‘Saving Snow’ showcases heroes in the fight against fading winters

CCL the Birkie 2017

CCL volunteers and filmmaker Diogo Freire (right) at last year’s Birkie

‘Saving Snow’ showcases heroes in the fight against fading winters

By Mary Gable

In February 2017, Brooklyn filmmaker Diogo Freire boarded a plane headed west, on his way to Hayward, Wisc., the setting for his upcoming film on the effects of climate change on American communities. What he didn’t know at the time was how sadly fitting an example of a warming world the tiny ski town would turn out to be.

Freire was in Hayward to capture the excitement leading up to the American Birkebeiner, the largest cross-country skiing marathon in North America. The race, also known as the “Birkie,” attracts more than 10,000 skiers from around the world. For residents and businesses of Hayward, it’s the busiest weekend of the year.  

After days of unseasonably warm weather and rain, the 2017 Birkie was canceled, disappointing thousands of people who’d trained for months, traveled long distances to attend, and looked forward to taking part in the 44-year-old tradition. Organizers put together a last-minute festival and an impromptu 5K loop safe for skiing, but it wasn’t the same. “It’s a pretty sobering thing if this is the new Birkie,” one skier remarked.

Showing visible change

(L-R) Mindy Ahler, Paul Thompson, Brett Cease at the Birkie

(L-R) Mindy Ahler, Paul Thompson, Brett Cease

That’s the first of many stories chronicled in “Saving Snow,” a new film from the Adaptation Now documentary project, a follow-up to the group’s debut film, “Facing the Surge.” “Saving Snow” follows skiers, snowmobilers, sled dog guides, and other winter sports lovers from across the country. (CCL members may recognize regional coordinators Paul Thompson, Mindy Ahler, and Brett Cease, and members of the Birchwood, Wisc. chapter, all of whom make appearances in the film.)

“With all of my films, the goal is to make climate change concrete,” says Freire, “Saving Snow” director and producer. “I try to find specific examples of communities that are being affected—and also show how they’re responding.”

“Facing the Surge” explored sea level rise in coastal Virginia, where residents are on the front lines against an expanding ocean. In “Saving Snow,” likewise, people are measuring change in inches of snow that doesn’t fall and a ski season that gets shorter by the year. A single uncharacteristic weather event doesn’t prove climate change, of course, but patterns of tangible changes like these confirm what scientists have predicted for years.

A disappearing snow season is more than just a frustration for the millions of Americans who enjoy winter sports. It means lost income for the many towns and small businesses that depend on winter tourism and recreation to stay afloat. Ski towns contribute significantly to their states’ tax bases, meaning that states, too, are beginning to feel the heat from warmer winters.

And like the thousands of Birkie hopefuls who missed out on last year’s competition, climate change is creating uncertainty for professional athletes. In 2016, almost 50 percent of races that make up the Worldloppet, a worldwide federation of top cross-country ski races, were either canceled or held on artificial snow. The 2018 Winter Olympics are approaching—but how many more years will the sports’ top athletes be able to compete?

A challenge to act

“Saving Snow” focuses on people coming to terms with these changes, financially and emotionally. But it also presents solutions. The film highlights determined individuals and organizations who are working to reduce their communities’ impacts on the environment and raise awareness of the need for action.

Saving Snow climate film the BirkieFreire hopes that the film inspires motivation, not despair. “I want people to see that climate change is not a distant problem. It’s happening now, and it’s affecting people’s lives. But more than that, I want them to understand that there are things they can do about it. There are lots of people out there working on solutions. And anyone can join them.”

In fact, Freire crafted the film with community engagement in mind. At 53 minutes long, “Saving Snow” is the right length to pair with a follow-up discussion or expert panel. “Film is a great tool for starting difficult conversations,” Freire says. “It provides a shared experience for viewers that puts them on an equal playing field.”

“Documentary films also tend to provoke an emotional reaction. This allows people to have a moment of conversion when the film ends and they realize they’re not alone.”

Making the experience matter

Freire hopes people will harness that moment by following film screenings with a call to action: write a letter to Congress. Sign a petition. Become a member of a group like Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

That’s exactly what will happen at the “Saving Snow” premiere on February 24. Freire will return to Hayward for the 2018 Birkebeiner, where skiers hope this year’s race will go on. The film will be shown three times during the race weekend, followed by panels where business leaders will discuss climate impacts and experts will weigh in on the science.

You can do the same. Anyone can sign up to host a screening of “Saving Snow” for free during its opening week (February 24–March 5), or for less than $10 at a later date. More than 160 groups have already registered their interested—add your name here.

Mary Gable
Mary Gable is a writer and editor who focuses on sustainability and innovation. She's based in Seattle, but takes her work on the road whenever she can.