Herman Smith-Johannsen is considered one of the world’s great ski pioneers. Born in Norway in 1875, he was a mechanical engineer by training, educated in Norway and Germany. As a young man, his career took him to the United States. In Clevelend, where he settled, he specialized in the sale of heavy machinery, and met his wife Alice, with whom he would have several children.
After the First World War, Johannsen moved his business operations to Montreal, his family and home remaining in upstate New York. In 1929, Johannsen and his family moved permanently to Canada, settling in Piedmont in the Laurentians in 1932. From a young age, Johannsen’s great passion in life was skiing. Long before there were formal distinctions between cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, and ski jumping, he was practicing the sport whenever -- and wherever -- he could. An expert in every sense, he soon earned the nickname “Jackrabbit” for his uncanny ability to hop around in deep snow in dense woods and travel extreme distances.
It was during Jackrabbit Johannsen’s years in the Laurentians that he achieved his greatest fame. A veritable pioneer of skiing in North America, he helped popularize the sport across Canada and the U.S. In the 1920s and 30s, he cut the first cross-country ski trails in the Laurentians, including the famous Maple Leaf Trail. He organized races, taught, coached, officiated at competitions, served as a consultant countless times over, and was a tireless champion of physical fitness his whole long life.
In 1972, Jackrabbit Johannsen was awarded the Order of Canada. In the 1970s, he was a patron of the Canadian Ski Marathon and became involved in the Jackrabbit Ski League, a national ski program named in his honour and responsible for training thousands of young skiers. In 1982, at the age of 107, he was inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame. Long before his death in 1987 at the astounding age of 111, Jackrabbit Johannsen was a legend in his own time and an example to generations of Canadians.
The following article first appeared in the November 1975 issue of Nordic World Magazine. At the time of its publication, Johannsen had just turned 100.
THE FABULOUS JACK RABBIT
William L. Ball**
He's Norwegian: Canadian Herman Smith-Johannsen, skiing pioneer, proponent and in his advancing years -- he turned this 100 this summer -- a living monument to the health benefits of nordic skiing. Here a close personal friend offers a detailed biographical look at this remarkable man.
Ten years ago I wrote, "Sometimes a man becomes a living legend. Such is the Red Bird Ski Club's Herman Smith-Johannsen, the fabulous 'Jack Rabbit' of Piedmont. Skiing has had intrepid pioneers and great champions but it is doubtful if there has ever been a skier who has pushed his trail so far and so illustriously as has the 'Jack Rabbit' ".
Born in Horten, Norway on June15, 1875, Herman Johannsen was thus only 90 when I wrote those words. But last winter in his 100th year he was still skiing every day and the whole skiing world had 'discovered' him.
As a boy, Johannsen took part in every school ski jumping competition or cross-country ski race he could find, and won many. By the early 1890s he was rated one of the finest all-round skiers in Norway. All-round, in those days, meant jumping, cross-country racing and the ability to cover all kinds of uphill, downhill and rough terrain. With the boys around Telemarken he learned to ski the real 'slalom', not modern slalom which he has described as "ballet dancing in a fixed groove around flags, In Herman's youth the race was over and around such natural obstacles as trees and boulders.
From the great Firdtjof Nansen, who skied across Greenland in 1888, he learned how to ski over 'rubber ice', that treacherous surface which forms when sea ice begins to soften. (Nansen, incidentally, is probably the man who introduced skiing in the Alps). Herman also skied with Roald Ammundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole.
Johannsen is offhand about these contacts and considers his most interesting experiences to have been the long trips he made on skis as a young man through the mountains around his native Nordmarka. He revisited some of these areas when he returned to Norway as a guest-of-honour at the 1960 Holmenkollen. When he was introduced over the public address system, as a 'Norwegian-Canadian' who had pioneered skiing in Norway, Europe and America, he received a tremendous ovation.
In 1894, Herman graduated from the Royal Norwegian Military Academy as a Second Lieutenant and went to Germany to study engineering at the University of Berlin. "I had my skis with me", he says, "and used every opportunity to put them on". He spent several holidays on skis in various parts of Europe and helped to introduce skiing to Germany, Austria and Switzerland. I can vouch for this because when I returned from the 1936 Winter Olympic Games, held in Germany, I brought with me a book on skiing by Christel Cranz, the German girl who won most of the honours in women's skiing at those Games. I showed Herman a passage which stated that one of Germany's highest peaks, the Brocken, had first been climbed on skis by a Norwegian in 1895. To my remark "Another first for Norway, Herman!" he replied, "Yes, I was that Norwegian".
After graduating from the University of Berlin in 1899 as a mechanical engineer, he took a long ski holiday in Norway and then came to the U.S. to work for the Brown Hoisting Machinery Company in Cleveland, Ohio. "Yes, I had my skis with me", he admits, "the first pair seen in Cleveland parks.
Those skis came into particularly good use again when Herman was sent to sell logging and construction machinery in Canada. The Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway, and the Grand Trunk Transcontinental were being built and his work took him into real wilderness at times. On some trips he lived with the Cree and Ojibway Indians and followed their trap lines on skis. Inevitably, he persuaded some of the Indians to try skis in place of snowshoes.
In 1907, at the age of 32, he had what he calls "the most wonderful good luck in my life." He married Alice Robinson, the daughter of a Cleveland judge. Those of us who knew "Mrs. J" can readily agree with Herman. She was willing to join him on any adventure and went with him on several business trips to the Canadian North.
At this time, he decided, with his wife's concurrence, to strike out in business for himself. He spent the years from 1907 to 1915 in the West Indies as a sales engineer, representing various manufacturers of sugar cane handling equipment. He had his headquarters in Havana, Cuba. Although he spent a great deal of time exploring the country on horseback, he describes the period as "a vacuum for me as far as skiing was concerned."
By 1915, the lure of the North became too great and the Johannsens decided that he should try to make a living where he could use his skis. Because of his thorough training in the sale of logging equipment, it was not difficult for Herman to re-establish himself in Canada.
By then the Johannsen family had grown (daughter Alice, son Bob and daughter Peggy had arrived), and Herman settled his wife and children at Lake Placid, N.Y., where they lived for the next few years while he worked out of Montreal. He would return to Lake Placid on the weekends and holidays, and ski around Mounts Marcy, McIntyre, Haystack, and Whiteface. During these years he laid out trails around Lake Placid to stimulate interest in skiing and took part in some races. He didn't volunteer this latter information but I had heard it from other sources and badgered him until he produced some battered old trophies. He couldn't deny what the inscriptions on these cups said.
It appears that in 1923 he was third in the Eastern U.S. 25-mile race and was second in 1924. In 1925 he was fifth in the 10-mile race ("I was never so good at short distances," was his comment). On the surface these are not remarkable performances, but when you do a little arithmetic and find that he was 50 years old in 1925, his stock goes up quite a bit.
Lest it be assumed that competition was not very tough in those days, let me add that he was racing against the Satre brothers, and Bob Reid of Berlin Mills, New Hampshire. (All three men should be in the U.S. Ski Hall of Fame, in my opinion).
Herman was one of the founders of Lake Placid's Sno Birds Ski Club, which pioneered skiing in New York State. He was sometimes asked by the directors of the Lake Placid Club to take famous guests skiing. I remember him telling of taking Tom Mix, the cowboy movie star of that era, up Whiteface. He was unimpressed by the honor and his comment to me on the great screen hero was: "He can't ski for beans!" Captain Marsden, President of the Kandahar Ski Club of Murren, Switzerland, the club that introduced downhill racing in the early '20s, was another personality who went on one of Herman's little jaunts. Percy Douglas, in his Canadian Amateur Ski Association Year Book in 1927, tells of taking a trip with Herman, his family and Ken, 'the mountain climbing dog from Kenogami' that had been given to Herman by Sir William Price (of the Price Bros. paper company). Ken was a wonderful sledge dog and he and his master made many week long trips, sleeping out in the midwinter snows.
At the end of the First World War, Herman moved his business headquarters to Montreal and divided his interest between the Laurentians and the Adirondacks until 1929, when he brought his family to Canada. I first met him in 1926, when I was a high school student in Montreal. I remember marveling that such an elderly gentleman could ski so actively (he was 51 then.)
In 1930, the International Intercollegiate Ski Meet was held at the Manoir Richelieu in Murray Bay, Quebec. Herman was the chief-of-course and remembers the occasion with pleasure because he was made an honourary Red Bird at that time (the Red Birds is a McGill University graduate ski club founded in 1928). The announcement of his election was made at dinner on the train coming back to Montreal. To show his appreciation, Johannsen stood on his head on a table in the dining car while the train rocked along the northern roadbed. Thus began the traditional ceremony, so familiar to generations of Red Birds. For some years after that 'Mrs. J' had forbidden him to engage in such shenanigans, but in December 1962, on the occasion of the annual Red Birds Moose Dinner at St. Sauveur (a couple of miles from Piedmont where he now lives alone -- 'Mrs. J' died in '63), he disobeyed her when someone gave the old challenge, "Can you stand on your head, Jack Rabbit?" He was 87 at the time.
It has been said that his nickname originally came from the Cree Indians whom he met in his travels that admired his ability to hop about in dense woods on his skis and to traverse long distances. They called him jokingly, "Wapoos" the Cree word for Rabbit. It was in the 1920's, when the Montreal Ski Club had a camp at Canorasset near St. Sauveur, that Herman became known as officially as "Jack Rabbit". He organized Hare and Hound, and Bushwhack races and the thicker the bush the better he liked it. The nickname resulted from the fact he was the hare.
When his work took him back to the country of the Cree and Ojibways, he was forced to use skis because of the inaccessibility of the area. It was no great hardship for Herman. Once on a trip north of Lake St. John in northern Quebec, he visited some of the Indians he had known 20 years before and was delighted to find that they were using skis to follow their trap lines and carrying snowshoes on their backs for use only while working over the traps.
During the 1920s and early '30s, Herman pursued his hobby of exploring new country and cutting trails. Soon there were a number of fine trails around Shawbridge, St. Sauveur, Ste. Marguerite, and Ste. Agathe in the Laurentians. The maps of the day were poor and a lot of pioneering was necessary. The first good maps were prepared by Drummond Rose in 1933. A couple of years later, Jack Rabbit cut and marked the famous Maple Leaf Trail from Ste. Agathe to Shawbridge. He guided parties from Labelle to Shawbridge (over the top of Mount Tremblant to add variety) -- a distance of 80 miles in four days.
Remarkable as his skiing exploits had been to date it was in the '30s when skiing began to be the sport of the masses that Jack Rabbit's fame really spread. To the hordes of city types who came to cling to the first crude rope tows and warm themselves in the comfortable pensions, this lean old Viking with the piercing blue eyes was a semi-mythical figure He would pass them on the trail loaded with his pack and axe, perhaps followed by his dog Ken pulling the special narrow-track ski toboggan Herman had invented. Or he would blow into Shawbridge during a snowstorm and casually mention that he had left Ste. Agathe, 25 miles up the line, earlier in the evening.
These were the last years of an era in skiing that may never be appreciated by most of today's skiers But Herman never gave up his fight to lead at least a few away from the tows where "you never see anything but the points of your skis."
He was one of the pioneers of downhill and slalom skiing in the early days of the Red Birds but would have had no part of it if he had known that "it would develop into a craze for tow hill skiing only." He set the first slaloms on the Big Hill at Shawbridge and on Hill 70 in 1928. I remember them well. At Shawbridge, after I had climbed to the top, he diverted the course over the 'Big Rock'. I ran number one and the first thing I knew - I was sailing through the air about 10 feet above the ground. He had neglected to tramp the landing and I landed 50 feet down the hill in two feet of soft snow, falling flat on my face. The other competitors put up such a protest that he grudgingly by-passed the rock. Afterwards he told me that if I'd had sense enough to do a jump turn off the rock I'd have had no trouble. (He later bowed to public demand on Hill 70 at St. Sauveur, to the extent of including nothing more demanding than a barbed wire fence).
Herman was never one to become overly concerned about hazards other skiers might consider unfair on a ski course. An incident I won't forget was the time he laid out a cross-country course over the property of Ross McMaster Sr., near St. Sauveur. It had been a simultaneous start and I was leading the pack when I was set upon by two of Ross's dogs. One was a huge black beast that cavorted about barking and snarling in a terrifying manner. The other was a low-slung beagle type of cur that made no outcry but sneaked up behind me and bit me on the calf.
After the race I protested the hostile attitude of the dogs to Herman and he said he would take it up with Mr. McMaster. He was back in a couple of hours to say Ross had given him a couple of drinks and there was no hard feeling. "What about my leg?" I demanded. "Oh!" said Herman, "I decided not to mention it."
In 1929, Herman laid out the course for the first Dominion Slalom Race at Shawbridge. It was won by Harald Paumgarten, a member of Austria's 1928 Nordic Olympic team. (It should be remembered that alpine events were not included in the Olympics until 1936). Herman was the leader of the Red Bird parties that began pioneer skiing in 1930 on Mount Tremblant, where the Quebec Kandahar has been held since 1932.
At 55 his racing career should have been over but that year he placed fourth in the 18-mile St. Marguerite to Shawbridge race. The next year, he was elected president of the Montreal Ski Club, Canada's oldest (the club was founded in 1904). In 1934, he helped Fred Pabst of the Milwaukee brewing family install ski tows at Ste. Marguerite and St. Sauveur. The first tow in Canada had been erected by Alex Foster on the Big Hill at Shawbridge, Quebec, in 1929. With money collected by Sidney Dawes, Herman directed the clearing of the Kandahar and Tachereau runs at Tremblant in 1934 and smaller runs at Ste. Agathe, Ste. Marguerite, St. Sauveur, and Shawbridge. Herman says , "All this was done with the idea of teaching people how to ski under control and then go touring. At least that was the idea I had."
In the years after 1935, Herman advised in the development of such areas as Lac Beauport, Mount Orford, and Mount Gabriel, and assisted in the new Tremblant development by Joe Ryan in Quebec; Collingwood in Ontario; and Whiteface in New York.
Herman designed and built many of our ski jumps. The 250-foot Seigneury Club Hill at Montebello, Quebec, the hills at Ste. Marguerite, Shawbridge, Lac Beauport, Ste. Gabriel de Brandon, Grand Mère, and Lac Mercier were among those he built in Canada. He also built jumps around Lake Placid and was a consultant in the construction of the 60-meter 1932 Olympic Jump at Intervales.
In 1932, Herman assisted in the training of Canada's Olympic Team. He laid out a 50-km course at the Seigneury Club in Quebec and also took the team down to Lake Placid. While there, he ran training trips from Adirondack Lodge through Avalanche Pass and around Colden and Marcy mountains.
He appeared to have begun to feel his age in 1936 because he entered and won a veteran's race at Shawbridge. The race was only five miles long! However, 10 years later he was feeling spry enough, at age 71, to place third in a 10-mile cross-country race from the top of Mt. Mansfield to the town of Stowe, Vermont. His last official race was the Red Birds Club Championship when he was 75. He placed third in a field of 20. Herman told me in 1962 that he would still be racing but it caused cramps in his legs at night and this kept his wife up rubbing them. He reluctantly agreed that at 86 he had better confine himself to laying out and fore-running cross-country courses.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, he offered his services for training the troops but was turned down because he was 65 years old, even though he could have run 99 percent of the recruits into the ground. Herman was annoyed but thought that he might still be accepted if he could prove that he was in good physical condition. He maintained a log of his mileage while keeping the Maple Leaf Trail open. His record: 1940-41-980 miles; 1941-42-960 miles; 1942-43-1155 miles. He kept reporting to the army brass and the brass kept repeating that his age was against him. After five years, they finally won the war without him.
After World War II, the number of ski lifts and downhill skiing areas proliferated, and cross-country skiing and touring, which had begun to lose ground with the advent of the first rope tows, were reduced to activities for "eccentrics" only. Herman lamented that his tracks were being used by "only a few of us who enjoy getting away from the crowds on the ski tow hills". He had to cut new runs to avoid the many roads, houses and ski lifts that had ruined his old ones. He felt that, "Everything was going all right until we decided to widen the hills and people could go down with control in the shortest possible time. It developed into a racket. People made money and they did as much as they possibly could to make money."
Concerned but not discouraged, Herman continued through the '40s, '50s and '60s to cut trails and exhort people to get away from the crowded lift lines. But he didn't have much success. And then in the '70s came an amazing re-awakening. Many who had not really enjoyed lift skiing but slavishly did it because everyone else seemed to be doing it became aware of trail skiing. People who had never skied before were persuaded to get out on cross-country skis and pad along on the flat. Miles of new trails were developed and hundreds of skiers, young and old, began to appear. Last year , the two-day, 100-mile Canadian Ski Marathon, which Herman helped develop, was limited to 2,500 entrants because more could not be accommodated. The Canadian Ski Marathon starts in Lachute, Quebec, and finishes in Cantley, Quebec, near Canada's capital city of Ottawa.
So the 'grand old man of skiing' has achieved his two great ambitions: He has lived to be 100 years old and he has seen cross-country skiing come back stronger than it ever was.
And how is he doing now that he is 100? After a winter of inaugurating ski events in Canada and the United States, he took off this summer with daughter Alice for a tour of the Arctic ice fields and a visit to his kid sisters (92 and 94) in Norway.
(**William L. Ball competed for Canada in four skiing events at the 1936 Olympics -- cross-country skiing, ski jumping, slalom and downhill. Now in his 60s, he is the official historian of McGill University's Red Bird Ski Club, long one of the most influential in Canada. The Red Birds’ most illustrious member, of course, is Herman Smith-Johannsen. Mr. Ball lives in Canada's capital city of Ottawa, Ont. As he indicates in this article, he has known Mr. Smith-Johannsen since 1926.)