Jackrabbit History

Herman Smith Johannsen (1875-1987)


Herman Smith Johannsen, known as Jackrabbit

Few people have done more for the sport of cross-country skiing than Jackrabbit Johannsen in the Laurentians.

At 24 years of age, Herman Smith Johannsen immigrated to the United States from Norway. His job as a heavy machinery salesman for sawmills and railroads led him to discover the forests of Northern Ontario and Temiskaming.

Jackrabbit at Mont-Habitant, 1955

A long-time elite skier, he was equally proficient at ski jumping and ski racing. Befriended by the First Nation Crees, they nicknamed him Okamacum Wapoos, or Chief Jackrabbit, because he covered the snow so nimbly and quickly on skis. In 1929, his business suffered greatly during the Great Depression. He consequently left Cleveland for Montreal, but quickly settled in the Laurentians with the intention of becoming a “ski engineer”. He would make a living from his passion for skiing and help to popularize the sport.

Actor John Wayne and Jackrabbit at Sun Valley 1968

Johannsen taught at different ski resorts, organized competitions, developed mountain slopes, helped build ski jumps and install lifts, but, above all, he cut new cross-country ski trails connecting Laurentian villages.

What’s more, he did it simply out of the goodness of his heart: 
The railroad let me do whatever I wanted. They understood what I was doing for the region. Then, I cut trails between hotels, where I always got something to eat. I never went hungry!

I used skiing as a way to help people. Whenever you can, there’s nothing better than doing things for others. And then they’ll help you out, too.

Jackrabbit and his wife

Between 1932 and 1935, he spent the three years cutting the Maple Leaf trail that connects Saint-Sauveur, Shawbridge (Prévost), Sainte-Adèle, Val-Morin, Sainte-Agathe, Saint-Jovite/Mont-Tremblant and Labelle, a distance of over 100 kilometres.

In 1939, with the sponsorship of the Imperial Tobacco company, he created the Skiers’ Book, a free bilingual pocket guide to skiing in the Laurentians, complete with topographic maps showing cut and potential uncut trails, downhill runs and lifts.

Jackrabbit at Val-David train station

At this time, and never before seen in North America, a network of over 1 600 kilometres of cleared and marked cross-country ski trails had been developed by Johannsen and his compatriots. The guide caught the attention of ski resort developers in Quebec (Eastern Townships, Rawdon, Lac Beauport), Ontario and the United States, who invited Johannsen to develop their resorts, including jumps, downhill and slalom runs, and cross-country trails. Later, his daughter Alice Johannsen would say that people never hesitated to exploit her father’s famous name, but once the work was done, inevitably new players would arrive on the scene and share the benefits.  As for Jackrabbit, he struggled to cover his own expenses. Luckily, the athlete didn’t really care: “I’m really just a coureur de bois, or a wood-runner. I like the challenge of new work, but tire quickly once the quarrelling starts.”

Jackrabbit with his CP cap

He never imagined how many readers of his Skiers’ Book would only be interested in runs with mechanical lifts, and not at all in cross-country trails. The quasi-simultaneous invention of Moïse Paquette and Alexander Foster around 1930 – a rope tow to pull skiers up the hill, comprised of a car mounted on blocks of wood with one of the rear tires removed and a cable looped around the rim and attached to a pulley at the top of the hill – quickly spread across North America and spurred innovations like the chairlift (Mont Tremblant, 1939). For Jackrabbit, who valued health, physical effort and contact with nature, he couldn’t understand why anyone would want to pay to ski, but even worse, and to take the words of Percy Douglas, to turn into “yoyo skiers who only go up and down all day long”. Despite the efforts of Jackrabbit and his friends to resist this new trend, it appeared that cross-country skiing would never recover.

Jackrabbit and his daughter, Lac Pelletier 1983

It wasn’t until the end of the 1960s that cross-country skiing would make a comeback. With the downhill ski industry facing many problems, cross-country seemed utopian in comparison and an ideal alternative.  The sport was pure, simple and close to its roots.  
          
In honour of Jackrabbit’s 100th birthday, the “snow train” ran once again, symbolizing the sport’s revival. Jackrabbit, still skiing, was on the train. Three years later, in 1978, the P’tit train du Nord started to operate on a more regular basis. However, it was on November 15, 1981, that this famous train would cross the Laurentians for the last time.
          
Herman Smith Johannsen passed away in Norway in 1987 at the age of 111 years.
 

Credits

Historical and iconographic research, text:  
Marc-André Lapointe and Samuel Mathieu

Sources (Jackrabbit text):
Alice Johannsen, The Legendary Jackrabbit Johannsen, Mcgill-Queens University Press, 1993, p. 312.
Michel Allard, Le cœur des Laurentides, Septentrion, 2017, 240 p.
Danielle Soucy, Des traces dans la neige, Éditions La Presse, 2009, 256 p. 
Serge Laurin, Histoire des Laurentides, Institut québécois de recherche sur la culture, 1989.
Laurentian Ski Museum, website consulted July 2017. http://www.museeduskideslaurentides.com/

Pictures:
Fonds famille Jackrabbit, collection du Muse%u0301e du ski des Laurentides



Excerpt of
The Pays-d’en-Haut: a Jewel of Leisure and Recreation

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