Lake-Effect Weather: Good News for Two Great Local Ski Races!

Traverse City on a Lake-Effect Day!

Traverse City on a Lake-Effect Day!

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.

A satellite view of lake-effect clouds sweeping down on us.

A satellite view of lake-effect clouds sweeping down on us.

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.

At the Vasa start line.

At the Vasa start line.

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.

You're never too young to compete...

You’re never too young to 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!

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About mikelovestc

These days, I’m the media relations guy for the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau, but before that I spent 25 years as a reporter and columnist at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, a job that frequently took me out into the most remote backroads, forests, beaches and islands of the beautiful Grand Traverse Region. My strategy was pretty simple — just drive, paddle, ski or walk until you’re certain you’re lost, and then find somebody to talk to. It was a great job! I never intended to live in Traverse City. I grew up in Grand Rapids, spent four years in the Coast Guard in places like Miami Beach, Monterey and San Francisco, and when I finally graduated from college I took a summer job at the Miami Herald. To my surprise, I discovered I didn’t like the tropics nearly as much as I thought I would — and when the Record-Eagle offered me a job I took it, figuring I’d put in a year or two and head off to someplace like Seattle or Portland. What I discovered very quickly is that this place gets to you in a variety of unexpected ways. The beaches here are as lovely as anyplace else I’ve ever been, the weather is mild all year round — warm enough for swimming in September and cold enough for skiing in December — and just about the time you’re getting tired of one season you get another one every bit as pleasant. The people are laid-back and friendly, the music and arts scene is awesome, and the place still hasn’t gotten so sophisticated that a guy like me feels out of place.
This entry was posted in Antrim, Festivals, Outdoor Sports, races, Shanty Creek, skiing, winter and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Lake-Effect Weather: Good News for Two Great Local Ski Races!

  1. All this lake effect will make for lower water levels and fun beach combing in a few months, but in the mean time trails like Lake Ann’s pathway are great to XC ski. If you fall it is deep fluffy snow and no worries about getting hurt!

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