By MIKE NORTON
It looks as though an extended period of cold weather has finally arrived here in Traverse City. We woke up this morning to a fine mistlike snow, the kind that comes when temperatures get down to the single digits. As the morning progressed it continued to fall in that strange way we get, where the sky overhead is a clear robin’s-egg blue but the far horizon is shrouded in a luminous ring of cloud.
It’s “lake effect” weather, where cold air moving in from the northwest passes over the (comparatively) warm water of Lake Michigan, creating successive waves of snow and sunshine. In most years, it’s a reliable snow-making machine, although it didn’t work too well in 2012.
That’s why it’s great to see that mercury dropping, even if it means I’ll be spending an hour or two each morning shoveling the driveway in the dark. Most of our really fun winter events and activities require snow – lots of snow – to be successful. And besides, if you’re going to have winter you’ve got to have lots of that pretty white stuff draped over the trees and roofs. Otherwise you might as well live in Florida.
Over in the village of Mancelona, just a half-hour to the northeast, organizers of the 36th annual White Pine Stampede cross-country ski race are beginning to breathe a little easier. It would have been the 37th Stampede, but last winter’s snowfall was so meager that they had to cancel the race for the first time in its history. This year, the Feb. 2 event looks much more likely.
It’s the same here in Traverse City, where the 37th Annual North American Vasa Festival of Races is set for the following weekend, Feb. 9-10. (Yes, the two races started the same year, but the Vasa was able to get through last year’s lousy conditions.)
Although I love cross-country skiing, I’m not a competitor. I’m that annoying guy who stops in the middle of the trail to take pictures, or just stands there looking at a pileated woodpecker as if he’s never seen one before. But I love these races because they’re a genuine celebration of winter, put on year after year by scads of dedicated volunteers who love their sport and their communities.
The White Pine got its start when a guy named Gus Knopnicki came up with the idea of having a marathon ski race through four northern Michigan counties. For one reason or another, it ended up being held entirely in Antrim County, as a 40-kilometer race from Mancelona to Shanty Creek Resorts in Bellaire. (There’s also a 20K event and a noncompetitive 10K one.)
The White Pine is one of the few remaining point-to-point races, where you start in one place and finish in another. For years it’s been a sanctioned event in the Michigan Cup ski series, and this year – for the first time – it’s also been sanctioned as a non-scored race by the U.S. Ski Association.
The Vasa is a slightly different animal. It was 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, and has its own looped trail. The main Saturday morning 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.
Saturday afternoon is the Junior Vasa, three events ranging from one to three kilometers, organized for young skiers from age 3-15. Sunday’s 6K and 16K traditional-style classic only race, the Gran Travers Classic, is an equally prestigious event for “old school” kick-and-glide skiers (like me) and one of the events in the Michigan Cup classic race series.
Hundreds of skiers turn out for these events, but that’s only to be expected. What’s unusual are the large numbers of folks who show up even when they are skiing, or even related to any skiers. One of the most diverting things about the Vasa, for instance, is the “cowbell competition” among rival groups of spectators who try to make as much noise as possible as the returning competitors approach the finish line.
Besides, there’s a lot of beauty to appreciate. Both races are held in lovely terrain; the White Pine runs through some of the most scenic parts of the celebrated Chain of Lakes country and right up into the hills of Shanty Creek, while the Vasa is held on a beautifully crafted trail that winds through the dense pines and hardwoods of the Pere Marquette State Forest. (In fact, the trail was just selected as the setting for a new “Pure Michigan” ad about cross-country skiing.)
So let it snow -- even shoveling the driveway is not too big a price to pay!