Why We're Supporting the Mt. Telemark Village Campaign

by John Munger
December 1, 2023

A few years ago I heard that the Birkie (the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation, the Foundation or ABSF) was purchasing the old Telemark. Ho hum, I thought. Just one more transaction around the old lodge and the surrounding land. Just another stop in the revolving door of new owners and pipedream ideas . . .

Two years later I look at this transaction much differently. After my years of running the Loppet Foundation I have come to see how important it is for our outdoor active community to have all the pieces in one place. What do I mean by that? Well, it’s nice to have a building for people to warm up in. It’s nice to have bike and ski rentals. It’s great to have lessons. Snowmaking is crucial. Well maintained mountain bike trails are, of course, important. Events that inspire and bring new people can make a big difference in growing our outdoor active community. A staff that knows what it takes to provide trails in-the-moment is huge.

All of these individual pieces can be significant. But the math is strange here. 1+1+1+1 = much more than four. Want to bring new people in? It turns out that it’s not enough to just have rentals. With no building there is no place to warm up, no place to put on the requisite equipment, no place for staff to gather and take care of the equipment. And the grooming and maintenance of trails matters so much more for new people. Yes, we veteran skiers and bikers can probably negotiate a section of trail with poor grooming or no signage. But for the beginner every barrier makes a huge difference - and really, each barrier represents an exit ramp from our lifestyle.

Want to build community? It’s actually difficult to do in our trail-based world. It’s not like soccer or hockey or football or swimming where everyone is, by definition, together on one small field or in one building. We need focal points, events, coffee shops, gathering spaces where we can all be together. And then the magic happens.

I could go on and on. But the point is the same. We can’t just have one piece. We need them all - and when we do have them all in one place 1+1 equates to much more than two . . .

Now, there are times when one might ask what the difference is. When it snows record amounts and the temperatures are in the mid-20s it may seem like anybody can do this. Just go groom up a trail and it’s all good.

And then there are winters like this one. No snow. Warm temperatures. Lots of brown. Lots of bleak. These are the winters that used to cause people to stop skiing.

Not today. Today we have organizations like the Loppet and ABSF. In the blink of an eye - a few fleeting days of vague cold and the Birkie’s staff has conjured a real snowmaking loop.

That’s the value of having an organization like the ABSF. Their very mission is to provide these opportunities for all of us. Their mission is to bring us together. And it shows. Because it takes real urgency to create a snowmaking loop in short order. Setting up. Taking down. Dragging hoses in the middle of the night. Cold and wet. Dark. And inevitably a gun goes down or freezes up. Or a pump stops pumping. It’s just so easy to kick the can down the road: “We’ll get this done tomorrow - or next week . . . or when it’s a little warmer . . .”

Let me take a little side road on this one for a minute. I happen to have extensive personal knowledge on snowmaking and, in particular, on snowmaking systems that are cobbled together out of mis-matched parts, some bubble gum, and lots and lots of muscle-power and fortitude. Now, the Birkie has made a good initial investment in snowmaking. But they don’t have buried pipes. They don’t have enough power stations. They don’t have a great water source. The upshot? They are dragging hoses around in the woods. And I don’t mean your dad’s garden hose. I mean big, thick, heavy and wet firefighter type hoses. There’s a reason that firefighters have to pass physical tests to become firefighters . . . Birkie staff are dragging electric cords around. Again, not your typical extension cord. Big, heavy cords. And when it gets warm during the day and they have to stop running they can’t just turn the system off and let the water sit in the pipes that are buried below the frost line. No, they have to drain the system and start fresh every time.

In other words, it takes a heroic effort for the Birkie to deliver machine-made snow right now. One can only ask staff to make this kind of heroic effort so many times before there is a mutiny. One of the big pieces of the Mt. Telemark Village project is to bury the pipes, add electric infrastructure, add well capacity, and generally bring the system up to snuff. For all of us who love the snowmaking and the guaranteed snow that it brings we should be supporting the Mt. Telemark Village project for the snowmaking infrastructure alone . . .

Now, many of us do not live in Hayward or Cable. There might be a tendency to think that places like Mt. Telemark Village don’t matter unless we live there. But think about the impact a place like Mt. Telemark has on all of us. High school teams from across the region learn to ski and bike and to love the outdoors at Telemark and on the Birkie Trail. Telemark hosts ski and mountain bike races and events for all ages. In low-snow years we all head to Telemark for a little of the magic we call skiing. In good snow years, we all head to the Birkie Trail for a little of the magic that we find on that ribbon of perfect grooming that winds through the Northwoods.

And how many of us wouldn’t be skiing at all if it wasn’t for Telemark? How many stories are there about people who grew up making the pilgrimage to Telemark in the 70s and early 80s? How many people started skiing because someone dared them to try the Birkie?

Increasingly, the same is true for mountain biking.

The Birkie has been busy building new “flow” trails and “gravity” trails that complement the great trails that the Cable Area Mountain Bike Association (CAMBA) already provides. And once the new Base Camp building is completed the Birkie will be home to a “ride center” that will be unlike any other mountain bike trail system that I can think of. The Midwest is filled with amazing trail systems: Duluth’s Traverse, Cayuna, Redhead, Jackpot, Copper Harbor, and even Wirth Park in Minneapolis offer some great riding, to name just a few.

But what the Birkie will have for mountain biking at Mt. Telemark Village is unique. A huge network of trails emanating from one central location. Gravity trails right out the door - with fun loops allowing riders of different abilities to ride together. Bike rentals, a coffee shop, and gathering places so that we can all come together and celebrate our passion for the outdoors in one central location. Hiking trails and a paved trail for walking, rollerskiing or more gentle biking - so that the whole family - no matter the interest or the ability - can start and finish at the same place.

It’s easy to forget how much maintenance and upkeep matter for mountain biking. The trails aren’t as rocky so the flow trails stay flowy. We can ride the gravity trails with confidence because we know the berms and the jumps are maintained and we won’t be in for some unwanted surprise. With well-maintained trails rain events have less of an impact - so we are able to keep riding whatever the weather. Finally, when we bring new riders out we can count on good signage to keep our friends from getting lost or from riding on a trail that is too challenging for their skill level.

And then the non-mountain biking infrastructure. The Village already has a hotel. There will be bike rentals, a restaurant, camper cabins, picnic areas, and a central building. There are already condominiums and housing in the area. In other words, all the pieces that will allow families to enjoy the trails and introduce their kids to the sport in the same way that skier families started skiing at Telemark year ago. (Note that things like the hotel, bike rentals, restaurant, and camper cabins are going to be built, run and maintained by Birkie partners rather than by the Birkie itself. My sense is that this is a big improvement on Telemark 1.0, allowing the Birkie and the partners to focus on the things that each does best.)

So, yes, in years like this one - when there is no snow anywhere else - it becomes more obvious that Mt. Telemark Village is going to be important to us all. But it goes way beyond a few weeks of skiing when it’s otherwise brown. Mt. Telemark Village will be/is/represents the capital of our outdoor active lifestyle. That one place where we know we can count on all the pieces coming together for our whole community. The trails. The non-trail infrastructure. And the organization whose sole focus is delivering the trails and the infrastructure for us every day. It turns out that we need all three pieces - and Mt. Telemark Village - with the Birkie running the show - is the one place that brings all three pieces together.

That’s why Diana and I are investing in Mt. Telemark Village. We typically give to the ABSF. We buy trail passes. We pay our registration fees. We are members of the Foundation. And we usually give a little extra. But this year is big. Birkie staff have been working their tails off to put all the pieces together for us on this project. The staff and the board have taken a big risk in launching on a $10 Million campaign to make the Village a reality.

And it’s not like the Birkie does something like this every day. This is the biggest thing they have ever done. And it behooves us, who get so much out of our outdoor active lifestyle, to pay it forward now so that future generations can enjoy the same opportunities that we do. Or, another way to think about it, with this being the fiftieth anniversary of the Birkie, this projects represents the legacy that we should be leaving for our kids and grandkids.

So for Diana and I our gift this year will be orders of magnitude more than our normal giving to the Foundation. For this year, for this project, the Birkie is our top charitable priority.

I hope you will join us in making the Mt. Telemark Village a top priority. It’s the least we can do to honor Ben, the board, the whole Birkie staff, and the volunteers who have put themselves out there for our benefit, to grow the community, and to make the Cable/Hayward community a better place generally.

Yes, enjoy the snowmaking loop - and give for that reason alone. But as you consider your giving for the year take a moment to think about all the ways that the Telemark Village project will matter for you, your family, your kids and grandkids, and for the whole community for years to come. We’ll see you on the trails!


About the author...

John Munger is a skier and biker. He is a former attorney and was the executive director of the Loppet Foundation from 2003 - 2020. He is now an independent business consultant and has been helping the Birkie with the Mt. Telemark Village capital campaign. You can find John at mungerconsultingservices.com.