When NMU alumnus Charlie Shahbazian registers for this weekend's Noquemanon Ski Marathon, the bib he picks up will include the word “Founder” below the number. This indicates that he has participated in every Noque—in person or virtually—since the event was established 25 years ago. Skate skiing is not his only passion. Shahbazian also competes in orienteering events around the world. His interest in both activities began as a student at Northern.
“I dabbled in downhill skiing my freshman year because the annual pass was only about $50 back then,” said the 1978 physical education graduate. “Then I realized skiing in the woods and being able to experience the wilderness in relative solitude was cool. My former suitemate in Halverson Hall, Mike Twohey, encouraged me to participate in the American Birkebeiner in Wisconsin one year and I've been doing that ever since. I also started coming to Marquette for the Red Earth Loppet race, which preceded the Noque for 15 years.”
Shahbazian said he and another friend took part in orienteering events at NMU, which at that time were hosted by the ROTC program. Orienteering is a timed event that combines trail running or hiking with navigational skills, planning and strategy. Participants proceed through a series of checkpoints with a map and compass, determining the fastest routes. Meets have courses of varying lengths and difficulty, from beginner to expert.
Orienteering was created by the Swedish military in the late 1800s. The country now hosts a five-day competition that draws about 20,000 people. Shahbazian has attended five of those events and others in Norway, Denmark, Hungary, France, Italy, Croatia, Slovenia and Canada. He has won U.S. championships in his category and serves as vice president of the Chicago Orienteering Club, which will host a competition in February.
“Orienteering and skiing complement each other,” he said. “With both, it's just great to be outdoors, get some fresh air and exercise while pushing yourself.”
Shahbazian has more time to pursue both passions since retiring in 2008 from a 27-year teaching career at Allendale School, a residential treatment center in Lake Villa, Ill. He now lives in Kenosha, Wis. While the 45-minute drive to Chicago's O'Hare Airport is a perk for traveling to orienteering competitions, the area lacks both the snowfall totals and Nordic trail networks found in Marquette.
As conditions allow, Shahbazian skis the UW-Parkside trails, which he also grooms, and a one-mile loop at the Lapham Peak Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest.
The Birmingham, Mich. native used to compete in the 50K at the Noquemanon. With relatively little opportunity to practice, he has dropped down to the 25K—still an impressive feat at 69, and he said he typically finishes fifth through seventh in his age group. His affinity for the sport is reflected by his vehicle license plate: SK8SKI.
“I often think about how my life might be different if I hadn't gone to Northern, where I first got involved in these two activities I love and developed some great friendships during my three years in the dorms,” he said. “I didn't have a good GPA in high school and ended up working in a factory for a year after graduation. A friend encouraged me to try Northern and they accepted me and gave me a chance. I'm really grateful for that.”