Traverse City Gets Creative with Preseason Skiing (with Photo Gallery)

Lander KarathOctober 26, 2013
Participants ski the course at the 2011 Traverse City Nordic Ski Fest in Michigan. (Photo: Eli Brown)
Participants ski the course at the 2011 Traverse City Nordic Ski Fest in Michigan. (Photo: Eli Brown)

With snow falling across parts of the western states, many are breaking out their skis and taking advantage of some great preseason skiing. While we are happy for our lucky friends, what are those of us who are not blessed with early season snow to do?

Eli Brown and the Vasa Ski Club just might have the answer. On Saturday, the Vasa Ski Club, with support from Brick Wheels and Keen Technical Solutions, will be hosting the 4th Annual Nordic Ski Fest in Traverse City, Mich. The event, which serves as the first Michigan Cup race of the season, will take place on a 350-foot (0.1-kilometer) manmade ski loop and will consist of skate skiing, time trials in the form of a preliminary, and head-to-head racing based on the results from the time trial. Skiers in the head-to-head will then travel in opposite directions on the course attempting to make it to the starting point before their competitor.

How does a small ski club of roughly 300 members pull off an early season race that attracted 50 racers from around the state of Michigan and roughly 300 to 400 spectators last year?  It takes a week of around-the-clock work (8 a.m. to midnight) from roughly 30 volunteers, and a final key ingredient: ice-rink shavings.

Eli Brown, former race organizer and University of Utah head coach, brought the idea to use the shavings left over from ice rinks with him from Utah. He has implemented a successful Ski Fest on this premise for the past four years, and has formed a steady relationship with the local ice rink and its Zamboni drivers.

“We have a great connection with them,” Brown said on the phone. “I just can’t believe that no one else is doing this.”

Not only do the ice-rink shavings provide an opportunity for locals to get on skis early, they also allow the community to do it at no cost.

“I know you could spend some money and you could go somewhere glamorous like the glacier in Alaska, but we have a ski community and everyone is eager to ski, so we decided to do it,” he said.

Hosting an event like this has its challenges. Volunteers have been working around the clock shoveling ice into a refrigerated semi truck, transporting it, and then spreading it out on the course. Despite the incredible amount of work that has been put into the race, it can still be overwhelming at times.

“I’m getting as many volunteers as possible, and I could use twice that amount,” says Brown.

In the past, weather has also presented difficulties in the past, with Mother Nature defying race organizers with warm temperatures and rain. However, recent cold nights and an anticipated dusting of snow look to make Saturday’s event run smoother than usual. Even with the cooler temperatures, the course is expected to be completely gone a few days after the race.

The Ski Fest provides an excellent opportunity for the ski community to get excited about the upcoming season. Low-cost innovations like the use of ice-rink shavings present an option for nordic ski communities to extend their seasons, especially in years when there is little snow.

“This is something that we don’t need to do just once a year. There’s no reason we can’t do this all the time,” Brown said.  “There’s white stuff out there, you just have to be a little creative; make it small and fun, and share it with people.”

In addition to the on-snow ski events, there will be a reggae band, homemade chili, beer, a ski swap, and for the first time, an on-snow fat-tire bike race. Ski events, located at Brick Wheels in Traverse City, will begin at 10 a.m. and continue till 2:30 p.m. The bike race will be from 4 to 5 p.m. Registration is on-site and costs $10.

Lander Karath

Lander Karath is FasterSkier's Associate Editor from Bozeman, Montana and a Bridger Ski Foundation alumnus. Between his studies at Middlebury College in Vermont, he is an outdoor enthusiast and a political junkie.

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