DULUTH — 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 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, May 9, at St. Luke's Hospital in Duluth from complications after hip surgery following a fall. He was 94.
During World War II, Hovland served as quartermaster on a geodesic survey boat in the South Pacific from 1943 to 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.
"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.
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 Duluth's first commercial ski hill, which used a tow rope to bring skiers back up the hill.
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.
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.
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, 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. There the Hovlands started KidSki, which paired high school skiers with younger children learning to ski.
"Snowflake was (Hovland's) life," Johnson said.
In a 2009 story, Hovland said 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."