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Inspiring Canadians - In Sport and Life

Honoured Member

HERMAN SMITH-JOHANNSEN

Inducted in 1982

Member Details

Date of Birth: June 15, 1875
Place of Birth: Horten, Norway
Date of Passing: January 5, 1987
Sport: Cross Country Skiing
Member Category: Builder

Career Highlights

1929
Designed first Dominion Slalom Course in Shawbridge, Quebec
1932
Coach, Canadian Olympic Ski Team
1935
Completed Maple Leaf Trail
1950
Competed in last official race at age 75
1967
Canadian Ski Marathon established
1973
Named to the Order of Canada
1980

Jackrabbit League established as Canada's National Youth Cross-country Ski Program

Honoured Member HERMAN SMITH-JOHANNSEN
Inspire

Story

Herman "Jackrabbit" Smith-Johannsen was quite literally a cross-country skiing trail-blazer. For well over half a century, Smith-Johannsen was at the forefront of skiing in North America, setting out the first ski trails in the Laurentians, pioneering ski races, and inspiring Canadians to take advantage of the winter wonderland before them. Smith-Johannsen was born in 1875 in the village of Horten, Norway. He first donned skis at the age of two and was active on the Norwegian slopes and trails throughout his youth. He studied engineering at the University of Berlin and, in 1899, moved to the United States to seek his fortune in the heavy machinery industry. His work as a traveling salesman brought him to various parts of the U.S., Cuba, the West Indies, and eventually the Canadian North, where construction of the Grand Trunk Railway, later to become the Canadian National, created a need for this type of machinery in remote regions of Ontario and Quebec. While most salesmen avoided such a posting, Smith-Johannsen jumped at the chance to explore the barren north and glide through the woods on his skis once more. It was on these voyages that Johannsen became acquainted with the Cree. They were so impressed by his skill on skis that they soon adopted them over their traditional snowshoes, and dubbed Johannsen "Okamucum Wapoos," or "Chief Jackrabbit." When his business went bankrupt during the Depression, Jackrabbit relocated his wife and three children to the wilds of Piedmont, Quebec. Here, he lived off the land, hunting and fishing to provide food for his family and eventually making a living using his skiing skills. While he never claimed to be the first skier in Canada, Jackrabbit had a major role in stimulating an interest in the sport throughout the continent. He organized races, officiated events, and served as a guide, coach, and consultant for numerous skiing organizations, many of which he helped to found. An enthusiastic teacher, he helped coach Canada's Olympic team in 1932. At the age of 55, he shocked his Olympic pupils as he accompanied the team step by step through its rigorous training schedule--and still he had energy to spare. This was, however, still quite far from being the twilight of Jackrabbit's incredible skiing career, as he didn't ski his last official race until the age of 75, and still glided through the snowy woods on a daily basis well past the age of 100. Johannsen is perhaps most famous for his work as an explorer, designer, and cutter of ski trails and ski jumps. He is responsible for laying out many of the first ski trails in Quebec and the northern United States, including the first Dominion slalom course at Shawbridge, Quebec in 1929, as well as the great Maple Leaf Trail, which spanned some 150kms between Shawbridge and Labelle, Quebec. Much to Johannsen's chagrin, however, the advent of rope tows and chair lifts brought an increased interest in downhill skiing throughout the 1950s and '60s, while alpine bushwacking and cross-country touring largely fell to the wayside. Jackrabbit always looked down on modern alpine skiing as a lazy, commercialized form of his beloved sport. He is even said to have berated Olympic gold medalist Nancy Greene for using the chair lift rather than skiing up the mountain like a "real skier." The 1970s, however, saw a huge resurgence in trail skiing, with Johannsen, by then approaching his 100th year, still largely at the forefront of the sport. He was one of the founders, as well as the official patron, of the Canadian Ski Marathon, an annual two-day event which spans 160kms from Lachute to the Gatineau region of Quebec. By the mid-1970s, there were 2,500 participants registered in the gruelling event. Cross-country skiing has since grown and thrived throughout the nation, while Jackrabbit's zest for life and passion for the sport has inspired generations of skiers. The Jackrabbit League, Canada's national youth cross-country ski program, was named in honour of the man who gave over 60 years of his life to developing the sport in this country. He received the Order of Canada in 1973 and passed away peacefully at the incredible age of 111, shortly after returning to his native Norway.


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