Racers competing in the 2011 North American Vasa
Racers competing in the 2011 North American Vasa

By MIKE NORTON All right, enough with the on-again, off-again snow. I like sunshine as much as the next guy, but we've got to start holding on to this stuff -- we've got some serious ski events coming up! This Saturday is the White Pine Stampede, a major pojnt-to-point Nordic ski race held between in the villages of Mancelona and Bellaire, near Shanty Creek Resorts. It's celebrating its 36st anniversary this year with a series of 10K, 20K and 50K races, and brings in anywhere from 500 to 600 skiers each year, and the trails are looking pretty sketchy in places. The following weekend is an even bigger ski event here in Traverse City -- the 36th annual  North American Vasa Festival of Races, which brought over 900 cross-country skiers from around the U.S. and Canada here last winter, and is expected to bring hundreds more this time around. Why? Because this year's Vasa is also the host event for the AXCS Masters National Championships, North America's championship event for master skiers. The Masters 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. "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." 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 held each February. 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."

Young skiers can compete, too!
Young skiers can compete, too!

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