Crossing the Finnish line
By John Washburn
Olavi Hirvonen, a native of Finland and former U. S. Olympic skier, knew what he wanted — and in 1978 his search drew him to the beauty and deep snow of the southern Adiron-dack forest.
He found what he was looking for at Woods Lake, near Benson Center, where the 132-mile Northville-Lake Placid hiking trail begins.
The area he discovered was covered with spruce and white pines, and it felt strangely comfortable to Olavi. He closed the deal that summer on what was to become the Lapland Lake Cross-Country Ski Center, later named by Snow Country magazine as one of the top ten such centers in the East.
Olavi is a vigorous man with a neat salt and pepper beard, apparently in his early fifties, actually in his late sixties. He speaks with a marked Scandinavian accent, and the twinkle in his eye betrays his Finnish sense of humor. Visitors to the ski shop see a single ski mounted on the wall, identified as the ski Olavi used in the 1960 Olympics.
When asked why only one was displayed, he just smiled and said, “Oh ya! Dats de one dat didn’t break.”
Olavi grew up in Finland where he won his first ski race at the age of 10. Nine years later he emigrated to this country, was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Alaska to teach Arctic survival skills. He continued racing and became the cross-country ski champion for the U.S. Armed Forces in 1954. Later he managed a ski lodge in Vermont, then tried out for the 1960 Olympics and made the team with the second best combined time.
In the Olympic competition at Squaw Valley, Olavi was told on short notice that he was to ski in the 50 kilometer race — not his best distance, nor one he had trained for. On a downhill stretch he was overtaken by a faster skier. Olavi yielded the track and stepped to the side. The breakable crust caused him to fall and break a ski — which meant he had to travel the next mile and a half on one ski (the one on the wall) before he could get a replacement.
The American team didn’t win any medals — the X-C events were dominated by the Scandinavians — but Olavi had the satisfaction of knowing he did his best.
When he purchased his Adirondack property in 1978 there was much to do before one could call it a ski area. With the season fast approaching, he had to replace foundations, winterize nine cottages, convert an old barn into a ski shop, and clear 12 kilometers of trail. It was a close race, but Lapland Lake opened just before Christmas.
Since then, the trail system has quadrupled in size. The “Finnish Line,” as the ski shop is called, has a complete line of rental skis, boots and snowshoes. In the next room there’s comfortable seating around a large fireplace, and picnic tables for skiers who “brown bag” their lunch. I spoke with John Owens, from Albany, who with his wife, Betsy, and 13-year-old daughter, Melissa, has been skiing at Lapland for the past 11 seasons. The family always buys season passes.
“We come up most weekends,” John said. “We’ve skied in different parts of the country but we still come back here. It’s the best because of the grooming.”
And then there’s that snow!
Thanks to the Great Lakes weather system which reaches this part of the Park, Lapland may have three feet of snow when the eastern Adirondacks is suffering from a snow drought.
Olavi’s wife, Ann, is the business manager for Lapland, while Olavi maintains the trails, tends the reindeer (an import from the real Lapland), and oversees the ski school and shop. I asked her how she and Olavi managed to work so smoothly together, day after day.
She laughed a long hearty laugh before answering. “Olavi and I are a team,” she said. “We have a wonderful marriage,
and we also have a wonderful business partnership. We each take responsibilities for what we do — and we love what we do.”
The ski trails wind and twist through the conifer forest, up and down hills and along the wild lake. Across the water, Little Cathead Mountain rises sharply. With 50 kilometers of trails the area can swallow up 300 to 400 skiers at a time, with the lone skier still able to enjoy his solitude.
“Why go to Europe?” was the question I left with, when we have a touch of Finland right here at home.