Most people go cross-country skiing for pleasure or exercise. On the other hand, for Gustav Eriksson Vasa it was literally a matter of life and death.
Today this feat of winter speed is celebrated by two ski races: Sweden’s Vasaloppet, where 12,000 skiers retrace Gustav’s original 85-kilometer route, and the North American Vasa, which brings nearly 800 skiers each February to the pinewoods here in Traverse City. And although neither event is particularly life-threatening, some competitors ski as if they still thought there were bloodthirsty Scandinavians on their heels.
In fact, the North American Vasa Festival of Races – scheduled this year for Feb. 8-9 -- is now in its 38th year. Saturday’s race, with 6K, 12K, 27K and 50K loops for freestyle skiers, and 12K and 27K for classic styles, is one of 16 U.S. events listed in the prestigious American Ski Marathon Series, where most of the nation's elite and professional ski racers compete. Sunday’s 6K/16K Gran Travers Classic, for traditional old-school Nordic skiers, is part of the Michigan Cup classic race series.
“When we did this tour last year, we had 70-75 people show up,” says Vasa president Pete LaPlaca. “There’s a lot of people out there with new hips and knees and pacemakers who ski every day, and they love to get out on the course.”
Another new wrinkle in the 2014 Vasa is the addition of a new race for cyclists, the 27K King Vasa Fat Bike Race. And since many Fat Bikers are also skiers, there’s a combined “SkiFatalon” for competitors who earn the best combined time skiing and cycling the 27K course.Timber Ridge, offered its higher, snowier location as an alternative headquarters for the Vasa. The move was so popular with skiers that the race has used Timber Ridge as its base of operations ever since.
The Vasa may be our best-known ski event, but it is by no means the only one. The dense forests, towering hills and stunning shoreline views that make this such a favorite summer resort area also lure thousands of visitors here each winter for skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling and other cold-weather sports.
White Pine Stampede began in 1977 and has been held on the first Saturday in February ever since (Except for the “snow-challenged” winter of 2012.) Unlike the Vasa, where skiers race on looping trails, the Stampede is a “point to point race” that starts in Mancelona and finishes 50 kilometers later at Shanty Creek Resorts. (There’s also a shorter 20K route, as well as a noncompetitive10K event for skiers who prefer a more leisurely trip.)