Generations of Twin Cities cross-country skiers have bought skis, poles and wax at Finn Sisu, the longtime ski and sauna shop in Lauderdale.
The name of the shop refers to the Finnish concept of "sisu," or determination in the face of adversity — something that's useful in a sport that often requires pushing uphill, in brisk weather with capricious snow conditions.
To many in the local ski community, nobody embodies that spirit more than the store's founder and longtime proprietor, Ahvo Taipale, who opened the store more than four decades ago and has been a staunch advocate for the sport since.
This summer, Taipale sold the store that's just off Hwy. 280 to three longtime employees, Tom Novak, Nate Rhode and Karen Weium, who pledge to continue the customer-centric ethos of the store's founder into the future.
Now, Taipale says he's trying to adjust to retirement — but insists he's not going anywhere, except maybe taking longer trips than he could manage while running the shop.
Taipale arrived in the U.S. from Finland in the early 1970s, when he said he first started selling skis out of his apartment on Case Avenue in St. Paul. Not long after that, he took a hike at Battle Creek Regional Park and marveled at the hilly park's potential as a cross-country ski facility.
"In the world, there is not many cities that have such a beautiful park right within the metro," Taipale said.
In 1978, Taipale opened Finn Sisu on University Avenue in St. Paul, later moving to the Lauderdale location. In the early years, the classic method of skiing, or pushing and gliding in groomed tracks, was popular. In the 1980s, skate skiing, where skiers move more like skaters on packed snow, took off. Taipale said he leveraged connections in Nordic countries, Russia and central Europe to get the store and his customers through the shift in gear and technique.
In the Twin Cities, "there was a very strong ski culture, and we just evolved with it," he said.
Weium, one of the new owners, recalled the first time she walked into the store. Her skis weren't working quite right, and she said she was ready to pony up $500 for a new pair. Instead, the salesperson sold her an inexpensive piece of equipment that fixed the problem.
"These guys want to help me ski," she remembered thinking. "They're not here to take my money."
In addition to his own ski racing career, Taipale has been instrumental in growing the ski community in the Twin Cities, helping to develop a ski program through St. Paul Parks and Recreation, youth ski leagues and coaching for masters. He championed Battle Creek park as a great location for the sport.
"Every significant athlete that's come out of Minnesota skiing in the last, probably 40 years, Ahvo has had some hand in their career," said Nathan Porath, a former employee and a member of the shop racing team.
Many skiers credit Taipale for acting as an ambassador to the sport for Minnesotans at all levels of skill.
Matt Sargent said he would see Taipale at Battle Creek in the early mornings when he was still relatively new to the sport and the state, having moved from California. He was struck by Taipale's ability to bring the joy of the sport to life, including by offering pointers on technique when asked.
"You see him early in the morning and he's just, he's got that way about him where he'll stop and he'll talk to people, and really gets to know people," he said, something Sargent says goes a long way when it's cold, dark and windy on a winter morning.
Taipale has also been crucial in spurring development of cross-country ski infrastructure in the east metro, particularly at Battle Creek, making it the first east metro ski facility with the ability to make snow. Last year, Battle Creek opened major upgrades including rentals, lighted trails and snow-making equipment.
These improvements, made possible by a combination of funding from the state and county, would not have happened without Taipale, who made the case to officials over the years, said Ramsey County Parks and Recreation Director Mark McCabe. He described Taipale as akin to "a walking billboard" for Battle Creek.
Those efforts faced many obstacles over the years, but the result is a ski facility that can be open for more of the winter and available to more skiers, with a beginner-friendly loop in addition to the course's punishing hills.
"It's not just a facility for the elite skier, but really a facility the whole community can benefit from," McCabe said. "There's as much challenge as you can take."
With Taipale's retirement from the shop, Finn Sisu customers may not see him at the store as much. But he's still known to show up at shop racing team practices just to connect, Porath said, adding that at nearly 80, Taipale can still do more pullups than many on the team.
And, Taipale said, he won't be hard to find this winter: "I'll still be skiing Battle Creek every day."