I was lucky enough to have a conversation with one of the more avid adventurists and true lovers of the outdoors earlier this week. Up for week 11 in the countdown is Birkie lover, supporter, skier and foundation Vice President Dennis Kruse. After buying a cabin in the Cable area in 1979, Kruse has been a constant presence in all things Birkie. There isn’t enough room on WordPress for all of Kruse’s amazing stories, but read on for some sneak peaks into his incredible life and thoughtful insights.
How did you get involved in the Birkie?
In the late 70s I was living in Illinois teaching law when I saw Bill Koch on TV, and thought ‘that looks cool.’ I thought alpine skiing was too much effort, but I suddenly had the idea that I could cross country ski in Illinois. I got some wood skis, skied on golf courses, and a friend told me about the Birkie. After a health scare in 1977 (more details on that in the next question), I did some soul searching and decided I didn’t care about money or fame, but instead I wanted to ski the Birkie, canoe, and backpack the Rockies. I had been moving up the “professor ladder” in Illinois, and suddenly that seemed fine but not what really gave me joy and satisfaction. I thought it would be fun to get involved, and I was elected to the Birkie board in 1996, and have enjoyed being a part of it ever since!
What is your most memorable Birkie experience?
I would have to say my first. I’d been diagnosed with a chest problem in the fall of 1977, and after eliminating cancer as a possibility the doctors told me I had Tuberculosis. I kept going in for checkups, and things started to feel better and I told my doctors I really wanted to ski the Birkie. The doctors wouldn’t tell me whether I could ski it or not, and finally the nurse told me to go do it. I wasn’t a skier, I wasn’t in shape, and I had this lingering doubt in my mind that I might really have some physical issue. And then I thought, ‘the hell with it!’ The first year I did the Birkie was the first year there was transportation from Hayward. The bus I took to the start got lost, and while the race started at 9 we didn’t get there till a quarter to 10. My brother and I were the fastest of the 20 people on the bus, and we were scared we weren’t even going the right way. I was wearing a pair of cut off blue wool pants, knickers that I made myself, and wool socks that matched my sweater–the whole thing was just so epic. My brother fell into the woods trying to avoid another skier and split his pants above his crotch. At gravel pit I realized he had frost bite on his thigh, and he got a stack of paper towels, put them inside his underwear, and skied like that until the last food station when a guy found a baby blanket and pinned it on him like a diaper. My brother and I skied it in together. I was so excited, and to this day I can close my eyes and actually hear the music that was playing. I probably drove back to Illinois with my medal on the whole time. The Birkie, and the consequences of me moving here, have been the most significant things in my life.
What does the Birkie mean to you?
The Birkie redefined my vision of myself, and continues to shape who I am, where I live, and who my friends are. My lifestyle of loving to be active was a product of the Birkie and the environment in Northern Wisconsin.
How have you seen the race and the organization evolve since its induction?
The biggest change has been the size of the race. If you look at the number of people, the efficiency, baggage transport–it’s just incredible. 10,000 skiers can participate without a lot of flaws. When I got on the board in 1996, the Birkie only had a 10 year history as a foundation. There was a lot of debt. But now the foundation is undertaking a big fundraising initiative, owns a lot of equipment (piston bullies, trucks, mowers, gator, snow mobiles, trail huts, building in Hayward and a building at OO), and has a skier development fund. The foundation has gone from basically hemorrhaging money to being financially secure. When I got on the board in 1996, I ran on the platform that if we really want to build the sport of cross country skiing, the best foundation for that is the American Birkebeiner. The Birkie is not just a race. It’s bigger than that–it’s more than that. It has the potential to expand and change the sport of cross country skiing.
Thanks Dennis! Check in next week–I’ll be counting down from snowy West Yellowstone!