Our trip to ski in Quebec over the past two weeks was steeped in “Jackrabbit” Johanssen history. Our companion during our 10 days in the east and captain of our Mixed Veterans team in the Canadian Ski Marathon, Vic Emery, was a close friend of Jackrabbit Johanssen. Vic grew up in Montreal and skied in the Laurentians at the time Jackrabbit was busy carving out trails in those parts.
Born in Norway in 1875, Herman Smith-Johanssen – later to be nicknamed “Jackrabbit” by the Quebec Cree because he would dash about, skiing circles around them on their snowshoes. Educated as an engineer, Smith-Johanssen found a job in the U.S., then relocated to Canada in 1929 to the Laurentians when he lost everything in the Great Depression.
“Going broke was the best thing that happened to me,” quipped Johanssen. Then in his 50’s, he was able to dedicate his life to building ski trails and living close to nature. His wife and children shared his love of outdoors and cross-country skiing. At the time our friend Vic lived in Montreal when the Red Birds Ski Club was formed – the oldest ski club in Canada. Their base was in the Laurentians.
Jackrabbit became an honorary member, and a very good friend of Vic’s.
Vic tells us of accompanying Jackrabbit back to Norway in 1985 when Jackrabbit was 109 years old, how he caught a cold Christmas 1986, then died January 1987 aged 111. Vic was asked to give the eulogy from his Canadian life perspective at the funeral in Norway. Quite the honour.
One story Vic told us was about Jackrabbit’s antics at the black-tie dinner celebration of his 90th birthday hosted by the Red Birds Ski Club. After giving a short thank-you speech in five languages – Norwegian, German, French, English, and Cree – Jackrabbit cleared the table and, much to everyone’s surprise and delight, did a headstand in the middle of it!
What a character – he was a legend. When he died, Jackrabbit was the oldest person in Canada and also in Norway. They say his heart and lungs and body were so strong that had he not caught that cold he could have gotten another decade out of life.
The Canadian Ski Marathon (CSM) was very special to Jackrabbit. North America’s longest and oldest ski tour, the CSM was a 1967 Centennial project of the City of Ottawa to celebrate Canada’s centennial and to promote cross-country skiing in Canada. It’s two days of 64-km/day. The oldest skier in that initial event was Jackrabbit at a sprightly 91 years. He skied 48 km and was one of the event’s original promoters.
In its 47th year, this February’s CSM was a wonderful experience for Jim and me.
There were four skiers on our team – Jim, Vic, me, and Peter Johnston – the current president of the Red Birds Ski Club.
With the total number of stages the four of us completed over the four days, we won the hotly contested Jim Quarles Memorial trophy in the Mixed Veterans (over 60) category.
Over the weekend staying at the Chateau Montebello at the halfway point of the CSM, Vic introduced us to Jackrabbit’s daughter Peggy Austin, who was there with her daughter Karin. At 94, Peggy emulates her father in her sprightly demeanour. It’s in the genes.