Jackrabbit, one of a kind

Herman Smith-Johannsen, alias Jackrabbit, was born on June 15, 1875 in Horten, Norway. He died on January 5, 1987 in Tønsberg, in the land of his birth, at the extraordinary age of 111.

Herman did his advanced studies in Germany at Berlin’s Humboldt University, where he obtained a degree in mechanical engineering in 1889. Shortly after graduation, he immigrated to Cleveland, in the United States, where he began a career selling industrial machinery.

When he was traveling in Ontario to sell machinery for the building of the Grand Trunk railway, he met Cree people close to North Bay who gave him – because of the way he floated over the snow on skis – the nickname Chief Jackrabbit (Okamacum Wapoos).

In 1907, Herman Smith-Johannsen married Alice Robinson and the couple settled in Havana, Cuba. Far from the snowy trails, Johannsen sold equipment for processing sugar cane in the West Indies.

In 1915, the call of the snow became too strong and the family headed north to settle in Lake Placid. There Herman Smith-Johannsen pursued his career selling industrial machinery, traveling regularly between Lake Placid and Montreal.

The Johannsen family moved to Montreal in 1929 and, during the Great Depression, moved on to live in Piedmont. In the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, Herman promoted skiing in the Lake Placid region as well as in Québec and Ontario.

From 1932 to 1935, he cut the Maple Leaf Trail that linked Saint-Sauveur, Prévost, Sainte-Adèle, Val-Morin, Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Mont-Tremblant and Labelle. In 1939, he published the Skiers’ Book. Bilingual and free of charge, the pocket guide contained topographical maps of the Laurentians showing hiking trails, downhill trails and mechanical ski lifts.

Breakfasts engraved in my memory

My first meetings with Mr. Johannsen were at the end of the ‘40s and the beginning of the ‘50s. We lived on the North Side of Mont Tremblant where my parents managed a charming little hotel called the Devil’s River Lodge, located a few metres from the bottom of the Sissy Schuss run.

Quite regularly, Mr. Johannsen arrived at about 6 a.m. accompanied by his son-in-law Peter Austin – his daughter Peggy’s husband – to have breakfast with my father and me.

I left for school at about 7 a.m., just as Hermann Johannsen and Peter Austin left for skiing. Upon my return, they were just exiting the forest and, in spite of my youth, I realized that the two men had just spent the day in the great outdoors, cross-country skiing to take care of the trails. I dared to imagine that they had managed to eat a small meal and, who knows, might even have lit a fire to heat a cup of tea.

Winter 1980. Jack Rabbit at the age of 105.

At the time, Jackrabbit was 75 years old. He was a unique soul, tenacious, vigorous, curious and intense.

During the period when I was at Sainte-Agathe High School, there was a competition among the local English schools. It was the “Four Way Competition” – cross-country skiing, ski jumping, slalom and giant slalom.

Knowing that I spent the whole winter in Europe with the Canadian Ski Team, my father had negotiated with the school to accept me on two conditions. The first meant that I had to spend summer in school and the second was that I take part in the big competition.

Mr. Johannsen organized the event. He was in his 90s and I was very aware of his great age, because he didn’t hesitate to throw comments my way on my pitiful cross-country skiing technique and on my ski jumps which, while long, were far from graceful.

He set the 20 km cross-country skiing trail himself. He also judged the jumps and was race director for the slalom races.

His daughter Peggy explained to me at the time that for some time recently, her father spent his summers in Norway. To afford the cost of the trip, he would find a small job on a Norwegian cargo ship and provide his services as a specialist in sailors’ knots. He was 100 years old at the time.

We would all like to have the secret of eternal youth and there’s no doubt that Herman Johannsen had discovered it. When all is said and done, his Cree name was a perfect fit.


By the same author: Ernie McCulloch, the “King of the mountain” (Click the image below)


Peter Duncan87 Posts

Membre de l’équipe canadienne de ski alpin de 1960 à 1971, skieur professionnel de 1971 à 1979 et champion américain en 1965, Peter Duncan a participé aux Jeux olympiques de 1964 à Innsbruck ainsi qu’à ceux de 1968 à Grenoble. Intronisé au Temple de la renommée du ski au Canada, au Panthéon des sports du Québec et récipiendaire de la médaille du gouverneur général, Peter a longtemps été commentateur de ski à la télévision./ Peter Duncan is a Canadian former alpine skier who competed in the 1964 and the 1968 Winter Olympics. He was named to the Canadian National Alpine Team in 1960 at the age of 16 and competed at the national level for the next 10-years until 1970 before retiring.

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