George Hovland, who encouraged skiing in Duluth, dies at 94
When he was 18 months old, his parents taught him to ski on the snowbank in their front yard in Chester Parkway. At 11, he had launched off the Big Chester Springboard. And at 25, he was part of the American cross-country team at the 1952 Olympic Winter Games in Oslo.
He continued to ski – both cross country and downhill – for the rest of his life. Last winter he was able to ski in single-digit temperatures along the trails he designed at the Snowflake Nordic Center, which he owns. He regularly descended the slopes of Spirit Mountain, which he also helped establish, until the end of the season in March of this year. Then he went to Giants Ridge in Biwabik to do a few more descents before spring.
“He felt so good moving around on a trail,” said his wife Jane Hovland. “He just liked being outside.”
Hovland died Sunday in St. Luke’s from hip surgery following a fall two weeks ago. He was 94 years old.
During World War II, Hovland served as quartermaster on a geodesic survey boat in the South Pacific from 1943 to 1945. The ships would explore islands and atolls where Marines could land. When they inspected Bikini Atoll, which would soon be used for testing nuclear weapons, Hovland’s commander asked him to stay longer and offered him a promotion.
“No, skiing reminds me of Minnesota,” Hovland replied, according to Jane.
“George said skiing saved his life because he would have been exposed to all of these radioactive substances,” said Jane.
After graduating from the University of Minnesota and competing in international competitions, he returned to Duluth and left his mark on Duluth’s ski culture while designing homes.
A photo from a newspaper clipping showing George Hovland shortly after competing in the 1952 Olympic Winter Games in Oslo. (Photo courtesy of Gary Larson)
He started Duluth’s first ski shop, called simply “The Ski Shop”. He also co-owned the Mont du Lac ski resort and created a downhill area off Kenwood Avenue called “Ski Kenwood,” Duluth’s first commercial ski resort. The hill, which used a tow rope to bring skiers back up the hill, was located near where Partridge Street and the surrounding apartments on Kenwood Avenue now stand.
He designed the original idea and location for what is now Spirit Mountain Ski Resort and laid out all of the cross-country ski trails at the top of the hill. He helped design ski trails at Giant’s Ridge, Duluth’s Hartley Park, and Superior Municipal Forest.
“His fingerprints are on just about everything cross-country skiing in the city,” said longtime friend and skier Gary Larson of Duluth.
Larson was Nordic Director at Giants Ridge when Hovland and Al Merrill designed the cross-country ski trails there, which would host the Minnesota International Ski Federation’s first and only Cross-Country World Cup in 1985.
Al Merrill, George Hovland and Gary Larson explore the cross-country ski trails under construction at Giants Ridge in Biwabik in the summer of 1984. The trails, designed by Merrill and Hovland, hosted the Federation Cross-Country Skiing World Cup International Skiing Event in 1985 and still hosts the Minnesota State High School League Nordic Skiing State meet. (Photo courtesy of Gary Larson)
Thanks to Hovland’s international racing experience, the tracks he designed were top notch, Larson said.
“He brought back that love for the sport that he saw when he was traveling in Europe and competing,” said Larson.
He continued to compete late in life. In his 33rd and final American Birkebiener in 2012 at the age of 85, he skied the entire race with his heart in atrial fibrillation – stopping halfway for a nap.
Once, while downhill skiing at Spirit Mountain, his pacemaker went off without his knowledge. He passed out, got up, skied a few more runs and went home, Jane said.
George Hovland was skiing one of the slopes at the Snowflake Nordic Ski Center in Duluth in 2016 at the age of 89. Back then, Hovland was skiing almost every day of the week, whether cross-country skiing or downhill. (Bob King / Dossier / News Tribune)
Dave Johnson, head coach of the Marshall School’s Nordic ski team, said skiing with Hovland sometimes meant stopping every few hundred yards so Hovland could tell him a story.
Hovland told Johnson that he was a bellboy at the Duluth Hotel, now Greysolon Plaza, and that after taking the bags into the elevator, he would run down the stairs and back down. When he was a shoe salesman, he would run to and from the customer and the shoe rack, just to squeeze in more training.
On top of that, he was known to talk on the phone, shave and drive at the same time, Johnson said. Jane said he could also change his workout clothes while driving.
“I think that really sums up his life, in that he packed more in a day than most people did in a week,” Johnson said. “That’s exactly how he lived his life – full speed ahead all the time.”
In 1993, Hovland and Jane founded the Snowflake Nordic Ski Center, a 15-kilometer network of cross-country ski trails, a biathlon stand, and a cabin off Rice Lake Road. There, the Hovlands started KidSki, which paired high school skiers with young children learning to ski.
“Snowflake was (Hovland’s) life,” Johnson said.
This photo of George Hovland (left), Gus Downs (center) and Pete Fosseide (right) posing for a photo after Downs won the First Grade division of the 1998 Twin Ports Championships is on display at the Snowflake Nordic Center in Duluth. (Photo submitted)
Bonnie Fuller-Kask, head coach of the Duluth East High School Nordic Ski Team, said Snowflake is the perfect place for her team. It snows longer than any other trail system in town, and its chalet serves as a gathering place.
Knowing there would be multiple high school teams on most days of the week, Fuller-Kask said most of the town’s adult skiers would avoid Snowflake by 4 p.m.
But not Hovland.
“He would be there when he was 4 because he loved being with the kids and he was really good with them,” Fuller-Kask said. “He was friendly with them. He was interested in them. He gave them directions.”
In 2009, Hovland told the News Tribune he knew Snowflake would never make him rich. At the time, he laughed and said it wasn’t even profitable. But that didn’t matter – Snowflake had become the center of his life.
“It far exceeded my expectations,” Hovland said of Snowflake. “I don’t know what love is. There is husband-wife love. There is parent-child love. But affection” – he stops here, considering his words – ” you get to love these kids. “
No service is planned for Hovland. Instead, her family is asking people to make memorials “to agencies that serve those in need or support skiing for children,” her obituary said.
After Hovland beat pneumonia a few years ago, Jane threw a party for his 90th birthday “to celebrate him while he’s alive” instead of “those celebrations of the afterlife of people” which are then forgotten.
She expected 40 to 80 people to gather. More than 350 showed up.
“He had so many friends in Duluth,” Jane said.
Ed McKeever (left) and George Hovland posed after winning their respective classes at the Duluth Town Slalom Ski Championships in the late 1940s (Photo submitted)