Photo Credit: North American Vasa By MIKE NORTON Only three months from Vasa weekend! I know, I know; it's barely November yet, so why am I obsessing over an event that isn't happening until February? Because this is big! Over 900 cross-country skiers from around the U.S. and Canada competed last winter at Traverse City's North American Vasa Festival of Races -- and you can expect hundreds more to attend the 2012 festival, because it's been named the host event for the AXCS Masters National Championships. "We're going to have all the excitement of a national race, lots of additional skiers, and the opportunity for our competitors to win placement in the world championships in Germany," said Vasa Board Member and chief-of-course Michael Tarnow. "Best of all, this is helping us to promote the sport and skiing in Northern Michigan to a whole new group of people." The AXCS (American Cross-Country Skiers) National Masters is North America's championship event for master skiers (over 30 years in age) and is hosted each year by a different race. Recent venues include Anchorage, Alaska; Bend, Oregon; Craftsbury, Vermont and St. Paul, Minnesota. Vasa officials say it's the perfect fit for Traverse City. Founded by two Traverse City dads who were trying to teach their kids to ski -- Swedish-American hotelier Ted Okerstrom and former Yugoslav Olympic skier Vojin Baic - the Vasa is now in its 36th year. It's held each February, and the 2012 event is scheduled for Feb. 10-12. The main Saturday race, which features 12K, 27K and 50K race lengths, in either freestyle or classic styles, is part of the prestigious American Ski Marathon Series, where most of the nation's elite and professional ski racers compete. Sunday's 6K and 16K traditional-style classic only race, the Gran Travers Classic, is an equally prestigious event for old-school Nordic skiers, and one of the events in the Michigan Cup classic race series. Over the past decade, race organizers have added a wide range of other events for skiers of all shapes, ages and skill levels: 1K sprints for preschoolers, 3K freestyle and classic events for older youths, and even noncompetitive 3K and 10K tours for those who prefer to enjoy winter's natural beauty at a more leisurely pace. A highlight of the festival is the popular Valentine's Tour, which take place on Sunday afternoon after all the competitive events have ended And there's a lot of beauty to appreciate. The Vasa is held on a beautifully crafted trail that winds through the dense pines and hardwoods of the Pere Marquette State Forest. In addition to the hundreds of skiers who actually head out on the trails, hundreds of spectators come to watch the race and enjoy the festivities that surround it. "All our races are done at the speed of fun," says Tarnow. "We try to encourage skiers to work at their own pace." That's exactly the kind of experience the AXCS National Masters Championship tries to foster. Unlike many elite races, the Masters is open to skiers of all abilities. No qualification or license of any kind is necessary; it's "one of those special events where skiers ranging from experts to complete novices can all participate together...and everyone has a great time." A new event for 2012 will be the Great Lakes Youth Ski Festival, where junior skiers (ages 4-14) from the five Great Lakes states will compete in a variety of races and enjoy other fun activities. Special shorter courses will be used for all the kid's events. The festival actually begins the day before the main race with registration, social time, and the opportunity for everyone to work-out their travel kinks on the groomed trails. That evening, there's an annual "Vasa Pasta" dinner, an all-you-can-eat event where contestants try to pack away as many carbohydrates as possible. The Baic family tradition is one plate of pasta for every 10k of race length. The Vasa may be Traverse City's best-known winter event, but it is by no means the only one. The dense forests, towering hills and stunning shoreline views that make this a favorite summer resort area also lure thousands of visitors here each winter for skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling and other cold-weather sports. On January 7, for instance, is Winter Trails Day, a national day encouraging use of winter trails. Free rental skis, snowshoes and group lessons are being offered at Timber Ridge RV Resort near Traverse City with access to the Vasa Trail system. Also, on Feb. 4 yet another major Nordic ski race is held a few miles to the north in the picturesque village of Mancelona, near Shanty Creek Resorts. Known as the White Pine Stampede, it, too, is celebrating its 36st anniversary in 2012 with a series of 10K, 20K and 50K races. Speaking of Shanty Creek -- and just to prove it's not too early to start thinking about ski season -- they're already getting their winter ski packages ready. Their Early Season Package -- available from the beginning of the season through Dec. 15 -- offers overnight lodging, breakfast, a group ski clinic, a one-day Superticket, and free skiing on the night of arrival for as low as $75 per adult. And they have holiday packages for as low as $90. For a full list of their packages check out their website at www.shantycreek.com or call 800-678-4111. And if you can't wait for real actual snow, the folks at Mt. Holiday Ski Area are putting together an awesome Nov. 12 pre-season rail jam for snowboarders called Snowvember Fest. They've been stockpiling ice shavings from the zamboni at Centre ICE, and they're spreading it over the pavement on their parking lot, where they've installed all kinds of new features. Snowvember Fest is a fundraiser for Mt. Holiday’s terrain park, and the fun starts at 5 p.m.
- Eager competitors in the 2011 North American Vasa ski race.