George Hovland grew up skiing in Duluth and never stopped.

When he was 18 months old, his parents taught him to ski on the snow bank in their Chester Parkway front yard. By 11, he had launched himself off the Big Chester ski jump. And by 25, was on the U.S. cross-country team at the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo.

He continued skiing — both cross-country and downhill — for the rest of his life. This past winter, he could be found skiing in single-digit temperatures along the trails he designed at Snowflake Nordic Center, which he owned. He regularly went skiing down the hills at Spirit Mountain, which he also helped establish, until its season ended in March of this year. Then he drove up to Giants Ridge in Biwabik to get a few more downhill runs in before spring.

"He felt so great when he was moving on a trail," said his wife Jane Hovland. "He just loved being outdoors."

Hovland died Sunday at St. Luke's from complications after hip surgery following a fall two weeks ago. He was 94.

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During World War II, Hovland served as quartermaster on a geodesic survey boat in the South Pacific from 1943-1945. The boats would scope out islands and atolls where marines could land. When they surveyed Bikini Atoll, which would soon be used to test nuclear weapons, Hovland's commanding officer asked him to stay longer and offered him a promotion.

Hovland refused.

"No, skiing is calling me back to Minnesota," Hovland responded, according to Jane.

"George said skiing saved his life because he would've been exposed to all that radioactive stuff," Jane said.

After graduating from the University of Minnesota and competing internationally, he returned to Duluth and left his mark on Duluth's ski culture while also designing homes.

A photo of a newspaper clipping showing George Hovland shortly after competing in the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo. (Photo courtesy of Gary Larson)
A photo of a newspaper clipping showing George Hovland shortly after competing in the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo. (Photo courtesy of Gary Larson)

He started Duluth's first ski shop, called simply "The Ski Shop." He 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. The hill, which used a tow rope to bring skiers back up the hill, was located near where Partridge Street and the surrounding apartments off Kenwood Avenue now sit.

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 at the top of the hill. He assisted in designing ski trails at Giant's Ridge, Duluth's Hartley Park and in the Superior Municipal Forest.

"His fingerprints are on just about everything involved in 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 go on to host Minnesota's first and only International Ski Federation’s Cross-Country World Cup in 1985.

Al Merrill, George Hovland and Gary Larson scout out 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 International Ski Federation’s Cross-Country World Cup in 1985 and still host the Minnesota State High School League's Nordic ski state meet. (Photo courtesy of Gary Larson)
Al Merrill, George Hovland and Gary Larson scout out 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 International Ski Federation’s Cross-Country World Cup in 1985 and still host the Minnesota State High School League's Nordic ski state meet. (Photo courtesy of Gary Larson)

Thanks to Hovland's international racing experience, the trails he designed were top-notch, Larson said.

"He brought back this love for the sport that he saw when he was traveling in Europe and competing," Larson said.

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 partway through for a nap.

Once when he was downhill skiing at Spirit Mountain, his pacemaker went off without him knowing. He fainted, got back up, skied a few more runs and drove home, Jane said.

George Hovland skis along one of the trails at Snowflake Nordic Ski Center in Duluth in 2016 at age 89. At the time, Hovland skied nearly every day of the week, either cross country or downhill. (Bob King / File / News Tribune)
George Hovland skis along one of the trails at Snowflake Nordic Ski Center in Duluth in 2016 at age 89. At the time, Hovland skied nearly every day of the week, either cross country or downhill. (Bob King / File / News Tribune)

Dave Johnson, head coach of the Marshall School Nordic ski team, said skiing with Hovland sometimes meant stopping every few hundred meters so Hovland could tell him a story.

Hovland told Johnson he was a bellhop at the Hotel Duluth, now Greysolon Plaza, and after he would bring the bags up in the elevator, he would run down the stairs and race the elevator back down. When he was a shoe salesman, he would run to and from the customer and shoe rack, just to sneak 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 change out of training clothes as he drove, too.

"I think that really sums up his life, in that he packed more into a day than most people pack into a week," Johnson said. "That was just how he lived his life — at full speed all the time."

In 1993, Hovland and Jane founded Snowflake Nordic Ski Center, a 15-kilometer system of cross-country ski trails, a biathlon range and a chalet off Rice Lake Road. There the Hovlands started KidSki, which paired high school skiers with younger 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 photograph after Downs won the First Grade division of the 1998 Twin Ports Championships is on display at the Snowflake Nordic Center in Duluth. (Submitted photo)
This photo of George Hovland (left), Gus Downs (center) and Pete Fosseide (right) posing for a photograph after Downs won the First Grade division of the 1998 Twin Ports Championships is on display at the Snowflake Nordic Center in Duluth. (Submitted photo)

Bonnie Fuller-Kask, head coach of the Duluth East High School Nordic ski team, said Snowflake is the go-to place for her team. It has snow longer than any other trail system in town and its chalet works as a gathering place.

Knowing there would be several high school teams there on most weekdays, Fuller-Kask said most adult skiers in town would avoid Snowflake at 4 p.m.

But not Hovland.

"He'd be there at 4 because he loved to be around the kids and he was really good to them," Fuller-Kask said. "He was friendly with them. He was interested in them. He'd give them pointers."

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's far exceeded my expectations," Hovland said of Snowflake. "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."

There are no services planned for Hovland. Instead, his family asks people to make memorials "to agencies that serve people in need or support skiing for children," his obituary said.

After Hovland overcame pneumonia a few years ago, Jane hosted a 90th birthday party "to celebrate him while he's living" instead of "these celebrations of life after people die" that are then forgotten.

She expected 40 to 80 people would 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 in Duluth's city slalom skiing championships in the late 1940s. (Submitted photo)
Ed McKeever (left) and George Hovland posed after winning their respective classes in Duluth's city slalom skiing championships in the late 1940s. (Submitted photo)