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Do you cross-country ski? Thank this Norwegian who lived to 111

As we move out of the threatening bite of winter into the warm embrace of spring, some of us may be reflecting on the way we spent the last season. Perhaps you found yourself in the Laurentians region of Quebec and perhaps you partook in the ever-rewarding activity of cross-country skiing.

If you did, there’s a good chance that those trails were blazed or connected by Herman ‘Jackrabbit’ Smith-Johannsen, who is credited with popularizing cross-country skiing in Canada.

“I can’t take credit for being the first man to bring skis to America. I’m not even the first Norwegian,” Jackrabbit is quoted saying in The Old Man and the Ski. “I was one of the fellows who introduced skiing for fun, no doubt.”

James Jackson, a hall of fame inductee at the Laurentian Ski Museum, refers to Jackrabbit as the original influencer. He said if social media was around during Johannsen’s era, he would have certainly been active with lots of followers.

He really had one mantra in life: to get people outside. And it was quite a life.

After moving to Quebec in the 1920s, Jackrabbit set up a network of trails in the Laurentians and remained a driving force in the cross-country skiing community. He collaborated with local inn owners in the area. The idea was to connect all the inns so that skiers could travel leisurely from one to the next. 

A man raises hands in a crowd during winter.
Johannsen is greeted by a crowd as he celebrates his 100th birthday in Val-David, Que. (Laurentian Ski Museum)

To accomplish this, he set out to join existing trails and blaze new ones. Local farmers let him access their properties so that he could choose the path of least resistance.

Canadian Pacific Railway even gave Jackrabbit free passes and meals to ride the rails whenever he wanted. They were hyper aware of the significance of what Jackrabbit was accomplishing and how much it would change the landscape in the area, both literally and figuratively.

It is mind-boggling to think about how Jackrabbit remained so encouraging to others to get out into nature and on skis, well into old age. In fact, it wasn’t until 1987 that he died, at the incredible age of 111.

For the final 22 days of his life, he was the oldest living man on Earth.

Who was Jackrabbit Johanssen?

Born in 1875 in Norway, Jackrabbit was said to have been born wearing skis. He graduated from the Norwegian Military Academy in 1894 with a commission as a lieutenant in the Norwegian Army Reserve. In 1899, he graduated with an engineering degree from the University of Berlin. Two years later, he moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he worked selling heavy machinery. In 1907, he became an independent agent, selling heavy equipment, based out of New York City and eventually Montreal.

From 1932 to 1935, he cut the Maple Leaf Trail that linked Saint-Sauveur, Prévost, Sainte-Adèle, Val-Morin, Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Mont-Tremblant and Labelle, Que. In 1939, he published what was called the Skiers’ Book. Bilingual and free of charge, the pocket guide contained topographical maps of the Laurentians showing hiking trails, downhill trails and mechanical ski lifts.

The construction of Highway 15 north of Montreal posed a bit of an issue to Jackrabbit and the work he had done: the first section from Highway 40 to Saint-Jérôme was opened on Aug. 29, 1959, as a toll road (the tolls were removed in 1985). This section was also the first to be designed as an autoroute in the province. It was named Autoroute Montréal-Laurentides during the 1960s.

An elderly man on skis
Johannsen blazed cross-country ski trails throughout the Laurentians over more than six decades. (CSM)

Essentially, the construction of this highway broke up a lot of what Johannsen had designed. So while it was incredibly convenient for most Quebecers, it did take its toll (no pun intended) on previous, groundbreaking work done by Johannsen.

One of my favourite anecdotes about our subject would have to be how he got his nickname. According to the Laurentian Ski Museum, he befriended the Cree in Quebec and introduced them to skis. They called him Okamacum Wapoos, or Chief Jackrabbit. It’s even said that Jackrabbit learned the Cree language and would use it to say grace.

And it’s said that when he would go back and forth to his native Norway, he would take jobs on the ships. “To afford the cost of the trip, he would find a small job on a Norwegian cargo ship and provide his services as a specialist in sailors’ knots. He was 100 years old at the time,” wrote Olympic skier Peter Duncan in Tremblant Express.

These are stories of a resourceful man, but a very social one as well. There is no shortage of stories about Jackrabbit being someone who loved to be around people, was not afraid of a glass of wine or a cigar and was known to break out a headstand for an unusually long time at either a pub, dinner party or banquet.

If you find yourself skiing in the Laurentians, make sure to think about our friend Jackrabbit Johannsen. He was a truly interesting man that the current folks in the area are greatly indebted to.

The Creator Network, which works with emerging visual storytellers to bring their stories to CBC platforms, produced the piece. If you have an idea for the Creator Network, you can send your pitch here.

This article is from from cbc.ca (CBC NEWS CANADA)

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