In number, Ernie St. Germaine will ski alone when he sets out on his 41st American Birkebeiner Ski race.
In spirit, he will carry the legacy of close friends who joined him on the first epic outing in 1973.
St. Germaine is the lone skiing survivor from the group of 35 who gathered on Lake Hayward; the only person to complete all 40 Birkebeiners to date, and an example of the longevity that an active lifestyle can bring.
“I have to say it has saved my life,” said St. Germaine, 66, and a semi-retired Lac du Flambeau tribal judge. “It’s that dramatic, because the day after the Birkie, I’m thinking about the next one. I’m active.
“I’m a diabetic and it’s kept me healthy,” he said. “I don’t need insulin yet.”
When he kicks and glides through the forest on Saturday, St. Germaine will be with his friends in more than memory.
Secured under his bib, he carries a small pouch with the ashes of Wayne Lindskoog, a Birkie Founder who died in December 2002, and Dave Landgraf, killed while bicycling near Hayward in August 2011.
“I just think that Ernie carrying Wayne’s ashes, it carries on the tradition for my family; that Wayne is still there,” said Jackie Lindskoog. “It gets harder as the years go on. I think about how much fun it would be to do this with him.”
St. Germaine remains honored that Jackie Lindskoog asked him to carry Wayne’s ashes, and memories of his friends fill his thoughts in the five hours of effort to reach the finish line in Hayward.
He and Landgraf grew up as boyhood friends in the area. They played basketball together and both accepted race creator Tony Wise’s challenge to ski the first Birkie, with no concept of the grueling adventure in store.
“The weekend before the first Birkie, I got on cross-country skis for the first time, skied for 20 minutes, and said, ‘nothing to it,’” St. Germaine remembered.
Another mentor, Lyman Williamson, dropped St. Germaine at the start line on Lake Hayward and said, “’I’ll pick you up at Telemark.’
“I said, ‘what? That’s 20 miles,’ St. Germaine recounted. “He said, ‘it’s a little more than that, but you’ll make it.’”
They did, in a fashion.
“That last hill, Dave and I were crawling on our hands and knees,” he said. “I couldn’t walk for three days after that. The balls of my feet were so tender I couldn’t stand. I had to crawl to the bathroom the next morning. I swore after the first one that we would never do something so foolish again.”
Of course, he did, through deep snow, deep cold and four decades.
“That’s what the Birkie is to me, a way of life,” St. Germaine said. “It’s not all-consuming, but a very important guide in my life.”
As much as his daily training, memories have carried St. Germaine through 40 Birkebeiners, especially thoughts of those who influenced and sustained his life.
“There are sections of the trail where I just think of Tony,” he said. “It comes powerful and strong. And there’s another section where I think of Lyman Williamson, who got me into the race.
“I think of the elders who have passed and made a difference in my life.
“And at the start I always pay tribute to Dave and think of him during the race. There’s a spot on the course he loved, his favorite place on the trail, that last hill where you look out at Hayward and the water tower and the smoke stacks.”
Keeping with Birkebeiner tradition, St. Germaine and the other surviving Founders will set off first at the start of the 41st edition on Saturday.
In recent years, I’ve passed many of them, taking note of their red Founders bibs and their example. St. Germaine still skies beautifully, and draws cheers and accolades from those who recognize his achievements.
He carries on a legacy, and sets an example to follow.