Mora, Minnesota, welcomes cross-country skiers during its annual Vasaloppet USA

WRITTEN BY MOLLY HOEG
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF TREVOR COKLEY AND VASALOPPET USA
Vasaloppet USA is one of only four such events that take place in the world each year. Here skiers line up in downtown Mora for the annual ski marathon.

THE CHILLY FEBRUARY MORNING AIR IS CHARGED WITH ANTICIPATION. Skiers gather inside the sprawling tent in downtown Mora, pulling on their boots, donning their final layers and adjusting their race bibs. Families, visitors from near and far, and local ski enthusiasts rub elbows with the lithe elite skiers in their thin Lycra suits. Just steps away from the tent, rows of pristine cross-country ski tracks line Main Street. The annual Vasaloppet USA is in full swing.

It all started as a simple cross-country ski race that looped around an open field back in 1973. Glen Johnstone came up with the brilliant idea. Aware of the prestigious Vasaloppet ski marathon that finishes in Mora, Sweden, he contacted the officials to ask permission to use the name for a race in Mora, Minnesota. Forty-seven years later, a strong bond has formed between skiers in multiple countries as a result. There are now four Vasaloppet races, in Sweden, the United States, Japan and China–established in that order.

Vasaloppet USA celebrates its Swedish heritage. The original Vasaloppet began in 1922 in Mora, Sweden, the sister city of Mora, Minnesota.

All morning long close to one thousand skiers line up and head out onto the trails where they loop through the woods on carefully groomed undulating terrain. They have their choice of two techniques–classic and skate ski–and four distances from 13k to marathon length (42k or more). The finale is a triumphant finish, skiing down Main Street among crowds of cheering fans.

Steeped in Swedish tradition, rest stops along the course feature thick warm blueberry soup, and women in traditional Swedish dress (known as Kranskullas or “wreath girls”) don wreaths on the heads of winners and drape all finishers with medals. If you see a fit senior skier whizzing by in the final kilometers, chances are it’s a Swedish veteran. That distinction is earned by completing the Swedish Vasaloppet thirty times–each a distance of 90 kilometers, equivalent to 56 miles.

The hometown nature of the Vasaloppet pervades all the activities as the community embraces the event. It’s no accident that skiers of all abilities feel welcome. Vasaloppet USA strives to provide a good experience for everyone. “Even if you are only an occasional skier, it’s a fun event,” says Pat Gorham, a long-standing Vasaloppet board member. That quality draws skiers back year after year.

Winners of individual races are given wreaths by the “Kranskulla,” Swedish for “wreath girl.”

Although the ski races still take center stage, the event has blossomed into an annual celebration with offerings for everyone. “It is more like a winter festival with all trail-related sports,” says Debbie Morrison, president of Vasaloppet USA.

The festivities start several weeks beforehand, with the Lanternloppet for skiing by lanternlight. An annual fundraiser, the Moraloppet Ski for the Cause follows a week later to support breast cancer research. Things ramp up in earnest for Vasaloppet Week, Thursday through Sunday, the second weekend in February. A craft beverage tasting, pasta feed, dancing to a live band, “A Vasaloppet Trail Companion” live radio show, and a multi-day art show are a few of the offerings.

Sunday is Family Day. Variety fuels the fun, starting with “Spark” races, in which adults push kids on kick sleds, and skiers pair up with pooches in the Skijoring race. A Miniloppet for children and fat-tire bike race round out
the morning.

The Vasaloppet USA organization is at the heart of this ambitious undertaking. Its fourteen board members meet twice monthly year-round, planning, organizing and strategizing for the future. Their work ultimately propels about six hundred volunteers out of the town’s 3,500 residents to make it happen. Community groups pitch in, organizing the variety of ancillary events to supplement the race offerings. As its population swells, Mora literally opens its doors to participants, with residents hosting skiers in an informal bed-and-breakfast program.

“For the size of the town, we have a good track record for volunteerism,” notes Pat.

While the Vasaloppet has loyal followers, Mother Nature has not always cooperated in recent years. Withering snow coverage forced the race onto area lakes for several years and discouraged participants. Board members directly responded to the challenge. In 2016 they bought snow-making equipment and went to work covering the local ski trails.

“We knew we had to make the commitment,” says Debbie. The ski race was reconfigured from a point-to-point race to be a loop, taking advantage of the guaranteed snow coverage. “It was very festive, and the community loved it,” she adds. “It’s working–registrations continue to increase each year now.” This year they are adding a second snow gun to further increase their snow-making capacity.

Even this snow-making requires a dedicated group of volunteers. The snow guns create a big pile of snow, which must be hauled out onto the trail and spread around. Enter the Snow Farmers. To get the job done, “they bring their tractors, manure spreaders, and loaders,” says Debbie. This dedicated group of about six local farmers work long hours throughout the season to keep the trails covered.

There are several ski races during the event. The top male and female winners of the 58-kilometer course win trips to Sweden to compete in the 90-kilometer Swedish Vasaloppet, the longest in the world.

Beyond race week, Vasaloppet USA also gives back to the community. The Nordic Center was originally built through local private donations. But Vasaloppet USA manages, repairs, and operates the building, which includes changing rooms, a sauna and wax room that are open to the public daily. In addition, they maintain and groom the 15k of surrounding ski trails which feature 5k with lighting for night skiing.

“Youth programs have benefitted the most from building this center,” says Pat. The Mora Ski Club offers a fun-focused ski program for elementary age children called Fast Tracks. And it is the training ground for the high school cross-country ski team. “Other ski teams from around the region come here to train on the weekends,” he adds.

Mora’s mayor, Jack L’Heureux, glows when he talks about the Vasaloppet. “It warms my heart, how the community comes together for it.  Tons of volunteers spend hours to get ready for it, and on race day they make sure everyone is taken care of,” he says. “People come for the fun of it, the colorfulness of the start, the bells ringing at the end.”

He’s so right about that.