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Duluth Olympians' passion stays home at Chester Bowl

RELATED CONTENT: Big Chester remains an icon to the hopeful

DCN Correspondent

Here, the quiet echoes. The only sound that fills the air is that of the empty chair squeaking slightly with each gust of wind. Three ski jumps tower over the park, quiet and foreboding, daring anyone to come near. The alpine hills at Chester Bowl sit silent and still, waiting for ski season to start.

It’s a scene familiar to many Duluthians. For 82-year-old George Hovland, this is where it all began.

George Hovland Jr. was born about four blocks from the park and is called by some to be a Minnesota ski legend.

And he is, in every sense of the word.

Over the years Hovland has collected many titles. A Minnesota state high school ski champion, a four-time Central U.S.S.A. four-event champion, the first non-European to complete the 90-kilometer Swedish Vasalopet, a 30-time Birkebeiner finisher and even at the age of 25, a 1952 Olympian at Oslo, where he finished 12th in the Men’s 4 x 10 Kilometers relay.

But he doesn’t like to talk much about that. What he does like to talk about, even after all these years, is his one passion, skiing.

For as long as Hovland can remember, skiing has been a big part of his life.

“When I was growing up there wasn’t much to do during the winter in Duluth,? said Hovland. “It was either ski or play hockey and I wasn’t much of a hockey player.?

When Hovland was young his day revolved around skiing. When ski jumping was huge in the area, Hovland remembers taking every opportunity to practice jumping off the towering hills of Chester Bowl.

“I never really made the decision to ski,? said Hovland. “All the kids in the neighborhood would put their skis on at home, cut through the woods and practice our jumping until it got so dark you couldn’t see the kid in front of you. It was just something that was done.?

And every year when winter rolled around this pattern continued until the day he left for college.

To jump off the historic hills of Chester Bowl, that held numerous national competitions, was a real highlight in his life.

“There was a time that the ski tournaments in Duluth were the hardest to win,? says Kenneth Harkins. He was once a member of the U.S. Ski Team, and now is a professor of Physical Education at the University of Minnesota Duluth. “People used to travel from all over the world to ski here.?

As the days turned into months, and the months into years, Chester Bowl changed. It wasn’t the park that Hovland grew up with.

But through the years, Hovland saw it all.

He remembers when the hype over ski jumping started to decline and the jumps slowly emptied and faded with time.

He remembers one year in the late 1930s, when the biggest ski jump was torn down for steel as part of the war effort. The image of the towering jump falling at a 45-degree angle still burns in his mind.

He remembers when the times began to change and new technologies were brought to Chester Bowl. Each turn of the century brought changes to the park like newer improved ski trails, the addition of cross-country skiing, an automatic chairlift, and even a snow machine.

And as for some of those, Hovland was part of the change himself.

Almost 50 years ago, around the time when ski jumping lost its popularity, he joined forces with the Chester Bowl Improvement Club to help build the alpine hills that now line the park.

At the time, Hovland was working in construction. There was a lot of discussion in the club about building an alpine hill to renew the interest in skiing at Chester Bowl. Hovland started calling contractors and once the community caught a whiff of what was going on, Chester Bowl was alive during the winter once again.

“What a lot of people don’t know is mostly everything in Chester Bowl was donated,? he said. “The contractors started pouring in, and most of the work was done for free. The community really pulled together.?

As the years went by Hovland changed along with the park. He no longer ski jumps, but now spends his time running the Snowflake Nordic Ski Center in Duluth with his wife, Jane.

But the one thing that has never changed, the passion that has not dulled in Hovland’s 82 years, for the one place that started it all - Chester Bowl.

He still lives just five minutes away from the park.

“I just love it,? says Hovland. “ I lived in other houses, but they just aren’t the same.?

When this winter rolls around, visit Snowflake on a cold winter afternoon and you may just find Hovland skiing down the Nordic hills of the Center. After all these years, he has not outgrown the routine of skiing every day when he gets a chance. You may just see Hovland hitting the trails, full speed ahead.


Hi George - Glad to see you're still alive and kicking! Keep up the great work!. On second thought, you can kick back at any time. You've earned it! rogo

George, you old fossil. Kind of a sentimental piece this; you're not planning to retire to Vallhalla are you? Warren Buffet still lives in the same old 3 bedroom rambler in Omaha -- and as far as I know still making billions, so how 'bout you putting a billion or two new snow flakes out at 'The Bowl'?
- Hope to see you around this season,