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Not a Run! Skiing the BATB Up Nort’

February 21, 2012

So there is a good chance that this might be the best little web log entry I ever write, if only because this past weekend was the sort of thing you just can’t make up. A few months ago, my sister suggested we sign up for the Book Across the Bay cross-country ski race in northern Wisconsin. I’ve cross-country skied once before (some 10-15 years ago), but a.) the race would be at night! and b) it was going to be on Lake Superior. A nice, flat, frozen lake. I was psyched, though a little apprehensive about the long drive (+9 hours from Chicago) and also, because I am sometimes a socially-insecure grad student, about meeting new people (it was an official girls’ weekend, with a couple of Jen’s pals from work joining us).

Well. It was awesome. I drove from Chicago to Madison on Friday afternoon, where I met up with Becky, an entomologist who works for the Dept. of Agriculture in Wisconsin. She is phenomenal, and we spent the 3-hour drive to Merrill chatting happily like old friends. We got to Jen and Brian’s house around 7, and there we met  Anne (new friend #2) and enjoyed some pre-race fuel of beer and spaghetti with venison meatballs. I fell asleep by the fireplace, staring out a window at the snowy woods and the darkest night sky you can imagine.

On Saturday we loaded up our skis and drove to Bayfield, population 600. If you’ve never been there, Bayfield is possibly one of the cutest fresh-water seaside towns that exist. Old Victorian homes line a steep hill above the water, and little cafes and kayak rental stores sit below by the harbor. It’s something of a gateway to the Apostle Islands, and at this time of year there is normally an “ice road” between Bayfield and Madeleine Island. When the edge of Lake Superior freezes up, locals mark driving lanes with construction cones and drive across the ice to get supplies or take their kids to school. This winter hasn’t been as harsh as normal, so the ferry still slowly chugged  through the slushy ice to the island. And that was about all the life we saw.

We checked into the hotel at about 4, then each put on at least three layers of our warmest gear and headed to Washburn (a thriving metropolis of 2,000) to board school buses to Ashland, where the race started. There’s something to be said for a school bus full of skis and bundled up kids and adults. We sat in the back, enjoying so many patterned stocking caps and clanking ski poles and laughing, expectant faces ahead.

The bus pulled up to the edge of the lake,  and it was really all magic after that. Some 4,000 people signed up for the race this year, and everywhere we looked there was color and light. At any moment there were elite speed skiers effortlessly skimming across the snow, parents hooking their little ones onto sleds or chasing down slightly bigger ones on tiny skis, teenagers jumping around in tutus, rough, lumberjack-looking characters (one carrying an axe, and not ironically), old friends hugging and, inevitably, at least one person falling over sideways. The porta-potties had jars with votive candles in them, and there was an enormous bonfire near the race start. It unsurprisingly attracted quite a crowd, so we stayed cozy from a distance with handwarmers and the occasional sip of whiskey. I didn’t feel the least bit guilty about drinking before a race, especially when the man next to us dropped his backpack in the snow, reached into it for a metal shaker and began mixing up a cocktail. I’m laughing as I type this.

As the sun faded behind the harbor and the sky faded to crimson and gold and blue, we moved to the race start. Someone sang the national anthem, and the race director gave last minute instructions. “Now the race is supposed to start at six, but what’s going to happen is we’re going to wait until a little bit after six before telling you to go. In the past few years we’ve had a number of screwballs who try to get out early, and so we’re changing the way we do things around here.”

It really is a competitive race for some people, and apparently last year’s fastest time was 19 minutes. For a 10k! The course was much icier this year, and I think the winner came in at about 30 minutes.* Our group stuck to a very honorable 2 hour pace. I honestly can’t believe it took us that long, but none of us was in a hurry to finish. We moved slowly under a night sky that was in places almost grey with so many stars, and our path was lit by torches and blocks of ice with candles in them. At the halfway point, there was a sign that said, “5 down, 5 to go,” and volunteers handed out sugar cookies. And when the winners reached Bayfield, fireworks lit up over the ice. Who would want to hurry through that?

The post-race party was in full swing when we reached the shore, but our cold limbs and hungry bellies didn’t want to wait in the long line for chili. So we drove back to a very quiet Bayfield, where it seems the arrival of some 4,000 tourists isn’t enough to convince area restaurants to stay open past 8. We ended up in a hotel bar, ordering pitchers of Spotted Cow and frozen pizzas. There’s something to be said for inhaling an over-priced sausage thin crust with friends while your cheeks get rosier (first from wind, then from alcohol) and a NASCAR race blares on the TV over the bar. It was altogether a heavenly night.

*And it wasn’t even a 10k this year. There was a sign at the race registration that said “Course Elevation” and displayed a long, flat red line at 0 feet from 1k-10k. As Anne stopped to take a photo of it, an older gentleman with a long, scraggly beard held his hand up to the sign, covering up the 10k point. “This one’s not a 10k,” he said. “The plow truck took a wrong turn yesterday, so we’re pretty sure it’s only 9.”


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  1. Alice's Friend permalink

    “The plow truck took a wrong turn yesterday, so we’re pretty sure it’s only 9.”

    I really love this. 🙂

  2. I love this post. The only thing is, I’m really worried about the votives in the porta-potties causing an explosion or something.

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