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There was barely any snow in Hayward at the beginning of winter. Ahead of the Birkie, they're plowing it off the trails.

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel logo Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel 2/21/2019 Sarah Hauer

Barely any snow fell around Hayward at the start of the winter tourism season. 

At one trailhead on the Birkie Trail system, 40 percent fewer people went through during the first part of the winter, said Executive Director of the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation Ben Popp.

In the last few weeks, just in time for the biggest cross-country ski race on the continent, the small town got a dumping of snow. Thursday, ahead of Saturday's 54-kilometer American Birkebeiner, up to 8 inches of fresh powder fell. 

"It’s like a snow globe up here right now," Popp said Thursday.

More snow is in the forecast for Friday afternoon through Saturday morning. Hayward will get another 1 to 2 inches before race time, according to the National Weather Service. 

"The snow just wasn't what we were hoping in the month of December and early in January," said Chris Ruckdaschel, executive director of the Hayward Area Chamber of Commerce. "That has all switched around."

So much snow fell that race officials don't know what to do with it all. 

"We're actually plowing snow off the trails," Popp said. "That's amazing." 

"People want to come here when there is good snow," Popp said. "It's really hard on our economy — not having good snow. It’s obvious there are all the hotels, gas stations. It was a slow start. Now it’s cooking. Maybe if we’re lucky we'll ski in April and May." 

That means the Birkie weekend is even more important to the small Wisconsin city's economy, which is based on tourism. Hayward has around 2,300 full-time residents. 

Around 13,500 people will take part in the weekend's skiing events. Another 25,000 to 30,000 people will come to Hayward to watch the race. This year's participants will travel from 49 states (all but Oklahoma) and 23 countries. Events kicked off Thursday and end Sunday. The more than 30-mile Birkie runs from the Birkebeiner Trailhead to the finish line on a snow-covered Main Street. 

a group of people cross country skiing in the snow © Provided by Gannett Co., Inc.

One study by the University of Wisconsin Extension estimates the four-day Birkie weekend brings an estimated $4 million to the local economy. More than half of the skiers and spectators pay for lodging during the weekend, according to a survey of Birkie participants. 

"Birkie is one of those weekends we all wait for," said Ashley Haugen who works at the front desk at Comfort Suites in Hayward. The hotel makes special accommodations for the skiiers, turning its conference rooms into spaces for waxing skis. 

The hotel gives first dibs on its 60 rooms on Birkie weekend to people who stayed at the Comfort Suites the previous year. About 99 percent of guests will make a reservation again for the next year, Haugen said.

It's the only event for which the hotel makes this kind of policy. Other hotels in the area, like the Northern Pine Inn, do the same. 

The Birkie is just one of the large events that draws big crowds to Hayward. Musky Festival in June brings upwards of 40,000 people to the area. The town also holds the LCO Honor the Earth Pow Wow in July, the Lumberjack World Championships in August and the Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival in September. 

Sarah Hauer can be reached at shauer@journalsentinel.com or on Instagram @HauerSarah and Twitter @SarahHauer. Subscribe to her weekly newsletter Be MKE at jsonline.com/bemke

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: There was barely any snow in Hayward at the beginning of winter. Ahead of the Birkie, they're plowing it off the trails.

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