A New Vision for the Tapiola Trails Property

Story by Matt Prokopchuk, Photos by Shannon Lepere

A partnership between the new owners of the property where the Tapiola Ski Trails sit and former members of the Finlandia Association ensures that Nordic skiing will continue at the site, while also promising a space for outdoors-based education and other cultural celebrations.

Arlene Thorn and Joe O’Hearn purchased the 13-acre property near Government Road back in September during the liquidation process of the former Finlandia Association, which was dissolved in 2020 after missing a mortgage payment to RBC. Thorn and O’Hearn also took over responsibility for an existing lease with the City of Thunder Bay for an adjacent wooded piece of property, where the trails actually run. The two founded the Northern Lights School in Thunder Bay in 2017 and were in a pair of other locations before Tapiola. The school uses a Waldorf education-inspired curriculum that Thorn says prioritizes education through immersion in nature, the arts and culture, and experiential-based learning. The partnership, called the Tapiola Association, effectively grew out of an initial chance meeting between Thorn and longtime Tapiola skier and groomer Pentti Aaltomaa shortly after the sale for the Tapiola property closed.

“He asked me what I was going to be using it for, and I said ‘well, it’s for the school […] but we would really like to keep the ski trails open,’ and so he looked at me and he said ‘really?’” Thorn says of that initial conversation. “That was something that I really wanted to support and have the community be able to use the ski trails as well as the children.” Aaltomaa, who now lives next door to the property, says he was thrilled after the initial meeting with the new owners, as many Tapiola skiers—himself included—assumed the site would be redeveloped. “We were all afraid that somebody would buy it, somebody who would develop it right away to some other purposes, and our skiing would be gone,” he says. “When I heard from Arlene and Joe that they would like to invite skiers back there […] it was happy news for us.”

That initial conversation led to another meeting in the fall between Thorn and O’Hearn, some of the Tapiola trails volunteers, and members of the former Finlandia who were behind the association’s community events programming. The new name—the Tapiola Association—quickly followed and the partnership opens the door to (COVID-willing) further events being held there. Thorn says the whole idea fits in with her school’s underlying principles. “The cultural aspect that’s always been at Finlandia, they’ve had their events, they’ve had music and dance […] so that cultural event concept also fits in with the education as well.”

As for the skiers, Aaltomaa, who has been cruising the trails at Tapiola for about 40 years and volunteering for close to 20, says it’s a gem of a place to strap on some skis, and is accessible, as it’s close to the more urban areas of town. Weather permitting, he says he likes to ski there four to five times per week, and adds that it remains a popular destination. “It’s very popular now; the parking lot is full lots of times,” he says. “If it’s nice weather it’s always full.”

You can learn more at the Tapiola Association’s website at tapiolaski.ca.