DULUTH – George Hovland, a former Nordic skiing Olympian and World War II veteran who left his mark on hills and trails from Spirit Mountain to Giants Ridge, died Sunday. He was 94.
Hovland was involved in "almost every aspect of cross-country ski trail development here in Duluth," said longtime friend Gary Larson, who helped develop the Nordic program at Giants Ridge. "His DNA has basically been injected into everything to do with skiing in this area."
Hovland, born in Duluth, put on skis for the first time before he was 2. A fan of both cross-country and downhill methods, he last skied in late March at Spirit Mountain and Giants Ridge on the same day, said his wife, Jane Hovland.
Hovland was a quartermaster on the U.S. Navy ship Bowditch — a survey ship that scouted landings for the U.S. Marines in the South Pacific. He surveyed the Bikini Atoll, which was later a nuclear testing site for the U.S. government. He graduated from the University of Minnesota and was a member of the U.S. Nordic and ski-jumping team at the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo.
Hovland's contributions to the region include devising the idea for the Spirit Mountain ski area and designing its cross-country trails; assisting with trail designs at Giants Ridge and Hartley Park among others; starting Duluth's first alpine ski hill and first ski shop, opening Snowflake Nordic Ski Center with Jane; founding the NorthShore Inline Marathon, and launching various ski clubs.
He was an equipment representative for major ski companies and owned a design firm. He once met with Frank Lloyd Wright, whose natural-setting concepts he studied for the homes he designed in the Chester Park neighborhood, Jane said. He purchased tax-forfeited land to design and market his own property, including two free-form foam houses.
Ski Kenwood, opened by Hovland near the College of St. Scholastica in 1954, was the city's first ski hill. Hovland later set his sights on Spirit Mountain's hills, Jane said, working with prominent businessman Monnie Goldfine to bring the idea to life.
Hovland is a "case study" in how to get things done, said Cory Salmela, a former coach for the U.S. Ski Biathlon team who lives in Duluth.
"He was always the catalyst who had the idea, and he knew the right people to talk to to push it forward," he said.
Although Hovland skied across the world, his favorite place was Duluth's Snowflake, a trail system the couple created in 1993 and owned until a few years ago. Beloved by several area high school cross-country teams, the trails teemed with kids, dogs and friends, who would stop mid-ski to greet Hovland.
"A chronic coach," Jane said of her husband.
Hovland, who died from complications following hip surgery related to a fall, competed until just a few years ago. In 2017 at age 91, he was the age group champion for NASTAR, a recreational ski and snowboard race program. He competed in 33 American Birkebeiners with his final race in 2012. That's the one where he skied — and finished — with his heart in atrial fibrillation.
Salmela was skiing Spirit Mountain one winter day last year when he recognized Hovland a ways down the hill. Hovland was going fast, he said, so he sped up to catch him to ride the lift together, passing him in the process.
"He shook his head, disgusted that I passed him," Salmela said. "He was competitive, even in his 90s."
In addition to his wife, Hovland is survived by a son, George III; a daughter, Julie, and five grandchildren.
No services are planned, but memorials are directed to groups that serve people in need or support youth skiing.
Jana Hollingsworth • 218-508-2450