that starts on Main Street in Hayward. Skijoring, where the dog pulls the skier started in Scandinavia, is a popular winter sport in Wisconsin. All breeds of dogs, from poodles to St. Bernards, participate in the Barkie Birkie. The winners are usually the fast German Shorthair Pointers, but Augie, a big golden Retriever, took 3rd in the women’s class several years back. (Scroll down to the bottom of the post for a photo.) It takes a nimble skier to stay upright. Spectators love the event because it’s a hoot to watch the pandemonium at the start when pairs of dogs are released side-by-side.

A half a century ago cross-country skiing and the silent sports were in their infancy. Today cross-country skiing and other silent sports have leaped to the forefront as signatures for healthy lifestyles. Because Wisconsin’s glacial topography is perfect for cross-country skiing, biking and trail running events winter and summer, silent sports venues are taking shape as major destinations.

Major developments across the state are changing the Wisconsin brand. Winters are no longer a negative; they are now a time for a wide variety of fun sports that include alpine and cross-country skiing, fat bike trails and races, mountain biking on the best trails in the country, ice fishing, sturgeon spearing, and even winter camping.

In the forefront is one of the world’s capitals for silent sports, the rapidly developing complex between Hayward and Cable. The American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation (ABSF) now manages 47 different events under its motto: “Ski, Run, Bike, Live.”

The Birkie Foundation has already changed the culture of the north with its wide menu of events that includes marathons, duathlons and triathlons. It has already added a 3-kilometer roller skiing path and workout stations and a warming chalet near Seeley. It has plans for a biathlon range, 16 more kilometers of trails, a chalet, ponds for ice skating, a sledding hill and climbing walls.

The silent sports advances in the northwestern part of the state are being matched by new silent sports complexes in Brillion and Middleton. (The Winter Park complex in Minocqua is a veteran and successful ski and bike attraction.)

The Ariens Nordic Center outside Brillion in east central Wisconsin will challenge the Birkie for popularity. The Ariens Company, which makes a well-known brand of snow blowers, is the entrepreneurial force behind the new complex in Brillion. It has already installed 3.5 miles of cross-country trails that are covered with 30 inches of manmade snow from its extensive snowmaking machines.

The new Nordic center plans to become the center for biathlon training and events in which cross-country skiers race, stop to shoot their specially designed rifles at targets and resume racing.

CEO Dan Ariens said, “The Nordic Center, as it turns out, is probably going to be the centerpiece of what we’ve done for the community for drawing people into Brillion.”

Ariens has opened a trail center called Round Lake Farms that will host corporate events, weddings, and serve as a space for warming, resting and dining. The trails are lit at night.

It’s a pretty spectacular undertaking, especially when combined with its redevelopment of the former Brillion Iron Works.

What Ariens is doing in Brillion is similar to what the Kohler Company has done for Kohler.

In the southcentral part of the state, a new partnership between the City of Middleton and Central Cross-Country Skiing (CXC) have opened skiing trails at the new CXC Outdoor Recreation and Sports Center.

Led by ski coach and entrepreneur, Yuriy Gusev, plans for the CXC Center include permanent snow-making, trail lights, two miles of paved recreational trails, a mountain bike trailhead, and a skills course for mountain bikers.

These three innovative complexes will change the thinking of Wisconsinites about the quality of life in their state. They will learn the rewards of the silent sports in longevity, family mental and physical health, and the joy of moving from being a sports television spectator to an active participant.

One last note: The new entrepreneurial centers are surely thinking of bringing World Cup races to Wisconsin.


Augie, a big golden Retriever, took 3rd in the women’s class in the Barkie Birkie several years back.


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