By: Mike Norton
For some of us, winter sports are a private experience. As soon as those fluffy curtains of snow start drifting down, we step into our Nordic skis or snowshoes and head out on the trail for some solitary exercise in this silent crystalline world. If we see other skiers or hikers, we may exchange a greeting or two, but that’s about it.
On the other hand, there are times when the winter experience ought to be shared. Times to be sociable, even competitive. And in Traverse City, there are dozens of races, parties, tours, and celebrations that bring people together in the midst of the snow and ice.
Cross-country skiers are familiar with two of the area’s oldest and most famous winter sports competitions, both held in February. The White Pine Stampede, which celebrates its 40th birthday on Feb. 4, and the North American Vasa Festival of races, which turns 41 a week later. Each race attracts 800 to 900 competitors, but plenty of friends and fans come along to watch the races and cheer for their favorites.
The White Pine is a point-to-point race through the rugged highlands of Antrim County, starting in the village of Mancelona and climbing northwest to the neighboring town of Bellaire and the Shanty Creek Resort complex, with distances of 50K and 20K and a noncompetitive 10K version. The Vasa is a two-day series of ski races in both freestyle and classic techniques held on a series of looped trails (12K, 27K and 50 miles) through the Pere Marquette State Forest, just east of Traverse City.
Less elegant (but just as much fun to watch) is the increasingly popular sport of snowshoe racing. Each winter, competitive runners trade in their sleek Adidas and race the area’s snow-packed trails wearing ungainly-looking contraptions of metal and fabric.
The first of these events is the Jan. 21 Bigfoot Snowshoe Race, which has been drawing hundreds of competitors and fans to the Timber Ridge Nordic Center. The Bigfoot is the Midwest qualifier for the US Snowshoe Association’s championship race – but most people come for the pure fun (and for the coolest-looking trophy in the world of outdoor sports, a two-foot statuette of a snarling Sasquatch.)
A week later on Jan. 28, the Grass River Natural Area near Bellaire holds its own snowshoe race: the Grass River Shiver, with 5K and 10K competitions. Runners who prefer to race in their running shoes might prefer to head for Traverse City’s five-mile Frozen Foot Race, which is held the same day and travels through several scenic neighborhoods at the base of the Old Mission Peninsula.
Not so long ago, bicycle racing wouldn’t have been considered a snowsport — but the surging popularity of fat bikes, which allow cyclists to ride and compete on the snowiest winter trails, has changed all that.
In fact, the area boasts four separate fat bike races between January and March — all part of the Short’s Brewing Fat Bike Series. There’s the Jan. 21 Fat Chance in Benzie County, the Feb. 11 King Vasa at Timber Ridge (actually part of the North American Vasa), the Feb. 19 Vineyard Race at Forty-Five North Winery near Lake Leelanau, and the March 4 Beard of Zeus Fat Bike Race, again at Timber Ridge.
But several of the most popular snowsport outings are deliberately non-competitive– like the Feb. 5 Women’s Winter Tour, where participants ski or snowshoe at their own pace, socializing as they go and stopping along the trail for locally crafted wines, gourmet cuisine, desserts and chocolates at trailside refueling stops.
A similarly laid-back even is the annual March 4 Suds & Snow day at Timber Ridge: a half-mile hike into the backwoods where hikers encounter live music, food vendors and taps from more than a dozen local craft breweries, wineries and cideries. (So, basically an outdoor party with a little light exercise thrown in.)
As winter winds down to its last slushy weeks, the events and competitions get even more wacky. At Shanty Creek Resorts, for instance, March 4 ushers in the celebrated “Slush Cup” where skiers– often in costume — try to get up enough speed to skitter across a 40-foot pond filled with icy waist-deep water. The craziness is repeated each weekend with similar events: a March 11 “Cardboard Classic” race on homemade cardboard sleds, and the April 1-3 Schuss Mountain Snow Challenge, a 400-yard uphill race through the snow for off-road trucks and ATVs.
For information on these and other winter sports events, and for help with lodging, dining and other activities in Michigan’s “True North,” contact Traverse City Tourism at 800-872-8377 orwww.traversecity.com