WISCONSIN’S RURAL SMALL towns are famous for the many festivals and events they put on each year — events that bring thousands of people to participate in bike, running, ski, snowmobile and other competitions along with street fairs and other such tourist attractions.

The towns in our neck of the North Woods are well known for the quantity and quality of such events. Eagle River has the world championship snowmobile races in the winter. The city also hosts Cranberry Fest that brings in thousands of visitors each fall. Runners have come in large numbers for the excellently run Journey’s Marathon and its associated races.

Land O’ Lakes has some of the best sled dog racing in Wisconsin. St. Germain has the first and one of the best Colorama celebrations in north Wisconsin. Boulder Junction’s Musky Days is a premier summer event bringing thousands of visitors to that town.

From pumpkin festivals, craft shows, snow festivals and any other kind of festival you can think of, towns like Phelps, Sayner-Star Lake, Conover and others have festivals large and small that bring many more thousands of people to our area; all of them outstanding events.

With that said, it would be hard to imagine a north Wisconsin festival that brings in more participants not only from surrounding states, but annually, from more than 20 foreign countries and all 50 states. That event is the American Birkebeiner in the Cable-Hayward area.

I suppose I am a bit prejudiced in proclaiming the Birkie as the biggest of the big, having just completed my 20th Birkie; pat on my own back. My involvement in the Birkie started in 1984, when I skied my first.

In those earlier years, with founder Tony Wise at the helm, there was a great deal of pageantry that went with the Birkie weekend. From 35 skiers skiing the first Birkie in 1973, the race quickly grew to thousands. Top foreign skiers, many from Europe, were soon competing in the Birkie when Wise led the formation of the Worldloppet Ski Federation, which brought together races in Norway, Sweden, France and Finland among other countries and now includes races in Australia, Japan and several other countries.

Current and former Olympic racers have competed in the Birkie along with other top elite racers from all over the world. And then, there are the “not really racer” participants. I am one of them. When I first started skiing the Birkie, I would usually finish at the bottom of the first half of the finishers. Now, I ski only to finish.

But skiers are only part of the story of the Birkie as is the case with all of our local festivals. Without volunteers there would be no festivals, no Birkie.

To put on the Birkie, it takes more than 3,400 volunteers to handle all the chores that have to be done. More than 75 school busses are contracted to haul skiers and spectators to and from start and finish lines during the two days of the Birkie, Kortelopet and Prince Haakon races.

In all, this year more than 11,000 skiers competed in various Birkie races over three days including the three feature races, the Barnebirkie race for children, the Junior Birkie, the Giant Ski race, the Barkie Birkie skijoring race with dogs and the Birkie Jr. Relays.

When it comes to getting enough volunteers to handle all aspects of the race, I know a little of what it takes, albeit on a smaller scale. I know how much arm-twisting it took to get 70 volunteers to assist in running the Ridge Rider mountain bike races in Sayner, one of the original Wisconsin Off Road Series races in Wisconsin, a race during which my Lions Club hosted as many as 700 racers.

My wife, who has lots of experience in getting volunteers as part of her job at the Howard Young Foundation, is getting more than 100 volunteers to help put on in Minocqua what has become one of the best dragon boat races in the United States.

It’s hard work and I have a hard time envisioning getting 3,400 people to volunteer at the Birkie, but volunteer they do. Whether it be people at registration, the finish line or especially those at the eight aid stations along the Birkie race course who feed us skiers energy drinks, water, orange slices, banana chunks, gooey energy packs and more, those people are a huge part of the Birkie backbone.

Any skier in need of help at any of the stations gets it from people who are smiling, encouraging and genuinely kind to the thousands of skiers that ski through their stations.

I don’t know how in the heck I ever fell into the clutches of the Birkie, especially after suffering through a long, painful six and a half-hour finish in my first, which I swore would be my last.

Yet since 1984, the Birkie has been a part of my life. I am proud of myself for finishing 20, but I am even prouder of all the other couple thousand or so skiers who have completed 20, 30, 40 or more Birkies. Especially amazing is Ernie St. Germaine, a friend of mine and many others since 1973, as the only skier who has completed all 46 Birkies.

Like all of our area events, large and small, the Birkie is a shining example of what small town north Wisconsin people can do when they say “we can do it.”

At the Birkie, they do it.