By Jaana Rehnström
On a recent winter weekend, I drove with my family from up New York to Lapland Lake, a Nordic Ski Center in Upstate New York that former Olympic skier Olavi Hirvonen has been running since 1978. A Finn immediately feels at home here: the whole character of the place reminds me of my youth in what was then a less prosperous, but in some ways more wholesome Finland.
The little rental cottages (tupa in Finnish) are simultaneously unpretentious, clean and comfortable, and they all have Finnish names like Pulkka and Poro. The ski trails, groomed each morning by Olavi himself, are called Vasa, Sisu, Eräpolku, etc. They run from one’s cottage door through the beautiful and peaceful scenery of the woods and offer different levels of difficulty for different skill levels. There’s a real Finnish wood-burning sauna, and the restaurant offers, among other things, lohilaatikko (salmon casserole) and cabbage rolls.
Olavi Hirvonen moved to the United States in 1949, at the age of 18. He was actually born in Montreal, Canada, but it was the Depression, and his parents separated; his mother, unable to care for her child by herself, sent him home to Finland to live with his grandmother when Olavi was only eight months old. His grandmother, apparently a resourceful woman, took him under her wing despite having several of her own children still living at home. This home was located in Koivisto, an island about 50 km east of Vyborg in Karelia.
In 1937, Olavi’s mother came back to pick him up and take him to America, but soon afterward, the war intervened. At eight years of age, Olavi had to be evacuated along with the rest of his family, and still carries sad memories of the family dog they had to leave behind. Later, when Finns gained back this area of land, the family moved back and rebuilt, only to be evacuated quickly for the second time.
At 17, Hirvonen completed a six-month military service and became a Finnish citizen. Soon afterward, however, he followed his mother to the United States and got drafted for the Korean war. Having learned to ski in Finland, he was recruited into the Army Arctic Indoctrination School, where he learned and taught arctic survival skills. As a result, he became a U.S. citizen.
This past weekend, Hirvonen celebrated the 50th anniversary of his participation in the U.S. Olympic ski team. In 1960, when the Olympics were held in Squaw Valley, Utah, he was working seven days a week at a ski lodge in Vermont, sneaking in some practice time in the evenings. He was invited to take part in the tryouts for the U.S. Olympic team, and ended up being picked for the 15 km and 50 km races. In the latter, Kalevi Hämäläinen of Finland won the gold, while Veikko Hakulinen, also a Finn, came in second. The U.S. team didn’t win any medals, perhaps in part because Hirvonen accidentally snapped his ski early in the 50 km race and lost valuable time as he searched for a replacement ski.
In 1977, Hirvonen’s son Esa, who was a promising skier, died in a tragic accident. Needing a positive change in his life, Hirvonen decided to do what he had been dreaming of doing for a long time: open up his own ski center. In 1978, he purchased the area he now calls Lapland Lake. He now runs it with his wife Ann and a staff of 30.
In addition to the flags of Finland, Sweden, and Norway that hang outside, signs of Olavi’s Finnish heritage are visible everywhere in a natural, unforced manner: the little signs that advise visitors to do this or that end with 'Kiitos!'; the shop sells Fazer’s famous “blue” chocolate and Panda liquorice; kids are invited to interact with pet reindeer. In the past, Finlandia Foundation organized group trips here, but nowadays it’s hard to visit the place in large groups, as it’s become very popular with both locals and tourists. The rental cottages get booked up early, particularly on weekends.