DULUTH-Ben Popp was reached by NFL representatives last July inquiring if the American Birkebeiner cross-country ski marathon had any interest in partnering up for the "Super Bowl Live" festival taking place Jan. 26-Feb. 4 in Minneapolis.

Popp, executive director for the Birkie, was like, "Where do you sign us up?"

"They wanted to showcase what happens in the Upper Midwest in the winter," he said. "We're not out surfing. We're not on the beach. We ski and snow tube and fat bike. So we started working on that concept."

Then the conversation turned to the Birkie's international bridge, which will be used by skiers this Saturday to cross Highway 63 near the end of the 50-kilometer ski race from Cable, Wis., to Main Street in Hayward, Wis.

"They asked, 'Can you bring it down here?'" Popp recalled. "And I said, 'I don't know, maybe.' And it started there, and it took us about eight months of figuring it out, but lo and behold, it worked."

The Birkie bridge was transported to Minneapolis. It was there for about two weeks but was only used for seven days, assembled on Nicollet Mall. It was part of NBC's four hours of pregame coverage before Super Bowl LII. It was featured on such programs as the "Today" show, and Popp suddenly was appearing on national television news.

Popp said the Birkie bridge was part of more than 25 telecasts, from the Weather Channel and Telemundo to ESPN Deportes, showing the world how we live in the Northland.

"It was crazy," Popp said. "You couldn't afford to pay for that kind of advertising, obviously, and it was an awesome experience. It was really once in a lifetime opportunity that we couldn't pass up, and hopefully, it will really pay off for the sport."

Prime conditions

Birkie events kicked off Thursday, Feb. 22, and Popp called conditions "fabulous."

In fact, he doesn't remember the last time the race had it so good.

"A couple years ago we had too much snow, and it collapsed all the tents, and then we had rain," Popp said. "It's been a while since we had nice weather in the 30s, so we're looking forward to it."

Popp said the Hayward area, unlike much of the region, received only an inch or two of snow earlier this week, and another 3-5 inches were expected overnight Thursday.

With five groomers, Popp said Birkie crews can have today's Kortelopet 29K ready in about two hours.

The Hayward area hasn't received a ton of snow this winter, but the blessing for the Birkie is that it hasn't lost what fell.

"I don't know if we've had more than two or three melting days," Popp said. "It's just been really cold, so even though it hasn't been a plethora (of snow), we have not had the melting.

"It looks like Saturday night we could get a pretty big dump (of snow), upwards of 12 to 14 inches, so I've been telling everyone if you come to Hayward, we might not let you leave. We'll see what happens."

Birkie Fever rages

Popp said multiple factors have combined to make "Birkie Fever" stronger than ever this year, including the Super Bowl exposure, Winter Olympics and ideal conditions after last year's race was canceled due to a lack of snow. Of the roughly 13,000 skiers taking part this weekend, 49 states and 36 countries are represented.

"Normally, it's in the low 20s, so to have 49 states represented is pretty amazing," he said.

The only state not represented? Oklahoma.

"If you know anybody in Oklahoma, let me know their number," Popp said, laughing.

If that wasn't enough, Minnesota native and two-time Korte champion Jessie Diggins just became the first U.S. cross-country skier to capture Olympic gold.

"We got a little video from her and (teammate) Kikkan Randall saying, 'Hey everybody, we're over here in South Korea, but good luck at the Birkie!'" Popp said. "They're having great careers, but when they're done, they can come here and join the party. What they did is unbelievable and such a great thing for the sport and the community. They're an inspiration for young girls, role models, and just make us all really proud and excited to be cross-country skiers.

"They made history, and the excitement here is higher than you can imagine. It just adds into the fever. It's really hard to measure, it's so high, and that's really cool to see."

Bridging the gap

Anyone who has been to downtown Hayward on the day of the Birkie knows how traffic can snarl, with 13,000 skiers, as well their families, friends and race fans descending on the town of 2,300 people.

Easing the congestion this year will be an expanded Birkie bridge. The ramps were moved out and the bridge lengthened by 30 feet to accommodate four lanes of traffic instead of the previous two, which should make life much easier for motorists on Highway 63.


What: North America's largest cross-country ski race

Where: 50 kilometers from Cable to Main Street in Hayward (55K for classic skiers)

When: 8:15 a.m. Saturday

Who: A field of about 11,000 for the Birkie and its support races, the Kortelopet 29K and the Prince Haakon 15K

Live race tracking/webcast: birkie.com

Today's schedule: 10:45 a.m.: Kortelopet 29K; 1:15 p.m.: Prince Haakon 15K; 9 a.m.-8 p.m.: Birkie Expo at Hayward High School

Saturday forecast: Cloudy with a high of 37 and 10 to 15 mph wind; snow is expected but will not develop until the afternoon