CABLE — Omar Bermejo didn’t give up. He overcame his brief depression after losing his right arm and is among more than 135 elite athletes from 15 countries that have converged here for this week’s International Paralympic Committee Nordic Skiing World Championships.
The event is a major spectacle and undertaking in this remote spot of northern Wisconsin and an even bigger deal for the athletes. German television is here, Sports Illustrated has come and so have other media from around the globe to cover the Russian, Japanese, Ukrainian, Canadian and other athletes who have lost the use of limbs or are visually impaired.
The Americans are here, too, including Bermejo, 33, who was born in Mexico, grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and before 2008 had never strapped on a pair of cross country skis. But this week, the U.S. Marine — who served four tours of duty in Iraq only to come home and lose an arm in a motorcycle crash — is thrilled to be back in Cable where he skied in a World Cup event in 2013.
This is where the American Birkebeiner, the largest cross country ski race in North America, starts each February and where, in 1978, the first able-bodied cross country skiing World Cup was born.
“I love it because it’s home turf,” said Bermejo, who skied in the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Games. “The Russians have to come to our cage this time.”
And that cage could be getting a makeover that would secure the future of the Birkie and other events that use the trail system for years to come. There is also guarded optimism about the closed Telemark Lodge, one of the state’s most infamous resort properties.
A $2.3 million fundraising campaign has been launched by the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation that over the next five years would, in three phases, improve skiing facilities and the 107 kilometers of trails that wind between Cable and Hayward.
Just over $400,000 of the $650,000 needed for the first phase has been raised. That project would include the construction of a bridge in Hayward in time for this year’s race that would allow skiers to cross over Highway 63 near the finish line without disrupting traffic. It would also fund the purchase of a 300-foot-wide and 2-kilometer-long stretch of land at the start of the race course east of Cable from Clifton Louis, who bought Telemark Lodge out of bankruptcy in 2013. The land would create a permanent starting area that would serve as a year-round trail head, said Ben Popp, ABSF executive director.
“There have been some tenuous relationships with the previous owners over the years,” Popp said. “This gives us control of the entire course. It doesn’t matter how good the middle and end of the race is if there’s no start.”
A second phase would spend $950,000 to repair erosion and other damage to the trail system and add water to aid stations. The $700,000 third phase would construct a building for an outdoor recreation center at the halfway point of the course in Seely that could be used by various groups throughout the year.
“We just want a basic facility that we don’t have right now up here,” Popp said. “This is the center of outdoor silent sport activity in Wisconsin.”
While the Birkie, founded in 1973, gets the most annual attention, the course is home to many other events throughout the year. They include ski races like the Seely Hills Classic, North End Classic, and beginning Feb. 6, the Wisconsin High School Nordic Ski Championships that will draw about 400 skiers. In March, the Fat Bike Birkie will hold 20K and 47K mountain bike races on the groomed ski trails and in September the course hosts the Chequamagon Fat Tire Festival that draws 3,100 mountain bike racers from around the world.
And, once again, there is hope for the 215-room Telemark Lodge that has been closed since March of 2013 when it was abandoned by its operating company.
Louis paid $926,000 for the nearly 1,000-acre property at a Bayfield County auction in the fall of 2013 two years after it was sold for $2 million.
Anyone who buys the property would likely need to spend $20 million to $30 million to upgrade the lodge, said Jim Bolen, Cable Area Chamber of Commerce executive director.
Louis, who has ties to S.C. Johnson and owns property on nearby Lake Owen, has told Bolen that he will only sell to a buyer who has the financial ability to improve and operate the property.
Louis, according to Bolen, wants to see a business plan and agreements with current user groups that would maintain access to the property after it’s sold.
“He has set an extremely high bar,” Bolen said. “Whether anyone is able to reach that mark or not has yet to be seen. We certainly know that if somebody does and the property goes into some other ownership it bodes really well for the economy of our area.”
The development of the Telemark property goes back to the 1940s when Tony Wise and H.B. Hewitt returned from World War II and used a $15,000 GI loan to buy a hill and create a ski resort that opened in December 1947.
A chair lift was added in 1964 to supplement the rope tows and over the years more improvements would come like townhouses and a network of cross country ski trails.
When the $6 million lodge opened in December of 1972, it brought fine dining, a night club, indoor and outdoor swimming pools and outdoor tennis courts to southern Bayfield County.
The facility includes 21,000 square feet of conference space with a lobby that features a 55-foot-tall fireplace built with more than 155 tons of native stone.
But from the mid-1980s, the resort has opened and closed and been sold several times. The lodge is in disrepair, has antiquated accommodations, lacks a spa and isn’t located on a lake. The ski hill has been closed for nearly 20 years and the tennis courts are gone.
“A rejuvenated Telemark Resort would be huge for our economy throughout the region. The potential is absolutely there,” said Bolen, a member of the Bayfield County Economic Development Corp. “Several groups have stepped forward with interest.”
But for this week, at least, the attention is on the Paralympic skiers.
The events include solo, relay and biathlon cross country skiing races through the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.
Athletes who have lost the use of their legs use sit-ski chairs. Visually impaired skiers follow a guide and when competing in the biathlon use an “electronical” rifle that allows aiming with an audible tone.
Nearly 500 volunteers are needed each day to run the events and 17 trailers have been brought in to serve as waxing houses.
Lakewoods Resort on nearby Lake Namakagon has been converted into an athlete village with specialized menus planned to the tiniest detail.
Nightly medal ceremonies are planned at the boat landing that at this time of the year is teeming with snowmobiles.
“It just shows that the community can continue on even if Telemark wasn’t there,” said P.C. Rasmussen, whose great grandmother founded Lakewoods in 1906. “It’s only going to be better if Telemark is a part of it in the future.”