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VASA Skiers lament fatbike invasion

Wed, Apr  2, 2014 - By Jim Datsko

Building a local Nordic Camelot doesn’t happen in one, five, or even ten years; but tearing it down can be accomplished in just a couple years.

The Vasa is Traverse City’s cherished cross-country ski course. In the 1980’s and 1990’s retired veterinarian George Lombard led an effort to create a permanent Vasa ski trail. This took years of hard work beginning with convincing the DNR that the forest was not just for hunters and timber but also for skiing. After countless thousands of hours building the trail skiers built a warming house and bought a groomer costing over $100,000. Trail management was later turned over to Traverse Area Recreational Trails (TART), and our world-class Nordic reputation brought tourism all winter long.

Meantime mountain bikers arranged for a separate Vasa Single Track (VST) in a different area. Some rode year-round and kept it naturally tamped down during the snow season. They didn’t bother organizing any grooming efforts.

Then fat tire bikes designed a decade earlier for riding on sandy Pacific beaches and dunes arrived in TC. Unlike their mountain bike predecessors these riders lacked the gumption to pedal the VST course in the snow and cast eyes on the groomed Nordic pathway. Feeling pressured by the DNR to admit anyone onto the pathway TART promoted “Fat Bike Fridays” to limit the conflict between skiers and bikers to one day per week this first trial season. Some skiers started staying home on Fridays.

The clash between skiers and bikers bringing their two-wheel vehicles onto our quiet ski trail resulted in the winter of our discontent. Adding fuel to the fire was a pair of January 2014 articles in The Metropolitan Detroit newspaper and Silent Sports Magazine inviting bikers to come north and ride the Vasa ski trail. The more they succeed in funneling fat bikers onto the VASA pathway the more they drive the Nordic crowd away. Soon bikers moved beyond their Friday beachhead and rode our pathway on any day resulting in sharp words occasionally being exchanged with skiers.

Managers of mature trail networks have recognized the inherent conflict between hikers and bikers and separated their trails accordingly. Where necessary, hiking groups fight to prohibit mountain bikes on their hiking trails. An article in the October 2013 issue of Silent Sports Magazine reports the American Hiking Society’s $50,000 fund raising effort to oppose bikers gaining access to National Scenic Trails. The incompatibility of heavy-metal fat bike vehicles on our groomed ski trails is the same nature of conflict as between hikers and mountain bikers.

George Lombard published a Letter to the Editor in the Record-Eagle on Dec. 5, 2013 entitled “Improper Use Of Vasa”. In it he cited,

“Coming upon the trail completely ruined for cross country skiing by the tracks and indentation of fat tire mountain bikes ... sunk in about six inches, making skiing almost impossible. This trail ... purpose when there is snow covering the trail is for cross-country skiing... I fear that TART is going to suffer financially if this continues as skiers have told me that they don’t intend to donate if this continues. This financial impact includes the whole area as people make it a destination to come and ski the trail.”

George’s concerns have come true. Donations to TART are affected.

Personally I have quit sponsoring a kilometer of the trail. Paul Maurer, a local businessman who generously supports it with donations annually averaging $3,000 says “I can almost guarantee I won’t do this next year if fat bikes are still on our trail. All the skiers I talk with love bikes but agree they don’t belong on the Vasa ski trail.” Several others report they’re canceling sponsorships if this continues. We’re just the tip of the iceberg.

Retired teacher and local recreational leader Lois Goldstein filed an incident report with TART after they nearly crashed when skiing into fat bike rutted areas. Her husband, John Heiam, notes, “The problem with multi-use is that there is almost always one user that significantly degrades the trail for other users. They don’t see the problem because other users don’t degrade the trail for them.“

Tom Sutter is one of the few to have skied every one of our 38 annual Vasa races. Tom, like most other skiers, supports George’s editorial 100% and says, “When the Vasa Trail is white, it is for skiing.... Climate change will be shortening our potential four-month ski season - we already have a small window compared to the bikers’ season. The biking community should organize like we did and acquire their own groomer for the VST.”

Milan Baic is the son of a Vasa Race founder and frequent first place finisher. He sums it up for most of us, "Nothing personal against them. They are just trying to have fun too, but they shouldn't be out here on our groomed ski trail." Ann, a lady who skis the VASA daily says, “just knowing they are out there and could come around a curve at you anytime” means you can never really relax and enjoy the Vasa as before.

Matt Vajda, a frequent Vasa skier, also experienced the “crazy scary” ruts made by the fat bikes that were twice as deep as the groomer can repair. He notes, “Fortunately this record cold winter of heavy snow minimized their damage but in a typical winter they will be ruining the trail system for skiers.... In the future will down-staters drive past better cross-country skiing in Grayling or Bellaire to come to Traverse City and its fat bike problems?”

Myself and most all the local skiers I chat with are dispirited at our former Nordic Camelot crumbling as the relaxing solitude of skiing in nature is shattered by encountering heavy-metal vehicles, their deep ugly ruts and potential crashes. For many of us skiing the Vasa daily was our Yoga. Before the fat bike invasion I could totally relax and settle into a deep reverie similar to the meditative state of Yoga providing its health benefits. No longer.

Wisconsin avoids this problem. In the March 2014 Silent Sports Magazine Brigit Brown, trails coordinator for Wisconsin DNR states, “Walking or biking on a groomed cross-country ski trail is prohibited by DNR rules.”

Blueberry Ridge Pathway in the U.P. solved their problem. The Marquette DNR entered a Director’s Order prohibiting bikes on that ski trail year round. We are seeking a Director’s Order prohibiting bikes during the winter grooming season. Hopefully our DNR will come up to speed with Marquette and Wisconsin. Maybe then we can return to “Pure Michigan Skiing” instead of the adulterated version now offered. Michigan DNR with TART set a public meeting for April 28 at the Civic Center in Traverse City, 5:30 pm to 8:00 pm, to gather input for future of the Vasa Pathway. Skiers should attend or mail their comments to Todd Neiss, Michigan DNR, 8015 Mackinaw Trail, Cadillac, MI 49601, Fax (231) 775-9671, Tel.(231) 775-972 or e-mail to NeissT@michigan.gov. Concerned skiers should both write and attend.