As we time-travel back in our minds, we can put ourselves into the shoes of the first pioneers of skiing, a sport first founded 22,000 years ago. While it’s hard to imagine any sport dating that far back in history, researchers have actually stumbled upon cave drawings to prove it! The oldest ski fragments were found in northern Russia around 6000 BC.
Fun fact: since the 18th century, skiing in Eurasia would go on to evolve into many disciplines for both military and sport. Meanwhile in North America, snowshoes entered the scene as its technical equivalent, with the idea of skiing reaching Canada through the tales of Scandinavian Immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who shared their interpretation of the sport from coast to coast. Canadians would go on to embrace, adopt, innovate, evolve and compete in these various disciplines shortly after its arrival in North America.
Cross Country Skiing
The sport of cross-country skiing has Scandinavian roots dating back over 5,000 years. It has come a long way since arriving in Canada in 1890 by Scandinavian immigrants, when most skiers would only carry a single pole. The heavy unlaminated wooden skis also used to be up to four metres long and about 80 millimetres wide.
Skiing at Rockcliffe Park, near Ottawa near the late 19th century. The sport was introduced to Ottawa in 1887. Library & Archives Canada.
Herman “Jackrabbit” Smith Johannsen played a significant role in the development of cross-country skiing in Canada. A passionate and enthusiastic man with an uncanny ability to move around quickly in deep snow and the ability to travel long distances that earned him the nickname “Jackrabbit”.
Considered one of the great ski pioneers, Johannsen helped popularize the sport across North America. In the 1920s and 30s, he significantly improved on the existing cross-country ski trails in the Laurentians, including the famous Maple Leaf Trail. He organized races, instructed and coached skiers, officiated at competitions and was a tireless champion of physical fitness throughout his long life.
In 1972, Jackrabbit was awarded the Order of Canada and in 1982, at the age of 107, he was inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame. Jackrabbit Johannsen passed away in 1987 at the incredible age of 111 (he was the oldest man in the world for that last 22 days of his life). A true Canadian skiing legend, icon and pioneer!
Telemark is named after a region in Norway known for its world-renowned ski competitions. Some innovative technologies well beyond their time were developed in that location, including a new technique to climb mountains, which was founded in 1868 by Sondre Norheim. For the first time, skiers were able to turn while descending. This turning technique proved tricky to master with an unattached free heel.
Emile Cochand teaches telemark skiing in Québec in 1911. Skiing Heritage Journal, 2001.
Taking Off in North America
Telemark skiing spread across Europe, arriving shortly after in the United States and Canada. The Telemark Ski Club (later to become the Toronto Ski Club) was founded in 1908, initially composed of six members who had never skied before. Although its popularity quickly waned with the beginning of alpine skiing, adventurous Canadians continue to practice telemark nationwide to this day.
The adrenaline-rushing art of propelling oneself down a steep ramp, leaping off the end, “flying” as far as possible is unlike any other sport. Though it was first done in Norway as far back as 1808, Norwegian immigrants brought it over to Canada early in the 20th century. Norwegian Nels Nelsen was one of the driving forces behind the excitement spreading across the nation, starting in Revelstoke, B.C. during the 1910s.
Nels Nelsen in 1925 shortly after he broke the world record of 240 feet. CSHFM Collection.
East and West
While Nelsen was leading the development of ski jumping on the West Coast, it was simultaneously gaining momentum in the east. Canada’s first ski clubs reportedly developed as a result of the need for organization and infrastructure required to safely execute these jumps.
How Ski Jumping Evolved from its Beginnings in Revelstoke
The Parks Canada documentary “Flying Without Wings” covers over six decades of ski jumping in Revelstoke, B.C. Parks Canada.
Nordic Combined includes cross-country skiing and ski jumping disciplines. With its first known competition taking place back in 1892, it was the hottest snowsport of that time. Even the King of Norway was a competitor in a 1920s Nordic Combined event! Canada’s first official foray into the Olympic sport took place shortly after in 1928.
Part of the Canadian Olympic 1928 team. The first two Canadians to compete in Nordic Combined are William Thompson (centre) and Merritt Putman (second from right). CSHFM Collection.
Canada’s Highest Finish
Even though Scandinavia was well-known for top finishes in Olympic Nordic Combined, Canada still had some very respectable athletes and event performances. A champion in various tournaments, Jostein Nordmoe was recognized as Canada’s best Olympic finisher when he earned a 10th place finish at the 1932 Lake Placid Olympic Games.
“Canada in the skiing, although outclassed was by no means disgraced, and given a few more years will surely give our Norwegian friends a great run for premier honours ”
– Merritt Putman on his experience competing at the 1928 Olympic Games
Switzerland awarded the first trophy for downhill skiing in 1924, with the club named after an illustrious British Field Marshal named Lord Roberts of Kandahar. This marked the beginning of the tradition of the Kandahar Cup, a classic race that made its way to Canada in 1932, with the first event hosted at Mont Tremblant.
Quebec Kandahar Mont Tremblant 2nd place trophy won by Louis Cochand in 1936. CSHFM Collection.
The Year Alpine Skiing Made its Mark
It was in 1932 that alpine skiing arrived in Canada. The first major Canadian slalom race took place in Ste-Marguerite, Quebec, hosted by the McGill Redbirds Club. Around the same time, in Shawbridge, Quebec, the first rope tow was installed by Alex Foster. This made it much easier to master technique, as skiers could get to the top of the hill over and over, without the tiresome efforts of climbing on their own. A huge development for alpine skiing!
The unique origins of the biathlon date back to 400 B.C. from the Roman poet Virgil. Researchers have discovered evidence found in petroglyphs and cave drawings that predate the written record by thousands of years. These petroglyphs were apparently inspired by the combination of skiing and shooting. The first official biathlon race was held near the border between Norway and Sweden in 1767.
An ancient cave painting from Alta, Norway, depicting a hunter on skis. National Ski Council Federation.
Surprising Origins in Canada
Rather than a ski association, the first genuine Canadian biathlon competitions were organized by the Armed Forces. Our nation’s first team competed in the Olympic Games in 1968 in Grenoble, France, and was comprised mostly of military members.
While it’s hard to pinpoint when snowboarding was invented, it is said to have taken inspiration from the surfboard in the 1960s in the United States. In 1965, Michigan engineer Sherman Poppet is credited with one of the first versions of the snowboard, then called a “Snurfer.” This ushered in an innovative period of many different creators who tried their hand at it, including some memorable Canadians, such as Willi Winkels (see below).
The ‘Ski Bombe’ was made for “surfing on snow.” It was displayed as a promotional item in a store in Peterborough, Ont., and manufactured in Montreal, Que., around 1968. CSHFM Collection.
Made in Canada
Willi Winkels was an inventor, an athlete and an innovator amongst snowboard aficionados. While he originally made skateboards in Brampton, Ontario, throughout the 1970s and 80s, he switched his focus to winter sports during the colder months. When it snowed, he would test out various snowboard prototypes, initially made from skateboards.
Hear How Blue Mountain Played a Key Role in the Development of Snowboarding
Judy Winkels tells hers story about how snowboards and snowboarding started in Canada. Blue Mountains | REEL History.
Welcome to the world of freestyle skiing, where athletes combine acrobatics and gymnastics with a graceful skiing style. Although the very first recorded flip on skis happened in 1907, it was not until 1950 that it became mainstream with Norwegian Stein Eriksen’s jaw-dropping aerial somersaults during professional ski shows. While the sport has evolved over time, moguls and aerials have remained a constant.
Stein Eriksen, the “Father of Freestyle Skiing” performs one of his signature flips. Los Angeles Times.
John Johnston took it upon himself to head a group which founded the Canadian Freestyle Association in 1974, when freestyle was officially recognized as an official discipline. With this status and recognition, Johnston and others went across the country, hosting competitive freestyle events for amateur skiers, which laid the groundwork future Canadian successes in the sport.
To Learn More
Visit this online exhibition dedicated to snowboard innovator Willi Winkels.
Learn more about the history of biathlonin Canada and abroad.
Read about Merritt Putnam’s experiences at the 1928 Olympic Games in his own words.