Skiing is life for Duluth's George Hovland
George Hovland holds no illusions that his Snowflake Nordic ski center will ever make him rich.
"I live with the hope that someday it will be profitable," Duluth's Hovland says with a chuckle.
But financial return doesn't seem to be the primary reason the 82-year-old Hovland still can be found at the ski center on Rice Lake Road most winter days. He mingles with young skiers and skis on the 15 kilometers of trail he laid out almost two decades ago.
Hovland, a 1952 Olympic skier and veteran of 30 American Birkebeiner cross-country ski races, built Snowflake 18 years ago because he loves the sport of cross-country skiing and wants as many people as possible to enjoy its benefits.
Hundreds of high school skiers and hundreds more pint-sized skiers in the annual KidSki program have trained or learned to ski at Snowflake, and Hovland gets to know many of them personally. If he encounters a group of skiers along the trail, he's apt to stop and dispense a technique tip he's picked up in his 70 years of skiing.
In winter, Snowflake is the epicenter of his life.
"It's far exceeded my expectations," Hovland says. "I don't know what love is. There's husband-wife love. There's parent-child love. But the affection" -- he stops here, considering his words -- "you get to just love these kids."
Show up at 4 o'clock during the ski season and Snowflake is humming. High-school skiers clomp down to the changing rooms and get into ski gear. They gather with coaches to go over their daily workouts. They play ping pong and Foosball while waiting for friends. Then they spill out the door and head for the trails.
"It's really a home to all those teams," said Dean Grace, a volunteer coach with Duluth East. "There are great trails all over Duluth, but no place to call home like that."
In a sense, Snowflake has become much like the old Duluth Ski Club and its chalet in Chester Park, where Hovland spent much of his youth skiing and ski-jumping.
"It was always a dream," says Jane Hovland, George's wife of 26 years. "He knew it. I knew it. It's kept him young. He loves the kids. He loves seeing people having fun."
Skiing -- alpine, cross-country and jumping -- has always been central to Hovland's life. He earned an individual state cross-country ski championship in 1943 with Duluth Central High School. In 1952, he qualified to represent the United States at the Olympics in Oslo, Norway, as a Nordic combined skier -- cross-country skiing and jumping.
"But they saw me jump, and the coaches said, 'Cross-country only -- no jumping,'" Hovland remembers.
He and his teammates skied the 4-by-10-kilometer relay, distinguishing themselves by beating the Australians and the British, Hovland says. He also skied an 18-kilometer race at the Olympics.
Back home, he started Duluth's first ski shop, called simply "The Ski Shop." An eager entrepreneur, Hovland also once co-owned the Mont du Lac Ski Area and started a downhill area off Kenwood Avenue called "Ski Kenwood," Duluth's first commercial ski hill.
He has designed and built homes, although he has no training in architecture. He conceived the original idea and location for what is now the Spirit Mountain ski hill and laid out all of the cross-country ski trails there. He assisted in designing ski trails at Giant's Ridge, Duluth's Hartley Park and in the Superior Municipal Forest.
Through the years, he has remained an active downhill and Nordic skier. Until an irregular heartbeat sidelined him from competition five years ago, he had completed 30 Birkebeiner ski races near Hayward, usually winning or placing high in his age category. He is perennially ranked first in his age group in NASTAR alpine racing.
"He loves skiing more than any person I know," says Duluth East skier Gus Downs. "Every year, he always calls my house when we get the first half-inch of snow, claiming that it's the best skiing ever and we should come out and go skiing."
Hovland still skis at the level his pacemaker allows, which isn't quite as fast as he is used to moving.
"It doesn't react," he says of the device in his chest. "Four hundred yards out, at the pace I want to go, I have to stop. But, hey, I'm alive."
Before Snowflake existed, high school teams trained on city trails, where they had to stand in the cold before and after practice.
"Once [Hovland] put in Snowflake, what it did is allow the kids to socialize more together," says Duluth East cross-country ski coach Bonnie Fuller-Kask. "It's a huge social thing for the kids."
"It's like having a place to come home to for skiing," said Duluth East senior Alena Tofte. "And George has made such an impact on so many people. You can discuss stuff with him. You can have a political discussion or discuss skiing or the Olympics. He's more than a role model."
"His encouraging presence was a big part of my falling in love with skiing when I started at age 15," said Carolyn Treacy Bramante, a former Duluthian who was a U.S. Olympic biathlon team member at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. "He prompts you to challenge yourself and think about the next level without your even realizing it."
Hovland hopes Snowflake will endure as a place for skiers to gather.
"It would be ideal if someone would lease it and guarantee to keep running it," Hovland says.
With one stipulation.
"Part of the deal would be that I'd have a lifetime pass for me and my family," he says.
Visit the Snowflake Nordic ski center online at www.skiduluth.com