Northern Michigan Skiing: Former Division I collegiate Nordic coach, Eli Brown makes it his goal to amp up Traverse City's Nordic culture by spreading cross country skiing to the masses, starting with free lessons for all.
In the 36 years since the Vasa cross-country ski race was born in Traverse City, Nordic skiing has come a long way in Northern Michigan … sort of … but also sort of not. The most obvious example of progress is at the Vasa trail itself, which now boasts 35 flawless kilometers maintained by an army of devoted midnight groomers. On busy weekends, hundreds of people make the pilgrimage to the Vasa trail, enjoying one of America’s finest XC experiences. More XC progress is evident nearby, where all the major ski resorts now groom dozens of kilometers of XC trail too. And, over the years, other XC races have also been born and gone on to create legacies of their own.
But on the sorta not side, there is this fact: Vasa race enrollment is less than half what it was at the peak—350 last year compared to 1,300 in the early 80's. And while Traverse City’s two big high schools have cross-country ski teams, hardly any other schools have them, and the two TC teams train together due to lack of participation. And of those people skiing the Vasa trail, very few are school age. XC here seems to be a sport for adults only, or nearly so.
To sum this up, you could say that while cross-country skiing happens here, a culture of cross-country skiing does not. As counterpoint, consider that at downhill resorts you see skiers from toddlers though grandparents, lessons and racing at all ages, clubhouses, cafeterias, families gathering around their sport, passing it down from one generation to the next. You feel buzz. You see fun. You see play.
Believe it or not, that kind of cross-country ski culture exists in other places—Steamboat Springs, Colorado, Bozeman, Montana, Burlington, Vermont, and Minnesota’s Twin Cities, to name just four. And the great news is it’s about to happen here, if Eli Brown has his way.
Brown is a 38-year-old former Division I collegiate Nordic coach for the Utah Utes who married a cherry farmer’s daughter and last year moved back to her home near the Grand Traverse Bay. Here he intends to raise a family, help out on the farm, and take the region’s smoldering campfire of a cross-country scene and turn it into a bonfire.
One of Brown’s big advantages in seeing Northern Michigan’s Nordic future so clearly is he grew up within a vibrant cross-country ski culture, saw it up close. He understands its components and possibilities. Brown was raised in a neighborhood in southeast Minneapolis. Though the Twin Cities is a major metropolis, in-town ski trails run for miles. The system is so well developed it was able to host the Nordic Junior National Championship races in a city park when Brown was in high school.
Children start skiing early in Minnesota, and they join racing teams in middle school and high school. “I fell in love with skiing at 11,” Brown says. “I was always chasing my brother—he was a ski racer too.” His family hung out on the local ski trails. “I just remember skiing around and then up to get chocolate from my dad,” he says.
That XC passion carried Brown to victory in one high school race after another and on to the Nordic ski team at Northern Michigan University, where Brown skied under legendary coach Sten Feldheim. He ended up living and training in Marquette for a decade, along the way becoming one of the top collegiate racers in America. His roommate in Marquette was Pete Vordenberg, a three-time Olympian and now head Nordic coach on the U.S. Ski Team.
Vordenberg recalls a playful and motivating spirit when reflecting on Brown as a college teammate. During a team trip, he remembers Brown “creating a game in a long van drive with an Etch-a-Sketch and a tin of ski wax.” Vordenberg doesn’t recall the rules, but he does remember that Brown soon had 20 teammates yelling and laughing along. “It is those times where Eli shines, bringing creativity, adventure and fun to an otherwise mundane drive,” Vordenberg says. In Vordenberg’s book Momentum, he devotes passages to Brown and his energy and work ethic.
As a collegiate racer, Brown faced one of his greatest challenges when he broke his leg badly playing soccer. He spent 30 days in the hospital, had three surgeries. “The next winter I had great results, but was limping down the trail. The perspective of traumatic pain, real pain, makes ‘racing pain’ pale in comparison,” he says. “Being able to hurt more than the next guy is something I learned in Marquette.”
Lessons in fortitude pair with something else Brown learned in Marquette, lessons that could shape a great deal of what happens in XC around Northwest Lower Michigan. He saw that some of the NMU Nordic racers stayed in Marquette after college, and they gave back to the sport. They coached kids. They organized races. They built trail systems. “They really transformed the ski scene in Marquette,” Brown says. One of the highest profile results is Marquette’s Noquemanon Ski Marathon, which, based on total number of racers, quickly became one of the most popular races in the nation after it began in 1998. “That’s what I want to do with the Vasa,” Brown says. “We have the National Masters this year, our first national event and a chance to show off our stuff. Then we want to get the World Masters in 2018.”
Job 1 for Brown is taking the strengths of what’s here and building upon them. A strong Nordic culture needs kids for certain, but to thrive long term, the culture must be strong on all levels, so that means ramping things up for the adults near term while working hard to get the kids stuff going. His strategy: train devoted adults to ski well, and they can then become his Nordic ski apostles, teaching others so the skills will spread exponentially faster.
The plan plays out on a 12-degree Monday night in February at Timber Ridge Resort, ground zero for Brown’s grand Nordic plan. He calls Timber Ridge—which grooms trails that connect to the 35K Vasa trail—Traverse City’s cross-country ski clubhouse. All winter he’s been selling skis here out of a Brick Wheels mini-store, giving lessons, tuning up gear and, like tonight, offering free Monday night ski classes.
Brown’s free lessons start at 7:30 p.m., and by that time, 18 people have gathered in the winter night under the dim orangey glow of trail lights—single bulbs spaced about every 150 feet along the trail. Most are later middle age, a roughly even mix of women and men, but the oldest student is a 70-something man, and the youngest is an 8-year-old boy.
Though Brown is nearing 40, his look and demeanor would place him much younger. His shoulders are square, no beer gut protrudes. And he exudes a ski fervor you’d expect in a teenager.
The XC students form a half circle around Brown. “Tonight we’re going to focus on all the action below the knee,” he says, his breath an orange-tinted cloud under the lights. “Okay everybody, no poles. Don’t use your poles. Let’s do a loop! We’re focusing on efficiency. Get more from that effort.” His goal for this loop: get students to shift weight far out over the front of their skis. “Throw your body out over your ski!” he yells. And 18 headlamps go bobbing off into the night, their poles left behind leaning against a fence hung with one Subaru banner after another—the sponsor of the upcoming Vasa race. He skis with the students yelling technique tips along the way.
“Ski big. Ski powerful. Hands from low to high, low, like gorilla hands, then high, like you’re serving a volleyball to the moon! Low to high. Low to high. If you do it right, we might use poles next time … maybe.”
And so the lesson goes for the next hour, Brown shouting phrases learned during a lifetime of racing and coaching while students do laps. Brown eventually lets them have their poles back, but then he orders them to remove one ski and do laps that way—two poles, one ski. “Your boot never touches the snow,” Brown yells.
At one point the 8-year-old comes out of the darkness heading the wrong way. “I just couldn’t do another full lap Mom,” he says.
“That’s okay, Bud,” she says.
While waiting for the adults the boy skis around by the trailhead, practicing turns, perfect balance, ballet in the dim light. The future of Nordic skiing in 3-D.
Fast forward to October 22, 2011, a sunny autumn day in the parking lot outside Brick Wheels bike and ski shop, to find another of Brown’s Nordic initiatives. When there’s not a snowflake to be found anywhere else in Michigan, the second annual Brick Wheels Autumn Nordic Fest is underway, and a Nordic racetrack traces a white loop.
The “snow” came courtesy of 50-plus truckloads of Zamboni ice shaved from a local ice rink and hauled in over the course of the week. “Mother nature fought us hard all week,” Brown says of the warm weather. He and his crew covered the snow to slow the melt, and on this day, 50 racers—up from 20 in the previous year’s inaugural race—from all over the state blast around the tiny track while about 250 people watch. “We claimed it was the earliest Nordic race in the country,” Brown says. The event pairs with a cross-country ski gear swap and sale. A reggae band provides the background sound, paid for by an anonymous donor.
Of course, there’s method to Nordic madness like this, says Todd Vigland, president of the Vasa Ski Club. “Eli comes up with the idea and is crazy enough to get people to do it with him. What made my day was seeing how people just kept skiing on that trail, and the kids just couldn’t get enough of it.” Brown’s arrival to the region coincides with Vigland’s own efforts to take the Nordic sport beyond core devotees and out to the broader community. He recently ramped up membership in the local ski club from 30 to 300 in a single year through a simple email campaign. “It confirmed our hunch that there’s pent up desire in the community to give back to the sport,” he says.
“In a way,” says Scott Howard, president of TART Trails, which grooms the Vasa trail, “it’s the perfect time for Eli to show up because so many resources are here now.” Resources like the state-of-the-art Vasa trail and a budding resurgence in the ski club. “But it will take more than one person to set a bonfire and get this thing going like crazy. We have something of a ski prophet in town now. If we are on board as a community, he can make that happen fast. But if it’s Eli and a couple other folks, and everybody else just standing around waiting for him to lead us to the promised land, it will be a long slog, and we’ll have the same 600 skiers getting older out on the trail.”
Meanwhile, Eli Brown continues to spew a blizzard of ideas, cultivating the culture and the XC infrastructure on every level he can imagine. He wants to have the entire 50K Vasa racetrack groomed all winter long, not just the 35K that’s currently groomed. He wants to separate the Vasa skate track from the classic track, making each a richer experience. Brown says we need a Nordic stadium at the Vasa if we are going to host the World Masters in 2018. He wants to establish Nordic teams at middle schools and high schools around the North. He wants the TC Central and West teams split so a spirited rivalry can ignite. (He finds it vexing that our region’s high schoolers come in last place in the Junior Nationals every year. “We’re doing those kids a disservice.”) He wants to see extensive classes offered all winter long for skiers at all levels. He wants people to commit to their gear. “Do you know how many people around here are riding $5,000 bikes but scoff at spending $500 on skis?” He wants to see more warming huts at more ski trails. He wants to see a better clubhouse at the Vasa trailhead. “Why can’t there be a cafe there?” He wants people cross-training in groups during the off-season—roller skis, running. He wants Timber Ridge to be even more of a ski clubhouse than it already is. “I’d like there to be a logbook there where people could write their miles—get a little competition going.” And so forth …