“Jackrabbit” Johannsen, Canadian Ski Hall of Fame and Museum (CSHFM) Collection.

Herman “Jackrabbit” Smith-Johannsen

Skiing as a Way of Life

Affiliated Discipline(s): Cross-country

Herman Smith-Johannsen was one-of-a-kind. He was fondly nicknamed “Jackrabbit” for his ability to ski his way through the forests. No other person has developed trails as extensively as he did. From his native Norway, where he was rated one of the best all-round skiers, on to the United States and Canada where he made cross-country skiing flourish, “Jackrabbit” left an undeniable mark on the world of skiing. The many ski trails and ski clubs he created, still active today, continue to inspire generations of skiers of all ages. When he passed away at the venerable age of 111 years old, he was already a living legend. This story describes Jackrabbit’s unique personality through a tale about his fascinating life.

“He always wanted to know what was on the other side of the hill. That force was driving him.”

– Erik Austin, grandson of “Jackrabbit” Johannsen

Skiing the Norwegian Way

Born on the 15th of June 1875, in Horten, Norway, Herman Smith-Johannsen was the oldest of nine children. Originating from a country where skiing from one village to another was commonplace, he was introduced to skiing almost as soon as he could walk, from the tender  age of two. Ever since that first moment, it became his way of life. He immigrated to the United States at the age of 24, having graduated as a mechanical engineer in Berlin.

This photograph was captured in 1885, when “Jackrabbit” was about 10 years old. He situated himself second from the left sitting on the railing at his grandparent’s (Admiral and Prefect of Horten – Herman Roosen Smith) house (Ekeli – Horten) with his cousins and aunts. CSHFM Collection.

“Jackrabbit” with wife, Alice Robinson and children, Lake Placid, 1925. CSHFM Collection.

Blazing Trails to the U.S.

Soon after arriving in the United States, Jackrabbit was hired by an engineering company in Cleveland, Ohio. His job as a heavy machinery salesman for sawmills and railroads led him to discover the forests of Northern Ontario and Temiskaming. His travels even brought him to places like Panama and Cuba. He returned to the U.S., settling this time in Lake Placid, New York, where he could reconnect with his true passion, skiing. His family prospered here. He joined the Lake Placid Club and began to blaze ski trails, promoting cross country skiing in the region.

Chief “Jackrabbit”, the Perfect Nickname

The name “Jackrabbit” was respectfully given as a result of his remarkable ability to get around quickly in dense woods and over deep snow on skis. During his trips to Northern Ontario as an engineer, he was befriended by people of the Cree First Nations who used snowshoes to travel on snow, especially to trap. He introduced them to skis for the first time and they called him Okamacum Wapoos, or Chief “Jackrabbit”. He became very fond of these people, with whom he shared a love for living in the bush. He learned their language and could even say Grace in Cree.

Close-up of Mr. Johannsen believed to be taken at the annual Ski Jumping competition beside the last St. Sauveur Red Bird House. Jackrabbit was one of the judges. Circa 1953-1954. CSHFM Collection.

“When I first got up into that country, the Indians* were using snowshoes, while I had skis. They had never seen such crazy things. I would travel with the trappers over the traplines (…) Finally a few of them tried it. Twenty years later I went back, and they were all on skis.”

– “Jackrabbit” Johannsen (Source: S. Staff, The Old Man and the Ski)

* Please note that this quote does not reflect the terminology the CSHFM museum would have used to designate members of First Nations.

Surviving the Great Depression

While “Jackrabbit” achieved great levels of success in his life, he also suffered immense financial loss during the Great Depression. Before the depression, he moved from Lake Placid to Montreal in 1928  where he ran a successful Engineering Consulting company that eventually went bankrupt. He then opened a small manufacturing company in partnership with his son, Bob, to assist his family financially. They produced “Jackrabbit” Ski Lacquer. Their “factory” was located on the back veranda of the family’s apartment in Montreal. Although it remained a small company, it did cement the “Jackrabbit” brand in the marketplace.

A package of “Jackrabbit” Ski Wax for dry snow. CSHFM Collection.

“Jackrabbit” Johannsen, Saint-Sauveur, 1935. CSHFM Collection.

“Ski Engineer”, a New Vocation in the Laurentians

Continuing to experience significant financial loss encouraged “Jackrabbit” to go back to his roots of what he was most passionate about, skiing. Already in his 50’s, he discovered his talent as an entrepreneur and reinvented himself as a “ski engineer″. His new job involved him designing the Seigniory Club ski jump in Montebello in 1930. He became well-known and was invited to be an official for a number of competitions, such as the third ever Winter Olympics in Lake Placid in 1932. Most importantly, he cut many new cross-country ski trails, connecting Laurentian villages together. This was his new vocation and calling.

I was surprised to find out that you don’t need much money in order to make yourself happy and comfortable if you leave the towns and get out there in the wilderness, as close to the wilderness as possible.”

– “Jackrabbit” Johannsen (Source: Brind, NFB film. 15:23)

The Ultimate Trailblazer

Over the years, “Jackrabbit” cut and maintained hundreds of kilometres of trails across the Laurentians, including the famous Maple Leaf Trail. He connected small pensions and inns along the trail, essentially developing an entire regional network of skiing. After becoming so well-known across the industry, he became a renowned authority on skiing and consultant for people in development and real estate.

“Jackrabbit” Johannsen in a bush camp at Lac Renaud, 1937. He is surrounded by the tools he used to cut trails. Image from page 81 in “Jackrabbit, his first hundred years”.

“Jackrabbit” Johannsen at the summit of Mont Tremblant with his dog Nick, 1935. Courtesy of McGill University Archives, Box 6, File 222.

 “I can’t take credit for being the first man to bring skis to America. I’m not even the first Norwegian! … I was one of the fellows who introduced skiing for fun, no doubt. But I can’t take credit for the whole business.”

– “Jackrabbit” Johannsen (Source: S. Staff, The Old Man and the Ski)

Connecting People and Villages

One of the tasks that “Jackrabbit” enjoyed the most was bringing many different people with different opinions together to collaborate on projects. For example, local farmers granted him the right to cut parts of the Maple Leaf Trail on their properties, enabling a straightforward trail to be established. Similarly, he brought hotel managers and real estate developers together when he realized that their collaboration could significantly benefit one another while towards a common goal.

Crowd of skiers with Jackrabbit, Val David Station. CSHFM Collection.

“He had a huge impact on the development skiing in the Laurentians. He was a passionate skier, organized events, cut trails and people followed. His sense of adventure and enthusiasm for skiing motivated people to get outdoors and in contact with nature.”

– Erik Austin, grandson of “Jackrabbit” Johannsen

Leading by Example

“Jackrabbit” was a champion of physical fitness and outdoors activities well before it became trendy. His healthy way of life and his love of nature was contagious. A pioneer in all forms of skiing, he acted as an organizer, instructor, coach and official. His sense of humour and good spirit left a lasting impression on the people he encountered along his journey.    

“Jackrabbit” and members of the Red Birds Ski Club, 1930. Collection Musée du ski des Laurentides.

Jackrabbit at Mont-Habitant, 1955. Collection Musée du ski des Laurentides.

The Development of Alpine Skiing

The Laurentians became the top destination for skiing, as the downhill ski industry emerged and went on to flourish. To “Jackrabbit”, the development of alpine skiing for profit and innovations like the chairlift went against the principles of purity and simplicity that he so valued in cross-country skiing. Lucky for him, his sport would make an incredible comeback towards the end of the 1960s.

“No one ever climbs a hill on skis anymore. They ride up. Same with cross-country skiing. These little bitty narrow skis, why you can’t ski anywhere unless someone has already made a trail for you! Nobody knows how to bushwhack anymore! “

– “Jackrabbit” Johannsen (Source: S. Staff, The Old Man and the Ski)

The Hero of Cross-Country Skiing

During the Canadian Centennial in 1967, “Jackrabbit” helped bring the focus back to cross-country skiing. The Canadian Ski Marathon was established to celebrate the Centennial, and “Jackrabbit” Johannsen became an absolute hero of the sport. The trail stretched from Lachute (Quebec) to Ottawa  Ontario), covering a total distance of about 190 kilometres. “Jackrabbit” Johannsen was accompanied by several members of his family and completed sections of the marathon at the remarkable age of 92.

“Jackrabbit” (left) shaking hands with cross country skier Peter St. John during 1984 Canadian Ski Marathon – Rideau Canal, Ottawa, ON. CSHFM Collection.

Four generations participated in the 1982 Canadian Ski Marathon. Karin Austin (right), her nine-month-old son, Michael O’Gorman, her grandfather “Jackrabbit” and her mother Peggy. Le Droit numérique.

An Eternal Inspiration

Throughout his long life and career, “Jackrabbit” inspired ski enthusiasts of all ages to follow in his path. He taught thousands of people to enjoy winter sports and imparted unconditional love for nature and cross-country skiing onto his children and grandchildren. The heritage trails he blazed are still being enjoyed by sport enthusiasts today. His values and heritage are protected by the ski community. “Jackrabbit” ski leagues introduce thousands of youngsters to the sport he practiced as a way of life.

He was awarded the Order of Canada in 1972 and inducted into the Canada Sports Hall of Fame in 1982.

The 111-year-old legend

“Jackrabbit” was already a living legend during his life, outcompeting people half his age. A healthy way of life and daily physical exercise likely contributed to his longevity, but for him, it is simply the happy result of his passion. Herman  “Jackrabbit” Smith-Johannsen passed away of pneumonia at the age of 111 in Norway, his country of origin. He was on skis from the tender age of two right up until he was 106 years old.

“Jackrabbit” at his home in Piedmont, QC on the occasion of his 110th birthday, CSHFM Collection.

“Jackrabbit” and his daughter Alice Johannsen (to his right) at the 1984 Canadian Ski Marathon, Ottawa, ON. CSHFM Collection.

Watch a short film that recounts the life of Herman Smith-Johannsen

Source: NFB, William Brind, 1975, 28 min.

To Learn More

Herman Smith-Johannsen, un pionnier du ski de fond, De remarquablesoubliés, 22 avril 2015, Avec : Serge Bouchard (animateur), Rachel Verdon (réalisatrice).

Herman “Jackrabbit” Smith-Johannsen (1875-1987), by Matthew Farfan, Laurentian Heritage Web Magazine,

The Legendary “Jackrabbit”  Johannsen by Alice Johannsen, 1993 by McGill-Queen’s University Press, 312 p.

“The Old Man and the Ski”, by Si Staff, Sports Illustrated, December 10th, 1979.

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