From the Bronze Age to the New Age
Whether it be gliding through the Bavarian Alps or coursing along the fjords of Norway and the foothills of Finland, the thrill of cross-country skiing in America owes a nod of thanks to thousands of fellow European skiers who developed the sport as a modern tradition.
Cross-country skiing itself was invented in the Neolithic Age by hunters who found that strapping on skis crafted of bone or wood could help them pursue animals in the winter. Imagine following a herd of wooly mammoths on these early contraptions, which were as much snowshoes as skis-even without skating skis and Lycra suits.
Today, the ancestors of those hunters roam the mountains and plains of Europe in the tens of thousands, participation in numbers, which inspired America's own ski tradition. In Europe national pride is often at stake in cross-county ski racing, and clubs exist in virtually every town that has a hint of snow.
The North American Vasa is based on the Swedish Vasalopet, an 85-kilometer race attracting 12,000 skiers each year. The Vasaloppet, in turn, was inspired by the example of Gustav Eriksson Vasa, who skied to freedom from Danish invaders in 1518 and rallied the resistance to liberate his country, earning him the Swedish crown.
Four hundred years later, journalist Anders Pers a native of Mora, Sweden, conceived of the idea of a ski race to commemorate King Vasa's journey across the Swedish countryside. That first Vasaloppet was a 90km course from the village of Salen to Mora, on March 19, 1922. Ernst Am, a 22-year-old lumberjack won the race out of a field of 119 skiers. He covered the winding track in 7:32:49, at a time which was a full hour ahead of what race organizers expected for a finishing time. With this race the Vasalopet tradition was officially launched.
For a quarter century, the Vasaloppet remained an exclusively Swedish run race, regarded as a historical and political event as well as a great sporting spectacle and challenge. By its 50th anniversary in 1973, the race attracted over 8,000 skiers from over 20 countries and 4 continents. Other aspects of the race have also changed since that first run. The racers' speed along the famous route (now from Salen to the village of Mora) depends on the state of the track and the snow conditions. And actual changes in the course, in addition to improvements in equiment have also helped quicken the pace. Those first 119 contenders broke their own tracks throught the forests and open fields on that March day in 1922.
In the village of Mora, the first racers to lead the 12,000 competitors across the finish line are welcomed by the sweet sound of traditional birch bark trumpets resounding form the bell tower and the cheers of thousands of spectators who arrive each year to witness what Sport illustrated had dubbed "the oddest, craziest, most agonizing, yet most prized of all modern sport events."
The North American Vasa
Traverse City owes a great debt to three men who had the the vision to help bring the sport of cross country skiing and the North American Vasa to the prominent role that it plays in the Grand Traverse region of Michigan: Vojin Baic, Ted Okerstrom, and George Lombard.
In the early 70s, Ted Okerstrom and Vojin Baic wanted to get their kids involved in cross country skiing, but could not even buy a pair of skis in the area. Ted was the manager of the Park Place Hotel in downtown Traverse City, while Vojin was a former Olympic medalist in the sport. At the time, ski stores supported down hill skiing which was well established in the area, and didn’t pay much regard to this alternate form of skiing.
The Vasa race started as a promotional event, dreamed up by Ted Okerstrom and sponsored by the Park Place. Several years later, the Park Place was sold and the new owners decided to not sponsor the race. Ted then took it over on his own and made it a volunteer-run event.
To get a race of this magnitude started, Ted and Vojin consulted with Tony Wise, who started the Birkebeiner in Wisconsin. Ted recalls Tony telling him the Birkebeiner is a Norwegian race, and the Vasaloppet is a Swedish race. I’m Norwegian and you are Swedish. Why don’t you put on a Swedish race? They got permission from the Swedes to use the name Vasaloppet, but it had to be changed to the North American Vasa because the town of Mora, MN had trademarked their race “Vasaloppet.” Their attorneys threatened a lawsuit if Traverse City didn’t change the name.
The first Vasa was held on January 22, 1977. 234 skiers participated and 205 finished. It started at the Cherry Capital Airport and finished at Ranch Rudolf, which was owned by the Park Place.
The 1978 race, postponed a week because of a blizzard, saw 490 participants, over double the previous year, and attracted national and international attention with skiers entered from five countries. The following year, 1979, saw 759 entering the growing race.
In 1981, the Vasa became a part of the Great American Ski Chase. This was also the year when women competed in the 50K race for the 1st time.
In 1982, a new record 1200 skiers from all over the country and eight foreign countries entered the race.
In 1983, the race was scheduled to finish for the first time in downtown Traverse City, but a lack of snow forced the race to start at the Holiday Hills Ski area. The 50K skiers raced to Ranch Rudolf and back while the 25K skiers went from Ranch Rudolf to Holiday Hills.
In 1984, the race was again scheduled to finish in downtown Traverse City, but only 828 of the 1300 skiers were able to finish. The rest were halted just short of the finish when a thaw left Boardman Lake uncrossable. This ended the downtown finish. The 1984 race became known as the “Slush Bowl of ’84.”
The course continued to move around, including starts at The Grand Traverse Resort, Jellystone Park (now Timber Ridge) and other locations, depending on snow conditions that Mother Nature provided.
A permanent non-motorized trail was finally finished in 1991 after three years of planning and cooperation from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) as well as the investment of many volunteer hours and donations. The new trail was entirely on public land, unlike the previous courses that required multiple permissions every year. George Lombard was the pioneer who lead efforts to develop this trail which he envisioned as a 365 day/year trail, not just a one-day Vasa race trail. The trail was located in the highland areas above Grand Traverse Bay, so snow conditions were more consistent and longer lasting.
When the skating technique made its debut in 1985 by US World Cup and US Olympic Silver Medalist Bill Koch, the look of cross country skiing was changed forever. The Vasa introduced a separate classical category in 1993 to enable classical skiers to compete against other skiers using the traditional diagonal technique.
Today, the North American Vasa is run by a working Board of Directors, and is staffed by about 350 volunteers each year. Fat bike races were added in 2015, and total ski and bike racers is about 800/year. It remains a winter Traverse City Tradition!