For many, the White Pine Stampede in Antrim County and the North American Vasa Festival of Races through the Pere Marquette State Forest just east of Traverse City, are not-to-miss ski races with fierce competition every season. Traverse City Tourism’s Mike Norton tells us about the history of the Northern Michigan skiing events. (Scroll down to check out what’s new this year. Exciting changes!)

In the Upper Peninsula, the Noquemanon Ski Marathon has gained national recognition as a premier event for cross-country skiing and has been described as “the most beautiful trail” and “deceptively tough.” (Read on for more information from MyNorth.)

The winter of 1977 is still remembered for its bitter winds and bone-chilling cold, and it may not have been the best time to inaugurate a cross-country ski race. But that’s how the grueling White Pine Stampede got started—and it’s been going strong ever since.

The White Pine celebrates its 40th birthday this year on February 4. And considering its chilly beginnings, it’s a surprise it survived that first year.

“To be honest, I wasn’t sure we were going to have a second race,” says Jack McKaig, who put together the first event. On the day of that inaugural 1977 race, the temperature was in single digits and a blizzard moved in while competitors were still on the course. Less than half of the 90 skiers who signed up for the 50K event were able to finish.

Today the White Pine attracts around 800 competitors, and it’s still held on the first Saturday in February. Unlike most ski competitions, it’s a point-to-point race through the rugged highlands of Antrim County just east of Traverse City, 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 non-competitive 10K version.

Over the years, the Stampede has retained most of the elements that characterized that first year, including its original leadership and a cohort of intensely loyal volunteers drawn from two rival communities (who, McKaig insists, rarely cooperate on anything else). And except for the snow-challenged winter of 2012, they’ve never canceled a race.

“This has happened because of a singular leadership and pretty much the same crew for all 40 years,” says former television meteorologist (and longtime White Pine volunteer) Dave Barrons. “Volunteers are always a challenge for events, but each year this group brings in a few new members and pulls through.  We’ve contributed over $100,000 through the years to Children’s Hospital of Michigan. That’s why our nickname is the Small Town Race With a Heart.”

The White Pine isn’t the oldest cross-country ski race in the Traverse City area, though. Its older brother is the North American Vasa, which celebrates its 41st birthday this year February 11–12. It was founded by Traverse City hotelier Ted Okerstrom of the Park Place Hotel, and former Yugoslavian Olympic ski medalist Vojin Baic. (According to the story, the two men wanted to their kids to learn cross-country skiing, but couldn’t find a place in Traverse City where they could even buy the proper equipment.)

Now known officially as the North American Vasa Festival of Races, the Vasa is the third largest event of its kind in the United States: a two-day series of ski races in both freestyle and classic techniques—and newly-added fat bike races—through the Pere Marquette State Forest, just east of Traverse City. It, too, typically draws 800–900 skiers each year.

“We’re always looking for ways to grow the race, but the reality is that our main objective is to put on a good event,” says Vasa President Mark Esper. “That’s why we’ve created lots of different experiences for people of all ages, styles, interests and ability levels—including ski tours for skiers who aren’t that into racing.”

Like many winter sporting events, both the White Pine Stampede and the Vasa struggle to keep competitors and spectators engaged before, during and after the races themselves. “Skiers tend to come in off the course, grab a bowl of soup in the lodge and head for the parking lot,” says Esper.

Last winter, Vasa organizers helped solve the problem with an enormous heated “event tent and Celebration Station” where participants gather, socialize and enjoy some beer and snacks from the race’s twin sponsors, Short’s Brewery and the Cherry Republic.

What’s New for 2017: 

The Vasa is switching things up with a new course “Vasa vice versa.” That’s right, the direction of the course is being reversed. (Check it out.) Also new, a Collegiate Challenge for all current students to compete for bragging rights. Another big change—separate freestyle and classic days.

  • Saturday freestyle day: 48km, 28km, 11km and 6km ski races. The 12km and 34km fat bike races and the Junior Vasa will continue to be on Saturday.
  • Sunday classic day: 34km, 16km and 6km races on a double-tracked course

The Noquemanon Ski Marathon, known as “The Noque,” is a point-to-point cross-country ski race from Ishpeming to Marquette held during the last weekend of January. Due to its proximity to Lake Superior, the race is well known for its premier snow conditions. The course ranges from gently rolling hills and flat lake crossings to difficult climbs and downhills. In addition to the ski marathon, there are also snowshoe and snow bike races along with other ski races at various distances (here’s the lineup).

More Northern Michigan Skiing: 

Photo(s) by Traverse City Tourism