The Iconic Ski Trail Put the Laurentians on the Map
The Laurentian region of Quebec is known as the “cradle of skiing” in North America because of its rich history as one of the oldest ski regions in Canada. It owes a large part of its success to its Maple Leaf Trail and the man who blazed it, the legendary Herman “Jackrabbit″ Smith Johannsen. Without “Jackrabbit’s” contribution in the 1930s, this incredible 128-kilometer trail system that connects the Laurentian villages from Labelle to Shawbridge (Prévost) would not exist today. It was a combination of hard work, passion and enthusiasm that ensured that this trail could leave its mark on the economy and culture of the region for years to come.
“Jackrabbit” Johannsen: The Man Behind the Trail
For Norwegian-born Herman “Jackrabbit” Smith-Johannsen, skiing is a way of life. During his long life, this ski pioneer cut through the rugged bush of Quebec and Northeastern United States to establish hundreds of kilometres of cross-country ski trails. This was a family affair as he worked together with his son, Bob, to blaze the extraordinary Maple Leaf Trail that meandered along the P’tit train du Nordrailroad through the Laurentians. With beautiful inns dotting the length of the route, therailroad drew visitors to the region and made it into a popular tourist destination.
The objective was to develop a well-marked trail and attract tourists to the region. After much lobbying to the government, a grant for $2,000 was awarded for ‘ski development’. Unfortunately for Jackrabbit, most of the funds went to a promotion in New York with a dog-team at Madison Square Gardens to advertise Laurentian resorts. Only a small sum was left for trail markers for the Maple Leaf Trail and no money for labor. In the end, it was left to Jackrabbit to install the trail markers by himself, or with the aid of volunteers. He laid out the trail of his dreams, fostering goodwill amongst landowners and with help from skiers who volunteered. The CPR provided him with a free railway pass and the numerous inns would give him a meal and a bed now and then. He often preferred to sleep out on the trail, in his sleeping bag and under the stars so that he could easily carry on the next day where he had left off.
“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!”
– “Jackrabbit” Johannsen. The First Ski Club in Canada, Canadian ski pioneer.
Connecting People and Villages
The Maple Leaf Trail was created by Jackrabbit and sponsored by the Imperial Tobacco Company, with the goal of connecting some of the most isolated communities of the Laurentians together, from Labelle to Shawbridge (Prévost). The trail was mapped out in the Skiers’ Book, a free pocket guide to skiing in the Laurentians.
A Tourist’s Guide to the Trails
The Sweet Caporal Skiers’ Book was first published in 1939 by Imperial Tobacco. It was distributed far and wide to everyone who wanted it, free of charge, acting as an advertising platform for the ski community. Quickly, it became known as the authoritative guide to Laurentian trails and embraced by skiers. The guide showed many topographic maps, where it identified cut and uncut trails, downhill runs and lifts. The book was published annually with updated maps and text up until 1949, with the exception of some interruptions during WWII. Jackrabbit and his family remained involved with the project throughout.
The Iconic Maple Leaf Trail Markers
Iconic trail markers were painted bright red with a dark green leaf and nailed to trees, along the trail network. Their presence on the trail guided skiers on the right path, following in the very steps of Jackrabbit himself.
The Laurentian “Snow Train”
The sport of skiing skyrocketed in popularity in the 1920s. As early as 1927, the Canadian National Railway (CN) and the Canadian Pacific Railway (CP) began to run trains for the sole purpose of transporting enthusiastic Montreal skiers to the Laurentians. The railway line, dubbed Le P’tit Train du Nord,would come to be called the “snow train”. The influx of tourists helped the economy grow, contributing immensely to the development of various industries and to tourism in the Laurentians. During the winter of 1938-1939, the snow trains transported some 112,000 people on 300 trains.
“The P’tit train du Nord passenger train was an experience in itself: There were a lot of English people from Westmount, and especially McGill students. I remember the Early Bird train that left in the wee hours of Sunday morning. It was a real carnival! Sometimes someone took out a violin or an accordion. People danced in single file from one train car to another.”
– Recollection of unnamed train conductor (Allard 2017, p. 173)
The Threat to the Heritage Ski Trails
As roads became more common with the development in the area, urbanization began its encroachment and roads became increasingly used, train travel began to decline. Today, the ski trails that had first put the Laurentians on the map – including the famous Maple Leaf Trail – are in danger of disappearing as it is no longer possible to ski from one town to another on an uninterrupted trail.
Restoring the Iconic Maple Leaf Trail
Although it is no longer possible to ski from one village to another, the ski community is hard at work restoring the trail. They are matching the original location of the trail as accurately as possible and intend to reinvigorate the spirit that the trail originally embodied. Using existing tracks such as the Western, locals are attempting to restore the continuous link between villages, as it was in Jackrabbit’s time.
“My grandfather Alexis made just about everybody’s skis who skied here from the 20s to the 40s, my earliest memory is skiing with him when I was around 4 or 5 years old and that’s why this project is so close to my heart”
– François Gohier, Volunteer. Éco-corridors laurentiens.