John Smith leads Cyndy Foley and Michele Andrews up a steep hill on the VASA Trail. PHOTO BY DAVE FOLEY
If the snow conditions are good, you can count on Traverse City, Michigan’s VASA Trail being ready for skiers. A team of volunteers manning Beartrac and Ginzu groomers will have worked through the night to make sure the more than 30K of 12-foot-wide pathway will be packed for freestyle skiers and that two sets of tracks have been cut for those looking to do classic.
Their efforts will not go unappreciated as, from dawn to dusk, skiers will come and go, and not just locals, as the VASA is a ski destination for Nordic enthusiasts from all over Michigan. On weekends more than 100 cars may be parked at the Bartlett Road entrance and nearly as many will be entering the southern part of the ski trail from Timber Ridge Resort.
With the exception of a couple power line crossings, the trail winds through forests of conifer and hardwood. On windy days the woodlands offer protection, insuring that skiers won’t be buffeted by freezing gusts and the snow on the trail won’t be blown away.
Much of the route is rolling terrain and, yes, there are a few hills that can become white knuckle adventures if there’s ice in the tracks. Yellow and black triangle shaped signs are placed at the top of these steep descents to tip off skiers about what lies below. For inexperienced or more cautious visitors, there is a “no hills” beginner 2.5K trail, also known as the “dog poop loop.” The 5K headwaters loop is easy enough that even newbie skiers can handle. For those with a little skiing history, the 11K and 27K loops will have the most appeal.
The North American VASA
The trail is best known as the setting for the North American VASA, which attracts 600 to 800 competitors every year, making it the third largest in the Midwest behind the American Birkebeiner and Noquemanon Ski Marathon.
This season the North American VASA is slated to take place the weekend of February 8 and 9. The race experience was expanded to a two-day event to include the 16K Gran Travers race. New this year will be a fat bike race. All races start and finish at Timber Ridge Resort.
Inspired by Sweden’s 90K Vasaloppet cross-country ski race, Ted Okerstrom staged the first North American VASA in 1977. During the early years the races started at the city airport, with competitors following a course that led them down alleys and through a patchwork of public and private lands to the finish at Ranch Rudolph, a local resort. Public interest grew every year. Peaking in 1984 when 1,300 skiers signed up for the 50K and 27K races.
For those early competitions, almost every year the route changed. Several races finished in downtown Traverse City, and the Grand Traverse Resort north of town was a staging area for awhile. After the 1984 race, during which hundreds of skiers were thwarted from crossing Boardman Lake due to slush and weakened ice, it became apparent that further change was needed.
Trail redesigned, expanded
The next year the VASA trail was redesigned and, with the cooperation of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the first steps were taken to establish a permanent nonmotorized pathway on the surrounding wooded state lands. The new trail reduced the number of road crossing from 22 in 1984 to just four in 1985. It also reduced the number of private property crossings from 88 to 15. Among the core group of people to take on the project was George Lombard, who continues to be involved with VASA Trail improvements.
By 1991 the entire VASA pathway was on public land owned by the State of Michigan or Grand Traverse County and was open year round for use by skiers, mountain bikers, runners, hikers and, more recently, fat bikers. The 25K loop was widened, smoothed out and marked. Connecting trails now provide various shorter loops.
Though the VASA Trails gets the most use by skiers, once the snow leaves it’s a popular destination for runners, walkers and mountain bikers. Along the south end, off Supply Road, a separate 13 miles of singletrack for mountain biking has been developed.
In addition to the February ski race, the VASA course is the site of the largest snowshoe race in Michigan, the Bigfoot Boogie, where over 400 finished in 2013. It will be held again January 18. In addition to several trail running events – the best known being the Traverse City Trail Running Festival held in April and Run VASA, a September event – use the VASA pathway. The first weekend in November, the Iceman Cometh mountain bike race, starts in the village of Kalkaska and runs cross country to the VASA trail finishing at Timber Ridge. Nearly 5,400 completed the race this year making it the largest point-to-point cross-country bike race in North America.
Right now it’s ski season, though, so if you haven’t already discovered the VASA, you’re missing out on a great Nordic skiing experience.
Dave Foley, who made his debut as a ski racer in the VASA in 1982, still makes frequent trips to Traverse City to ski the course.
‘Fat Bike Fridays’ a means to shared use of VASA Trail
The appearance of fat bikes on the VASA trail last winter was a bit disconcerting to some Nordic skiing enthusiasts. Fears that the big-tired bikes might collide with skiers or tear up the groomed trail brought the issue to the attention of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) and Traverse Area Recreational Trails (TART). MDNR owns and maintains the VASA Pathway while TART manages the grooming program. MDNR, in the spirit of keeping the trail open for nonmotorized recreation, does not plan to close the VASA to fat bikes.
This fall a committee composed of representatives from TART, the VASA Ski Club, the North American VASA ski race committee, members of the Cherry Capital Cycling Club and the Michigan Mountain Bike Association developed a plan that would encourage fat bike riders to ride the VASA pathway on Fridays. It is hoped that bikers would participate on Fat Bike Fridays and refrain from using the trail on other days.
To help defray the costs of trail grooming, fat bikers will be encouraged to pay an annual $25 fee and become a part of TART’s Grooming Badge program. Skiers purchase grooming badges for $100 and all members receive Friday emails detailing grooming conditions and highly visable zipper pull tabs.