The starting line at the 2013 North American Vasa.

The starting line at the 2013 North American Vasa.

By MIKE NORTON

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.

Gustav I escapes the Danes

Gustav I escapes the Danes

Back in 1518, Gustav’s native Sweden was invaded by Denmark. His father and brother were killed by the invaders, and Danish troops were hunting for him, too. Fortunately, the young nobleman knew how to ski – so he fled over the mountains to nearby Norway, rallied a resistance movement, ejected the Danes and became King Gustav I of Sweden.

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.

A Young skier at the Vasa.

A Young skier at the Vasa.

Even casual weekend skiers can enjoy themselves during the two-day Festival of Races. Over the years, organizers have added a wide range of races and events for skiers of all shapes, ages and skill levels – 1K sprints for preschoolers, 3K freestyle and classic events for older youths, and even a noncompetitive “Human Inspiration” tour for athletes who just want to get out and enjoy the trail on Race Day.

“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.

More Vasa excitement.
More Vasa excitement.
Founded in 1976, the Vasa is held on a beautifully crafted trail that winds through Michigan’s Pere Marquette State Forest, just east of town. Only two races in its 30-year history have been canceled for lack of snow. The 2005 race almost met a similar fate, but was rescued at the last minute when a local campground and ski outfitter, 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.

Chatting at the White Pine Stampede

Chatting at the White Pine Stampede

On Feb. 1, for instance, yet another Michigan Cup Series race is held a few miles to the north in the village of Mancelona. The 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.)