I’ve only been in Duluth for 20 years, so when it comes to George Hovland’s life, I’m just a newcomer. Even so, as a cross-country skier, my tracks crossed his again and again.
George has always run the Snowflake Nordic Ski Center as a charity. The till on the counter was sitting right there on the honor system. Every year, I enroll my children in the KidSki program. It was during the time window each fall where he gave a discount for early registration. I paid full price because I could afford it. I also did it because, unlike a lot of things, I knew exactly where my money was going. I mean, apart from my family, cross-country skiing is my favorite activity. And every year, when he got my check, George would call me on the phone and say, âYou shouldn’t be paying full price. You can pay the reduced price. And I said, “I know George. It’s me. I told you the exact same thing last year.
I was skiing classic style once in the snow-blessed microclimate of Snowflake and George came over me in the opposite direction and said, âGreat technique! I was a little too happy, but a comment like that of George, a 1952 Olympian, was like a blessing.
Another time my wife Shelley told me that George had seen Grace ski and said, “Exquisite technique.” Delicious. I guess my daughter outdid me, as I hoped she would. That’s the point isn’t it?
During this strange pandemic winter, my first time on skis was November 16, 2020 in Snowflake. I entered the parking lot and got out of my car at exactly the same time as George. We both commented that it was great to ski. What a beautiful day, we have said. After two decades, I have met George on the trail dozens of times. I know he didn’t know my name. After a while, I realized it didn’t matter. We are two people skiing. It’s perfect. Names don’t matter. It’s almost Zen in the way we are completely absorbed in the present outside. My ski season started this year at the exact same time George entered the trailhead in his last winter. I feel blessed and lucky to have shared the trail – the trail he built – that day. And every day before. And every day to come.
Once, in 2010, I was lounging at the counter inside the chalet in Snowflake during KidSkiing, waiting for my kids to finish. I was training KidSki at the time, but after the masses left my kids still wanted to play on the toboggan hill behind the chalet.
George saw me standing there and said, âHey! Come here and watch this. He didn’t know me through Adam, I was just a guy standing there.
I walked behind the counter and through the rental ski lockers and he pointed to the window and said, “Watch that kid playing in the snow.” He had a big smile on his face when he said, “Isn’t that great?”
âYes! That’s great,â I said. He didn’t know me. He didn’t know that kid playing in the snow. But George accidentally brought me to the window to see my own daughter playing in the snow. snow. He showed me my own daughter, just because he could smell happiness in the snow. He was like a joy detector. It was like a fucking miracle.
George was like a fucking miracle.
Even I was able to recognize the purity of this moment in real time, and I took a picture of Grace in the snow through the window next to all those piles of ski boots and rental skis.
Just yesterday I took another photo at Snowflake. Bonnie and Dave and Patti and Mark and Nona all recognized the Eastern Ski Teams for their efforts last winter. We all parents, stretched out on the sled hill near Snowflake Cabin, finally got to watch our kids close for last winter. The torch of skiing, passed down from generation to generation. I squinted at the setting sun, just above the cabin roof as we clapped for our children. My daughter was standing a few steps from where George had seen her years ago. We all said it was weird to be there without snow. The spring sun was hot and it was as if George was smiling at all of us. For me anyway.
George Hovland, of Duluth, passed away this week at the age of 94. He was an Olympian, competing for the United States in cross-country skiing at the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo, Norway. He was instrumental in creating ski trails at Spirit Mountain and the Snowflake Nordic Center. Its accomplishments and impacts on the local ski community are too numerous to mention. His influence through Snowflake and the KidSki program will reverberate through the generations at Duluth. We will miss him.
Eric Chandler has been cross-country skiing for 50 of his 53 years. He is a member of the Duluth Cross Country Ski Club.