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The Birkie and the Great Bear Chase: Comparing two great races

The Birkie and the Great Bear Chase

Racers que at the beginning of the Great Bear Chase

The Birkie and the Great Bear Chase

Over the last two weeks, I have had the pleasure and pain of experiencing two awesome cross-country skiing races in the Midwest. I participated in the American Birkebeiner or affectionately known as the “Birkie” in late February and this past week I skied the Great Bear Chase in Calumet, Michigan. They turned out to both be amazing adventures.

It was my third Birkie, but just my first Great Bear Chase. I was constantly comparing the two races during my time in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Here are some of my observations.

2014 Birkie start

The start of one wave of the Birkie Classic

The Trail

The Birkie is 54 kilometers from Cable to Hayward, Wisconsin and goes through some of the most rugged terrain you will find on any ski trail. Except for the last 4 kilometers over Lake Hayward, it seems the Birkie is either up or down and is quite a grind.

Birkie steep hill

There is a lot of this going on at the Birkie

The Great Bear Chase takes place on the Swedetown Trail system. The 50 kilometer race loops the trails twice, so unlike the Birkie it is two loops instead of one long trail. The Swedetown Trails are much more flat although there are enough hills to make it interesting.

The Birkie and the Great Bear Chase

The beginning of the Great Bear Chase

These differences can be a positive or a negative depending on your outlook. Although the Birkie is tougher, the hills are more fun and the tough course seems like more of an accomplishment. On the other hand, if you are racing and want to go fast, the Swedetown Trails are much more ski racer friendly, so if a fast time is important to you then the Great Bear Chase might be for you. My times in the Birkie were 5:54, 5:31, and 5:34; whereas, my time on the Great Bear Chase was 4:52. Even though the Great Bear Chase is 4 kilometers less, it was a nice moral victory to race under 5 hours.

The fact that the Great Bear Chase has two loops also might be a positive or a negative. Some might prefer the Birkie because you do not backtrack, so all scenery is fresh, while others might like the two loop option in Michigan as it is more convenient for getting a split.

The Birkie and the Great Bear Chase

The Birkie and the Great Bear Chase – Birkie is on the bottom – No denying that both trail systems are beautiful


The Birkie is the king of the cross-country races in North America with over 10,000 participants. The Great Bear Chase only has 500. The morning of the Great Bear Chase, I left my Bed and Breakfast, which was five miles from the starting line, a half hour before the start and made it to the course just in time. If I pulled that stunt at the Birkie I would be hours late.

Birkie crowd

There are crowds everywhere at the Birkie

The bus for the Birkie leaves at 6 a.m. from Hayward and arrives an hour or more to the starting line depending on your wave. Then you sit in a warming tent waiting for your start time. There are no lines at the Great Bear Chase. It took me ten minutes to get registered at the bib pick up. It can take 30 minutes at the Birkie and then another 30 minutes to get to and from your car.

Race congestion

At the Birkie, the race is really packed until the point when the Korteloppet racers veer off on their own course about ten kilometers into the race. The start is especially tight. There are rarely times when you are not within sight of other racers and usually within a pack.

The Birkie and the Great Bear Chase

One wave of the Birkie start

At the Great Bear Chase it was a little tight at the beginning, but after a kilometer or two the race really spread out. There were times I was skiing by myself in the woods for 15 minutes without seeing anyone. The skate race started an hour later, so about two hours into the race the skaters started to fly by, but even then there were periods of downright solitude.

The Birkie and the Great Bear Chase

Only a few kilometers into the Great Bear Chase

The cities

The Birkie takes place in Cable and Hayward in the great northwoods of Wisconsin. The Great Bear Chase takes place in Calumet, Michigan in the Keweenaw Peninsula just north of Houghton in the Upper Peninsula. Both towns have a small town wilderness charm with beautiful scenery.

Calumet snow

The snow in Hayward was intense, but the piles of snow in Calumet were off the charts


You can pretty much depend on good snow at the Birkie in February. This past year the course was hit with 15 inches two nights before the race. The snow in the Upper Peninsula is off the charts though. They routinely get over 230 inches and this year are creeping over 250 inches. I have not seen snow like I did in Michigan since I was in the Wasatch Mountains in Utah where they get over 400 inches.

The Birkie and the Great Bear Chase

Piles of snow along the Swedetown Trails at the Great Bear Chase

This post is not to sway readers to one race or the other.  You can read the differences and decide yourself if either race appeals to you. Both races are a great adventure and both trail systems are absolutely gorgeous, so I recommend both.

Part of my stay in Calumet was taken care of by the race, but this did not sway my thoughts as the above observations, photos, and thoughts are my own. I would like to thank Madshus skis for lending me a pair of racing skis for the Birkie and Cross-Country Sports in Calumet for doing the same for the Great Bear Chase.


The goal of Traveling Ted is to inspire people to outdoor adventure travel and then provide tips on where and how to go. If you liked this post then enter your email in the box to get email notifications for each new entry. Daily travel photos are excluded from your email in order to not flood you with posts. There is no spam and email information will not be shared. Other e-follow options include Facebook (click on the like box to the right) or twitter (click on the pretty bird on the rainbow above).

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20 Responses to The Birkie and the Great Bear Chase: Comparing two great races

  1. MHB March 13, 2014 at 1:23 pm #

    It was a fun weekend up in the U.P., and a pleasure meeting you! Hopefully we’ll see you back up here again at some point, if you make it up here don’t hesitate to shoot me an e-mail, eh!

    • Ted Nelson March 16, 2014 at 5:14 pm #


      Thanks so much for taking care of me and inviting me out Saturday night. I had a great weekend and this trip solidified my view about the awesomeness of the UP and the Keweenaw Peninsula. I will definitely be back soon.

  2. Mary Anne March 16, 2014 at 2:08 pm #

    And you were nervous about running the marathon? Please… This is way cooler and requires so much more from you physically. I continue to be impressed 🙂

    • Ted Nelson March 16, 2014 at 5:17 pm #

      Thanks Mary Anne. Actually, the running marathon I think is much harder for me. There is no break in running. With skiing you can tuck in downhill and rest while coasting for 30 seconds or a minute depending on the length of the downhill. It still is quite a challenge though and takes a lot out of you.

  3. Erin at The World Wanderer March 16, 2014 at 4:57 pm #

    I think the GBC is more my speed, though it would be a while before I could do any of these things. Both seem interesting though.

    That uphill photo is crazy. When I went skiing, there was only one small uphill and I wound up on the floor crawling up unsuccessfully. It was impossible! Makes me have so much respect for those who do it with ease!
    Erin at The World Wanderer recently posted..Keeping Healthy at Home with iHeartMD.

    • Ted Nelson March 16, 2014 at 5:19 pm #

      What is crazy is how easy the top notch skiers handle hills. They actually run up them. The power and endurance to tackle hills like this is amazing.

  4. Renuka March 16, 2014 at 7:02 pm #

    Wow, lovely winter adventures! This post has come like a whiff of inspiration for someone like me who can’t stand winters!
    Renuka recently posted..7 Inspiring Lakes In India – A Photo Essay

    • Ted Nelson March 16, 2014 at 7:31 pm #

      I used to not like winter much too until I picked up Nordic skiing a couple of years ago. Now I moved on to hating spring.

  5. Leigh March 17, 2014 at 1:27 am #

    I’m having a tough time choosing which one I’d prefer. For scenery the Birkie sounds like the race and I like the fact you don’t have to backtrack. But small can be beautiful and I like the fact you can just roll out of bed and hit the trails.

    I think I have to do both.
    Leigh recently posted..Unleash Your Inner Cowboy in Banff National Park

    • Ted Nelson March 20, 2014 at 12:31 am #

      Each race is fantastic. I look forward to doing them both next year and years to come.

  6. Francesca (@WorkMomTravels) March 17, 2014 at 11:51 am #

    Tedward, you are BADASS. Kudos to you for completing both races, neither of which was easy, I’m sure. I’m partial to Michigan, especially the Keweenaw, so I’d choose the GBC 🙂
    Francesca (@WorkMomTravels) recently posted..We’re ready to @GowithOh & be the first-ever Guest Tester Family!

    • Ted Nelson March 20, 2014 at 12:31 am #

      You cannot beat the Keweenaw Peninsula. I love this area.

  7. Trips By Lance March 17, 2014 at 8:54 pm #

    I’d love to do this, but considering I’ve never stepped into any kind of snow skis I need to take it one step at a time.
    Trips By Lance recently posted..Vacation Exercise: Thinking Outside the Box

    • Ted Nelson March 20, 2014 at 12:31 am #

      It definitely takes preparation like any marathon.

  8. the lazy travelers March 17, 2014 at 10:18 pm #

    i mean, we’d just die. just fall over and die. meet you in the lodge with beaucoup de vin chaud next time?
    the lazy travelers recently spotter: galway girl

    • Ted Nelson March 20, 2014 at 12:32 am #

      Sounds good Lazy Travelers. Definitely need a hot tub.

  9. bilal March 20, 2014 at 12:14 am #

    nice site really nice i like it

  10. Pola (Jetting Around) March 21, 2014 at 10:30 am #

    No offence Sochi, but this should have been televised. I mean, Ted and bis fanny pack competing in a ski race? What’s not to love?

    • Ted Nelson March 22, 2014 at 6:08 pm #

      I think I would prefer to ski race anonymously. It would be rather embarrassing for TV crews to see me with snot running down my nose holding up the rear 🙂

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