Tag Archives: Cross-Country Skiing

Here's What You Need to Know for Suds & Snow on March 8!

Event goers enjoy beers and fun at Suds & Snow 2013

It was a packed party last year when over 800 people took part in the fun!

It’s official that Traverse City has fully embraced the culture and camaraderie of the craft beer scene.  Every season there’s a variety of happenings that showcase the flavorful microbrews that have come to be a main attraction for the area – and winter is no different. When you combine the love of these libations with the stunning natural beauty that envelopes the Traverse City area you get unique events that truly stand apart from the rest.

The 8th Annual Suds & Snow Celebration on March 8th does just that.

What’s better than drinking beer along the trails as you head into the middle of the woods to listen to live music, eat great food and drink more beer around roaring bonfires? Not much.

“The event is a favorite of many of the brewers due its uniqueness, like using the natural elements to build bars. You can’t believe everything is going on out in the middle of the woods” states Kristin Levesque of Timber Ridge RV & Recreation Resort, the host property for the annual event.

Short's Brewing Company bar at Suds & Snow

Short's Brewing Company built an perfectly frozen bar last year.

Guests will meander through the woods along the circuit of trails that cut through the property until they reach the Trail Station, the center of the celebration in the middle of the woods (approximately one-half mile from the lodge). From there the music plays, the food is served and the beer flows.

This year there are 12 Michigan microbreweries that will be on site: Arcadia Ales, Beggar's Brewery, Bell's, Brewery Terra Firma, Cheboygan Brewing Co., Ferment, Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales, North Peak Brewing Co., Northern Natural Cider House, Right Brain Brewery, Schmohz Brewery and Short's Brewing Company.

Gearing up during the 2013 Suds & Snow

Guests gear up during the 2013 Suds & Snow. Don't have snowshoes? You can rent them on site!

New for 2014, the day will feature a Fat Tire Bike Race, known as Fat Camp, from 2-4pm where guests can either register to ride or cheer on the riders as they make their way around the property. For those not quite up to the biking challenge, you can take part in the first official Suds & Snow Olympics where teams of 6 will try and conquer traditional games that have some added twists and turns to them.

So what do you need to know if you're planning on being a part of it?

  • Tickets are $20 per person and include a commemorative pint glass (to the first 500 ticket purchases), 2- 8oz. tastings on the trail, trail pass, live music and more! (buy tickets here)
  • Bring your ID and cash for additional beer & food purchases (there are no credit card capabilities in the middle of the woods)
  • Wear something wacky - a hat, shirt, a full on costume - have fun with it!
  • If you don't snowshoe or cross country ski don't worry - you can walk the trails!
  • Take advantage of the FREE shuttles that will run from several hotels & downtown parking lots
  • The fun starts at 1:30pm but for a shorter entrance line head out around 2pm or after
  • Dress warm! (There are bonfires at the Trail Station and a large fireplace in the lodge)
  • Come hungry! Come thirsty! The event benefits TART Trails, Inc. and Child & Family Services of Northwestern Michigan
Guests enjoy the fire at the 2013 Suds & Snow Celebration at Timber Ridge

Feeling a little chilled? The fireplace at the lodge will have a roaring fire all day.



Even During the Dreaded "Polar Vortex" There's Fun to be Had on the Trails

A lone skier amid the swirling dry snow. Could it be The Vortex?

A lone skier amid the swirling dry snow. Could it be The Vortex?


Whatcha gonna do when the polar vortex comes around?

Go skiing, of course. Or snowshoeing, for that matter.

In spite of all the fuss and bother of this much-hyped weather event, in which desperately cold winds from the Arctic have moved out of their accustomed orbit to hover malevolently above us, I haven't really noticed that this winter is much different from other cold winters we have fairly often here in Traverse City. And I can't imagine why I should allow it to bother me or change my behavior.

I mean, what kind of wuss is going to sit under a blanket in the living room and shiver through the weather event of the decade when he could be out among the pines and hemlocks, cutting through the snowy trail and listening to the wild wind clacking the branches overhead? This is Michigan! We’re Michiganians! No polar vortex in its right mind is going to tangle with us!

Winter has its own beauty: white, blue and gold. This is Mission Point.

Winter has its own beauty: white, blue and gold. This is Mission Point.

OK, maybe that’s just me. I have a very low threshold for cabin fever. But seriously, I've never seen a winter storm that can't be laughed away with the help of a good set of long underwear, a Mad Bomber hat, a pair of Sorels and a thrift-store snowmobile suit. All you have to do is keep moving. Which, now that I come to think about it, is actually a pretty good motto for life in general.

My vortex buddy.

My vortex buddy.

Anyway, I was out yesterday having a great time on the trail, and so were those little dive-bomber chickadees who were racing along beside me. Frankly, none of us could figure out what the "polar vortex" fuss was all about. I’d rather ski in cold weather than in that sloppy 35-degree stuff where the snow starts sticking to your runners and you feel like you’re wearing concrete overshoes.

I do have to admit that we're at a huge advantage up here in TC. Thanks to all that relatively warm water around us, our winter temperatures really are a bit higher than those in other northern places -- even places quite a bit farther south. And we have lots of lovely, lovely forests that shelter us from the wind while we're out enjoying ourselves. Even on sub-zero days, an evergreen forest can seem downright cozy when you're dressed properly and moving at a decent clip.

What's more, our forests are blessed with miles and miles of trails -- many of them groomed. In fact, if you're a newcomer to winter sports, one of the best opportunities to acquaint yourself with them is coming up this Saturday at Timber Ridge Resort, where the folks from TART Trails are holding the Fifth Annual Winter Trails Day together with the Vasa Ski Club and Einstein Cycles. There'll be  free trail access, introductory ski lessons, fat bike demos, guided snowshoe hikes and equipment rentals for those who don't have their own stuff.

There'll be cross-country skis, snowshoes and fat bikes to try out on the trails. Members of the Vasa Ski Club will provide free introductory ski lessons, and volunteers will lead snowshoe hikes.
There is a small catch: participants must register in advance at traversetrails.org. Cross-country skis, snowshoes and fatbikes will be available on a first-come-first-served basis starting at 10.30 am, and a driver’s license is required to check out equipment.

You know you want to try it!

You know you want to try it!

Introductory ski lessons will be lead by Vasa Ski Club members starting at 11am and 12.30pm. - Snowshoe hikes will be held at 11am, 12pm and 1pm. - Fatbikes from Einstein Cycles will be available for short demo rides on Timber Ridge’s fatbike trail. - Complimentary cookies and cocoa will be served in the lodge so you can refuel and warm-up by the fire after your time on the trails! Timber Ridge will also have chili available for purchase.

Chili. Yes. It is the anti-vortex.


Hiking at The Timbers Recreation Area, 250 Acres of Awesome!

Autumn splendor on Fern Lake at The Timbers Recreation Area.

Autumn splendor on Fern Lake at The Timbers Recreation Area.


Well, it’s certainly been a dramatic autumn in Traverse City this year. The trees have been late coming into their fall color, and the weather has been full of sturm und drang – one minute there’s rain, hail, sleet and snow in abundance and the next minute it’s dazzling sunshine -- great masses of clouds chasing across the sky and fat beams of light stabbing down across the landscape.

Since a dramatic season requires a dramatic setting, I found one in a place I’ve never explored before: the proposed “Timbers Recreation Area” on North Long Lake Road, just 10 minutes west of town. It’s a 250 acre preserve, complete with trails, historic buildings and 9,000 feet of waterfront on three lakes, and it’s open to the public.

That is, it’s open to the public now. But for years it was in private hands – first as the backwoods retreat of meat magnate J. Ogden Armour and his family, and later as a Girl Scout camp that ran from the 1960s until 2009. Now it’s in a sort of limbo while the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy raises the $700,000 it needs to qualify for a $2.5 million state grant from the state. When the Conservancy reaches its goal, the property will be turned over to Long Lake Township – but that has to happen before next June, so they’ve decided to let folks come in to see what their contributions would be used for.

Long Lake Township has always been one of Traverse City’s loveliest neighbors. A century ago, this is where local residents built their own summer homes to escape the noise, grime and odors of town. (Contrary to the nostalgic popular legend, Traverse City is a much cleaner, prettier and healthier place now than it was in the “good old days” when the city waterfront was a grimy industrial harbor.) To this day, the township has done a great job of creating and maintaining a wide variety of parks and natural areas.

To get to The Timbers, you drive out on North Long Lake Road, just past the Long Lake Elementary School and tiny Coffield Lake, where you’ll find a gravel road that heads south through the forest. A few hundred yards along this road, there’s a well-constructed fieldstone entryway – one of several examples of masonry scattered around the woods like so many ruins of an ancient civilization.

From the old Armour estate: gates in the forest for roads that no longer exist.

From the old Armour estate: gates in the forest for roads that no longer exist.

They’re remnants of the estate that the Armours built here during the 1920s, which eventually included a main lodge, dormitory, cottages, two barns, an ice house, boathouse, and numerous outbuildings as well as 68 acres of landscaped gardens, pathways and farmlands. Some of that architectural and horticultural history has been lost – I did see the half-submerged boathouse while hiking around Fern Lake – but some of the buildings (including the lodge, which is now a private home) survived when the estate was broken up and sold off after 1945.

The Girl Scouts got the largest chunk of it, of course, and they left their own reminders -- a few modest administrative and common buildings, as well as dozens of wooden platforms scattered through the forests that once supported big canvas tents. But the really impressive thing about The Timbers is how much land is just there. Almost  2,000 feet of frontage on Long Lake, an entire 20-acre lake (Fern Lake) inside its boundaries with 4,500 feet of shoreline, and 2,400 feet of shore on yet another, Page Lake. There are two-tracks and trails winding their way through woods, meadows and fields.

A quiet trail along the Long Lake shore.

A quiet trail along the Long Lake shore.

Naturally, I had to get out and explore the whole thing. And it took a long while, starting with the paths that generations of Girl Scouts must have used during their daily trips to the waterfront, the mess hall, the nursing office and their various campsites… and moving out under a canopy of golden maples and beeches… through dark, ferny hemlock woods, uplands filled with burgundy-colored blackberry bushes, and fields of waist-high grasses. The forest was filled with birds.

The barn at the entrance to The Timbers.

The barn at the entrance to The Timbers.

Back at the entrance, there’s a barn and silo of handsome glazed brick where former campers and staff had just finished a sale of furnishings and gear to raise money for the proposed Recreation Area. They had a good time, I was told -- but there’s a lot of fundraising left to be done.

When it all finally comes together – and I’m sure it will -- The Timbers Recreation Area will provide both residents and visitors with a wonderful place to enjoy the Long Lake waterfront in a natural setting by hiking, fishing, wildlife viewing and snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. And the coolest part of it all is that it’s so close to town.

If you want to learn more about The Timbers (Who knows? You might even want to send them a contribution.) you can contact the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy at  (231)922-1245 or email matt@gtrlc.org.

Snowshoes and Chili: a Two-Pronged Strategy for Winter Fun!

Saturday sightseeing at the Mission Point Lighthouse on Old Mission Peninsula.

Saturday sightseeing at the Mission Point Lighthouse on Old Mission Peninsula.


Everybody loves the first Christmas-card-pretty snowfall of winter. Maybe even the entire first month of winter. But after a few weeks, opinions begin to diverge sharply among those of us who live in the northern regions.

Some of us just love winter. In spite of the snow shoveling, the driving hazards, the wet feet, we love the skiing and the snowshoeing, the crackling fires and the snuggling and the almost total absence of mosquitoes. (And some of us pretend to like it because, well, we’re Midwesterners; when things can’t be changed, we’re expected to suck it up.) I put myself in both of these categories, depending on whether it’s January or April – April winters are something even a Midwesterner is allowed to complain about.

But there are other folks, even here in northern Michigan, who can’t really work up a lot of enthusiasm for the season. For them, there are basically two ways to deal with winter. Some, for the sake of their physical and mental health, will act as though they enjoy skiing through a frozen forest even when they’d much rather be sipping mojitos in Key West. Others take the “cozy strategy;” they stay inside and enjoy the warmer aspects of the season – the fireplace, hot cocoa, down comforters and Downton Abbey – while watching the snow fall outside the picture window.

This weekend, it looks as though there’ll be plenty of opportunities to employ both of these winter survival strategies in Traverse City – or, best of all, to combine them into a two-part plan that allows you to get some exercise, enjoy the outdoors and still have time for good eats, fellowship and fun. And it’s a particularly good weekend for those of you who’ve never been winter-sports fans before. Here’s why:

snowshoeing Timber Ridge 5

Saturday is the Fourth Annual Winter Trails Day up at Timber Ridge Resort – a wonderful, non-intimidating way to try cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. The wonderful folks from TART Trails, Brick Wheels and the VASA Ski Club have teamed up with Timber Ridge to provide free trail use, introductory ski lessons, guided snowshoe hikes and free use of rental equipment (first come, first-served – so if you have equipment of your own already you should probably bring it.) The fun lasts from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

(Here’s the indoor part: there’ll be lots of tasty treats available in the lodge at Timber Ridge.)

Another great free event is available at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore which holds free ranger-led snowshoe hikes throughout the park every Saturday afternoon. You can enjoy some of the most beautiful scenery in the country – “a winter wonderland of forests, fields, beaches and historic sites.” And if you don’t have your own snowshoes, the park will lend you a pair at no charge.  The groups usually meet up at the park visitor center in Empire at 1 p.m. and you can expect to be out on the trail until 3 p.m.

Meanwhile, the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa has transformed its golf clubhouse into a Winter Activities Center that’s open to guests and the public every weekend. You can enjoy ice-skating, explore groomed trails on cross-country skis or trek through fresh powder on snowshoes. Bring your own gear, or find Winter Snow Sports Rentals at the Clubhouse or Adventure North in the Resort’s Gallery of Shops.

Once you’re ready to come in from the cold, you can warm up in the Winter Activities Center. Here families can purchase s’mores supplies for the bonfire, enjoy hot chocolate and adult beverages, play board games or savor favorite comfort foods off The Grille’s winter-themed menu.

Looking for birds at the Grass River Natural Area

Looking for birds at the Grass River Natural Area

If you’re on the east end of town, though, you might consider heading over to the Grass River Nature Area near Bellaire to take one of their winter bird classes. Grass River is a magnet for winter birds, with its rich mix of forest, creeks, wetlands and uplands, and if you’ve ever wondered what all those different winter birds are, this is a great opportunity to learn. They recommend advance registration, so give them a call at 231-533-8314.

And as long as you’re in Bellaire, you really should head up the hill to Shanty Creek Resorts, already well-known among ski and snowboard aficionados – and being a ski resort, their various lodges are skilled in providing midwinter coziness. Perhaps not quite so well-known is the fact that Shanty has a wonderful snow-tubing hill, as well as facilities for cross-country skiing and even snowmobile rentals.

Warming up at Traverse City's Downtown Chili Cookoff

Warming up at Traverse City's Downtown Chili Cookoff

Finally, the indoor winter event to end all indoor winter events is the 18th Annual Downtown Chili Cook-Off held Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the Park Place Dome. Area restaurants will be cooking up their special recipes as they compete in eight different categories - 1 and 3-alarm, white, vegetarian, no bean, seafood and ethnic as well as the coveted "people's choice award.

Every year, more than 1,000 people come to sample the many chilies and vote for their favorites. All proceeds from the Cook-Off go to support downtown community activities like Friday Night Live, the Halloween walk and the Christmas tree-lighting. Besides, who doesn’t like chili?


Nordic Nostalgia: A Return to the Sand Lakes Quiet Area


A skier and her canine companion enjoy the trail at Sand Lakes.

A skier and her canine companion enjoy the trail at Sand Lakes.


New Year’s is all about looking ahead, but sometimes it helps to take a little glance at where you’ve been.

That’s what led me and my cross-country skis out to the deep woods east of Traverse City last week – to the Sand Lakes Quiet Area, a 2,800-acre preserve with a 7.2-mile loop of trails that was created in 1973. The Quiet Area features 12 lakes and ponds tucked away among rolling hills of oak and pine in the Pere Marquette State Forest. True to its name, it was one of the first state forest areas where motorized vehicles were forbidden. And because the small lakes in the center of the preserve have marl bottoms (a white clay-like sediment) they glow with an unearthly turquoise color

Sand Lakes is where I did my first serious backwoods skiing back in the late 1970s. I think most of us did, actually; back then, there really weren’t a lot of other options. On winter weekends it seemed as though every Nordic skier in the Traverse City area would take the long drive out past Williamsburg to Sand Lakes for a couple of hours of skiing.

A lot has changed since then. Lots of new trails have been developed much closer to town, and many skiers (especially the ones who race) prefer a wide, groomed surface to a narrow track that winds among the trees. The state Department of Natural Resources no longer does much in the way of trail maintenance at Sand Lakes, and the place is gradually becoming wilder and less visited.

It’s still a lovely place, though – and the quiet is still a big part of its allure. Heading out from the trailhead at Broomhead Road, it wasn’t long before the only sound I could hear was the wind in the trees, the call of an occasional chickadee and the whisper of my skis on the snow. The sun cast zebra stripes of blinding white and glacial blue along the trail, and I could smell the distant perfume of a pinewood campfire.

And although it wasn’t the hub of activity it once was, the place was far from deserted. There were other skiers, snowshoers, even hikers (since the snow was still shallow enough for casual walking). Halfway down the trail I ran into an old acquaintance, “silent sports” guru Georg Schluender -- who was out skijoring, a sport where you harness yourself to a well-trained dog or two and let them tow you through the woods.

Georg Schluender skijoring with two well-trained employees.

Georg Schluender skijoring with two well-trained employees.

Georg warned me that there was rough trail ahead. The heavy wet snows of mid-December had bent down most of the young pines that grew in the forest, and many of them now across the path. Foolishly, I took this advice with a grain of salt and ended up picking my way through a good three miles of unbroken trail. The roadblocks were beautiful in their way – each tree a gentle snow-covered arch – but impossible to budge. You had to go over them, under them or around them.

“Over” is kind of tricky on skis. “Under” is great when it works, except for the globs of thick snow that inevitably go down the back of your neck. “Around” is only good when you can slip in between the bending trees in a sort of zig-zag. And on a downhill slope, unless you like the idea of impalement, the best thing to do is take your skis off and walk. Suffice it to say that by the time I reached the better-traveled end of the trail I had worked off most of my misbehavior at the Christmas dinner table.

One of the smaller Sand Lakes -- this is where the trail started to get tricky...

One of the smaller Sand Lakes -- this is where the trail started to get tricky...

In spite of all this, the experience was oddly satisfying. There’s something special about breaking trail. And here in this wild corner of the forest, in spite of its great trees and great silences, I could still see the signs of long-ago human activity: beautifully graded century-old logging roads that ran through the woods like Mayan sacbeob, slowly surrendering to the small tress that had begun to colonize them.

It got me thinking about all the other places in the Traverse City area that might actually be wilder and more remote now than they were 20 or 30 years ago. In addition to the areas where wilderness is undeniably disappearing, it occurs to me that there are places where things may actually be moving in the opposite direction. And I just might start seeking them out.

"Stomping Snow" for this weekend's Winter Wow!fest 2012

The CVB girls pose beside one of the big snowcubes at the Open Space.
The CVB girls pose beside one of the big snowcubes at the Open Space.


Some people will do anything to get out of a day of work. They'll even spend hours shoveling snow into a giant wooden cube, jump up and down on it like maniacs to make sure it's properly packed, and then move on to another cube to do it all over again. And again. And again.

Every February, that's what we do - a dozen of us from the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau and the National Cherry Festival - as part of the preparation for our annual winter carnival, the Cherry Capital Winter Wow!fest. One of the most popular attractions at Winter Wow!fest (held this year on Feb. 17-19) is the Snow Sculpture Garden: 10 massive sculptures carved from huge blocks of snow by teams of master artisans from all over Michigan.

If you've been in Traverse City over the last few days, you're likely to have seen them - covered in custom-fitted tarps of silver and black at Open Space Park, at the foot of Union Street. And who mades those huge blocks of snow? We did!

Fortunately, it doesn't take a lot of skill - just a lot of time. (Well, big feet are helpful, too.) A week before the festival, relays of trucks shuttle back and forth between Traverse City and Bellaire, bringing loads of pure white snow donated by Shanty Creek Resorts to the sculpture garden site near the Clinch Park Marina. Then, for two days, we go to work stuffing snow into large 8'x 8' x 8' wooden forms.

Each time a load of snow is dumped into the top of the big cubes, we "snow-stompers" climb up into the interior with shovels, breaking up the bigger chunks, spreading each layer out evenly, and jumping up and down on it to pack it into a firm, carvable mass. It's a little intimidating at first, because you have to jump down into the bottom of a nearly empty box, but as the level of snow rises it gets easier and easier - until you're standing on the very top trying not to fall off!

Snow-stomping is actually a lot of fun. We get a lot of encouragement from passers-by, and we feel a sense of proprietary pride to watch the master carvers transform our blank-faced cubes into whimsical works of winter art. But we also know that we're only a few of the many volunteers who help out at Winter Wow!fest, a celebration of  music, food, and fun that takes place each year on the President's Day Weekend.

A carver sculpts a rattlesnake head at Winter Wow!fest 2011.
A carver sculpts a rattlesnake head at Winter Wow!fest 2011.

This season's Wow!fest will feature several new events - including the Soup'R Chili 5K, where runners will compete on an oval course along the beach, and the "Curb Crusher" Rail Jam, in which snowboarders and skiers will compete on a series of snow-covered 10-foot ramps.

For the first time, several events - such as the popular Snow Ball Co-ed Softball Tournament and snow sculpture competition - will be held in the City's Festival Open Space Park on West Grand Traverse Bay. Most other activity will be located across the Grandview Parkway at "Celebration Central," between Cass and Union streets.

That's where the action begins on Friday night with "Winter, Wine & Wow," a reception featuring local wines, craft brews, edibles and live entertainment in a huge heated tent.

Saturday morning will begin with a new, kid-friendly feast - a Cherry Pancake Breakfast in the new ECCO meeting center on Front Street, linked to the festival area by a pedestrian bridge across the Boardman River. The downtown area will continue to be used for a number of Wow!fest attractions, including a series of popular ice sculptures created by the Ice Brigade (of Food Network fame) and a three-day Presidents Weekend Sale.

Other Saturday events include the Monster Dog Pull,where canine Olympians compete for the title of "monster dog" by pulling weighted sleds. There'll also be winter versions of popular Cherry Festival competitions like the Frozen Pit Spit contest and the Brain Freeze ice cream eating contest,  the uproarious Frozen Bed Race, and the Soup r' Bowl where participants slurp up soups created by local chefs.

The famous Frozen Bed Race!
The famous Frozen Bed Race!

One special Saturday event is a once-only extravaganza to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Wow!fest partner WKLT as Traverse City's premiere rock station - it's the Winter Wow!fest Summer Festival Fantasy, an 80s party featuring music from the 1980s featuring music videos and huge summer festival giveaways including the season's hottest concert ticket - VanHalen for two!

Snow for the various snowsport competitions is being provided by Shanty Creek Resorts, which is lending some of its winter magic to the festival. In addition to the snow they supplied for the sculptures, the resort is building a Snow Park and Tubing Hill where families can enjoy the fun of snow-tubing, while local outfitters will be introducing novice skiers and snowshoers to the joys of cold-weather sports.

Competitions that require steeper hills will still be held at the nearby Mt. Holiday Ski Area, including such offbeat competitions as the Friday "Downhill Dash," a no-holds-barred mountain bike/ski/snowboard race down the ski hill and the "Cardboard Classic" in which competitors must use sleds made only with cardboard, tape and paint. As always, the festival will end Sunday night with a fireworks display above the Grand Traverse Resort & Spa.

Come and join us! It's a lot of fun - even if you're not stomping snow!

Closing night fireworks over the snow at Grand Traverse Resoprt & Spa
Closing night fireworks over the snow at Grand Traverse Resoprt & Spa

Keeping Hope Alive for the 2012 Vasa and Winter Wow!fest

Beautiful winter weather at Sleeping Bear Dunes, but not much Snow!
Beautiful winter weather at Sleeping Bear Dunes, but not much Snow!


Putting together any kind of outdoor event -- whether it's a family camping trip or a week-long community festival -- will keep you humble. You can plan and organize as much as you want, but you can't control the weather. All you can control is how you respond to it.

This winter's unseasonably warm temperatures and lack of snowfall this year have forced many Midwestern communities to cancel their winter festivals. This past weekend, the White Pine Stampede ski race in Bellaire had to be called off at the last minute because the trail was nearly obliterated by sun, rain and melting.

Here in Traverse City, fortunately, things are looking a bit better. The big North American Vasa Festival of Races is still scheduled to take place Feb. 10-12, thanks to some lucky breaks (the course is through deep woods, which protected the snow from too much melting) and some hard work from festival volunteers, who've been out shoveling snow onto the trail wherever it's too thin. And since temperatures are starting to drop again, they think they'll be able to hang on to what they've got.

No Snow for Wow!fest? Not to Worry -- the Show Must Go On!
No Snow for Wow!fest? Not to Worry -- the Show Must Go On!

It's the same story with the Cherry Capital Winter Wow!fest, which will also go forward as planned. Festival planner Trevor Tkach says organizers have devised a host of contingency plans for the Feb. 17-19 festival, and have been stockpiling their own snow supplies in anticipation of just such an eventuality.

"We've got snow - and come rain, come snow, come shine, we've got a festival," said Tkoch.

Now in its sixth year, Winter Wow!fest is  a wintertime celebration of competitions, music, games, food, wine, entertainment and fun. It includes such events as the Soup'r Bowl soup contest, a Frozen Bed Race, a Winter, Wine & Wow!  food & drink reception, a Cardboard Classic downhill race, a Monster Dog Pull and fireworks, as well as new features like the Curb Crusher Rail Jam and the Soup r' Chili 5K run.

Officials at  nearby Shanty Creek Resorts have been storing hundreds of cubic yards of clean white snow that will be hauled to Traverse City to supply what Mother Nature hasn't provided.

For a full schedule of events and online registration for races, dinners and other reserved events, go to www.winterwowfest.com.

One event that may reap a little extra benefit from the warmer temperatures is the Traverse City Winter Microbrew & Music Festival which will be held this Saturday evening on the Historic Lawn of our 19th century mental asylum, the Grand Traverse Commons. Billed as a "winter wonderland of craft beer, live music and local food," the festival will feature beverages from over 50 microbreweries, meaderies, cideries and wineries, a "silent disco," and nearly a dozen live bands. (In a silent disco, dancers are issued wireless headphones through which music is broadcast via an FM transmitter - nobody else has to listen.)

The events will be held in a small city of heated tents: three main heated music and microbrewery tents, a silent disco tent with a full roster of DJs, a snow fort-building competition among local businesses -- and for the first time, a polka-themed tent hosted by local comedian Marti Johnson.

Performing for the event will be several acclaimed musical and entertainment acts including Funktion, beatbox champion Heatbox, The Crane Wives, Whitey Morgan and the 78's, Dragon Wagon, Rootstand, Laith Al-Saadi, DJ DomiNate, DJ Wulf Pak (and his popular laser show), the non-profit Grand Traverse Pipes & Drums and local fire dancers.

Celtic Dancing at the 2011 Winter Microbrew & Music Festival
Celtic Dancing at the 2011 Winter Microbrew & Music Festival

The polka tent, a promotional partnership with the Cedar Polka Fest held nearby during the first week in July, will feature popular polka bands (including Squeezebox and The Kielbasa Kings) with dancing, authentic food and special activities celebrating polka culture.

Already well-known as a food and wine destination, Traverse City is also making fans in the burgeoning microbrew community; Draft magazine just named it one of Americas' three newest Emerging Beer Towns (along with St. Louis and Oklahoma City).The Grand Traverse Commons lawn has long been the home of Traverse City's Summer Microbrew & Music Festival, which is held there each August, but the winter event has been more nomadic - the first one was held on a local golf course, and last year's was in downtown Traverse City.

Festival promoter Sam Porter said the move to the Commons made good sense, but he regretted that downtown businesses won't reap as much of an economic benefit from this year's festival. To take some of the sting out of the move, his company -- Porterhouse Productions -- will host a pre-festival concert Friday night in Traverse City's historic downtown opera house, featuring Grammy-winning band Blues Traveler.

Renowned for their high-energy live shows, Blues Traveler is behind such massive pop hits as "Run-Around," "Hook" and "You, Me and Everything." Their album "Four" reached triple-platinum status, and "Run-Around" was the longest-charting single in Billboard history. The Feb. 10 concert marks the band's second return to Traverse City after their sold-out appearance at Porterhouse's Paella in the Park festival in 2010.

"Our hope is that we'll have a great sold-out show with Blues Traveler the night before the festival, with concertgoers eating, drinking and shopping downtown before and after the concert," said Porter. His company is also planning several "after-parties" on Friday and Saturday nights at downtown establishments (including Union Street Station and the Loading Dock) to further connect festival attendees with the downtown district.

The festival will offer free shuttle service to attendees between the Commons, downtown, the Old Town parking deck, and participating hotels.

General admission tickets for the Traverse City Winter Microbrew & Music Festival on February 11 are $30 in advance or $35 at the door and include all festival entertainment, musical acts, shuttle service and five (5) 7-oz pours. Additional pours will be available for purchase on-site for $1 each. Tickets can be purchased online at www.porterhouseproductions.com or at Oryana, Blue Tractor and Left Foot Charley in Traverse City.

Attendees are strongly encouraged to purchase tickets in advance, as the festival has sold out in past years. Ticket buyers must be at least 21 years old. Attendees are encouraged to carpool, use the shuttle service or walk, sled or snowshoe to the event. Festival proceeds will benefit the non-profit Bay Area Recycling for Charities.

Reserved seating tickets for the Blues Traveler concert at the City Opera House on February 10 range from $29-$45. Tickets can be purchased at the City Opera House box office, by phone at 231-941-8082 or online at www.cityoperahouse.org

More Snow, Please -- We've Got Some SKIING To Do!

Racers competing in the 2011 North American Vasa
Racers competing in the 2011 North American Vasa


All right, enough with the on-again, off-again snow. I like sunshine as much as the next guy, but we've got to start holding on to this stuff -- we've got some serious ski events coming up!

This Saturday is the White Pine Stampede, a major pojnt-to-point Nordic ski race held between in the villages of Mancelona and Bellaire, near Shanty Creek Resorts. It's celebrating its 36st anniversary this year with a series of 10K, 20K and 50K races, and brings in anywhere from 500 to 600 skiers each year, and the trails are looking pretty sketchy in places.

The following weekend is an even bigger ski event here in Traverse City -- the 36th annual  North American Vasa Festival of Races, which brought over 900 cross-country skiers from around the U.S. and Canada here last winter, and is expected to bring hundreds more this time around.

Why? Because this year's Vasa is also the host event for the AXCS Masters National Championships, North America's championship event for master skiers. The Masters is hosted each year by a different race. Recent venues include Anchorage, Alaska; Bend, Oregon; Craftsbury, Vermont and St. Paul, Minnesota. Vasa officials say it's the perfect fit for Traverse City.

"We're going to have all the excitement of a national race, lots of additional skiers, and the opportunity for our competitors to win placement in the world championships in Germany," said Vasa Board Member and chief-of-course Michael Tarnow. "Best of all, this is helping us to promote the sport and skiing in Northern Michigan to a whole new group of people."

Founded by two Traverse City dads who were trying to teach their kids to ski --  Swedish-American hotelier Ted Okerstrom and former Yugoslav Olympic skier Vojin Baic - the Vasa is held each February. The main Saturday race, which features 12K, 27K and 50K race lengths, in either freestyle or classic styles, is part of the prestigious American Ski Marathon Series, where most of the nation's elite and professional ski racers compete. Sunday's 6K and 16K traditional-style classic only race, the Gran Travers Classic, is an equally prestigious event for old-school Nordic skiers, and one of the events in the Michigan Cup classic race series.

Over the past decade, race organizers have added a wide range of other events for skiers of all shapes, ages and skill levels: 1K sprints for preschoolers, 3K freestyle and classic events for older youths, and even noncompetitive 3K and 10K tours for those who prefer to enjoy winter's natural beauty at a more leisurely pace. A highlight of the festival is the popular Valentine's Tour, which take place on Sunday afternoon after all the competitive events have ended

And there's a lot of beauty to appreciate. The Vasa is held on a beautifully crafted trail that winds through the dense pines and hardwoods of the Pere Marquette State Forest. In addition to the hundreds of skiers who actually head out on the trails, hundreds of spectators come to watch the race and enjoy the festivities that surround it.

"All our races are done at the speed of fun," says Tarnow. "We try to encourage skiers to work at their own pace."

That's exactly the kind of experience the AXCS National Masters Championship tries to foster. Unlike many elite races, the Masters is open to skiers of all abilities. No qualification or license of any kind is necessary; it's "one of those special events where skiers ranging from experts to complete novices can all participate together...and everyone has a great time."

Young skiers can compete, too!
Young skiers can compete, too!

A new event for 2012 will be the Great Lakes Youth Ski Festival, where junior skiers (ages 4-14) from the five Great Lakes states will compete in a variety of races and enjoy other fun activities. Special shorter courses will be used for all the kid's events.

The festival actually begins the day before the main race with registration, social time, and the opportunity for everyone to work-out their travel kinks on the groomed trails. That evening, there's an annual "Vasa Pasta" dinner, an all-you-can-eat event where contestants try to pack away as many carbohydrates as possible. The Baic family tradition is one plate of pasta for every 10k of race

"Sherpa Mike" Meets a Snowy Owl

Beautiful but Deadly: A Snowy Owl at Old Mission Point
Beautiful but Deadly: A Snowy Owl at Old Mission Point


OK, the muscles are a little sore this morning. And I'm not sure if that's from snowshoeing the Empire Bluff Trail on Friday afternoon with a five-year-old on my shoulders, or from skiing the big loop above Old Mission Point on Saturday. All I can say is that winter is definitely fun this year!

The five-year-old wasn't mine, by the way. She's the daughter of Wisconsin travel writer Julie Furst Henning, who writes for Road Trips for Families, and who was in Traverse City this weekend with her mom and two of her three youngsters, Owen and Marie. Eager to show them the wonders of the Sleeping Bear Dunes in winter, I took the four of them on a showshoe hike to the Empire Bluffs, forgetting how quickly a kid can get tired trying to navigate deep snow.

My goal was to get Julie out to the lookout at the end of the trail where you can see the big dune to the north and the huge mass of South Manitou Island floating several miles offshore. She may be a Wisconsinite now, but Julie grew up in Michigan, and is descended from the Fursts who were lighthouse keepers on the Manitou Islands several generations ago. Mission accomplished...

Giving Marie a ride on my shoulders was a great blast from the past. My own daughter Elizabeth (now 22) probably spent several hours a day on my shoulders when she was that age, and it was fun being the Henning family's unofficial "sherpa" for the afternoon. But I think the Hennings didn't really start having fun until they were free to explore on their own.

They sure did a lot, anyway. Snow-tubing at TimberLee Hills, visiting the Great Lakes Children's Museum, and checking out the wide menu of outdoor activities on tap at Grand Traverse Resort & Spa. In case you didn't know, The Resort has a pretty good variety of things to do on weekends; they're turned their golf Clubhouse into a Winter Activities Center   featuring cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and ice skating. You can either bring your own gear or rent stuff from them.

Snowmobiling at Grand Traverse Resort
Snowmobiling at Grand Traverse Resort

They're also doing snowmobile rides, thanks to the good folks at Blue Sky Rentals, dogsled rides through Wiggi's Mountainside Huskies, bonfires with s'mores and a pretty decent selection of kids activities, from a snowman-building contest and snow-castle construction project to s'mores and campfire games with their winter mascot, Bogey Bear. A pretty good introduction to winter for folks who aren't really sure how their kids are going to react to all that snow!

I did take one more ski trip on my own over the weekend, around the big loop above Old Mission Point, and I'm glad I did. Apart from the usual great views, the snow conditions were wonderful, and I got my first sighting of a snowy owl in several years. These huge birds, big as small dogs, are winter visitors to the area from the Arctic, and I used to see them all the time when the winters were colder. (Perhaps their return is a sign of more normal winters to come.)

Unlike other owls, they hunt quite comfortably in daylight, perching in high trees at the edge of fields and roadways and watching for mice, rabbits and other prey. In spite of their cute appearance, they are pitiless hunters who can swoop down silently from the winter sky to deliver death with beak and talons to any creature foolish enough to poke its head above the snow. This one didn't consider me worth his attention. All things considered, I'm cool with that....

Monday's weather is rainy and messy. I'm pretty confident it'll get cold again soon, thanks to my owl friend, but I hope it gets back to straight-up winter weather before tomorrow!

Cross-country Skiing at Grand Traverse Resort
Cross-country Skiing at Grand Traverse Resort

What a Weekend! A Day in the Kayak, a Day on the Skis!

Heading off toward Leffingwell Point on Saturday
Heading off toward Leffingwell Point on Saturday (Notice the ice forming on the water....)


After weeks of unseasonably warm and snow-free weather, Traverse City is finally getting some winter - and what a welcome surprise for those of us who love the outdoors!

Saturday was such a splendid, cold and sunny day that I decided to get the kayak out and do some touring on East Grand Traverse Bay. It turned out to be a great decision; it was the perfect weather for a scenic tour along the high bluffs on the east side of the Old Mission Peninsula. The water was as clear as glass, the cedars and firs on shore were frosted with cotton-candy snow, the boulders in the shallows were glazed with a thick coat of ice, and there were birds (including eagles) swooping all over the place.

We've never been shy about kayaking the Bay in winter. After all, Eskimos invented these cozy little boats for exactly these conditions. I prefer to go out early in the season before the ice starts to build up, when you can still find sandy beaches. The secret is to dress warmly, stay as dry as possible (using a good waterproof skirt and neoprene gloves) avoid rough water and stay fairly close to shore. And make sure you have that personal flotation device handy!

Believe me, winter kayaking is a treat - especially on open water. There's a primeval feeling about steering among the icy rocks as the water churns to a slushy consistency around you, feeling the sun warming your back and counting to see how many seconds it takes for the wind to freeze the droplets on your paddle. I had Vaughn Williams' Sinfonia Antarctica playing on the iPod for an appropriately chilly soundtrack, and it was perfect.

On  Sunday it seemed like a good idea to strap on the cross-country skis and check out the trail system was doing at the Old Mission Point Park. This huge upland plateau near the top of the Old Mission Peninsula belongs to the State of Michigan, but is operated by Peninsula Township and adjoins the township's own Lighthouse Park - combined, they have over 700 acres of woods, meadows and shoreline and 12 miles of trails.

Winter on the Wetlands Boardwalks at Grass River
Winter on the Wetlands Boardwalks at Grass River

The skiing was surprisingly good, even though the snow was still a bit thin in spots, but I quickly realized that I've let myself get out of shape this year. Hitting the exercise bike is really no substitute for getting out into the back country and herringboning up a few hills. I think it's time to start stashing the skis in the back of the car again!

There's another excellent outdoor event coming up this coming weekend at another of my favorite places, the Grass River Natural Area between Alden and Bellaire. I like Grass River almost any time of year, but in winter its thick cover of evergreens makes it the perfect place to explore on skis or snowshoes. Saturday is their annual Grass River Shiver Snowshoe Race and Winterfest..

First the race: there are 5K and 10K courses, and prizes will be awarded for the fastest male and females runner in each. Registration is $15 in advance or $20 on the day of the race. (Racers 12 and under are free, and there's also a free "family run.") You don't even have to have your own snowshoes - there'll be someone on hand from Brick Wheels, ready to rent shoes to anyone who needs them.

Then, the festival: Winterfest, which starts around 11 a.m., is a free family event with games and crafts that lasts until 3 p.m. The highlight? A soup tasting featuring homemade soups from the Alden Bar, Blue Pelican, Java Jones, the Lunch Box, Shanty Creek, Short's Brewing, Shirley's Cafe and the Wild Onion.

To register for the race on-line, go to www.grassriver.org or call the Grass River office at (231) 533-8314.