Jackrabbit Johannsen

Jackrabbit Youth Program Named for Ski Pioneer

by Michael Morris

Herman Smith-Johannsen, better known as Jackrabbit Johannsen, was born in Norway in 1875. After graduating as an engineer, he immigrated to the United States in 1900 and went to work selling mining equipment in remote places around the world. One such location was in northern Quebec where the native Cree nicknamed him “wapoos” (their word for snowshoe hare) for his speed on snow. They had not seen skis before his arrival. Nor had most North Americans. At some point the name wapoos morphed to Jackrabbit.

After the economic collapse of 1929 forced Johannsen out of business, he devoted himself fulltime to the promotion and development of skiing. He oversaw the construction of many trails in Quebec and upstate New York, and helped install North America’s first rope tow near Shawbridge, Quebec. He intended it as a learning device to enable skiers to master downhill technique more quickly. He also built jumps and organized races. However, he is best known for his unflagging promotion of cross country skiing through the 1950s and 1960s, a time when trail skiing had all but disappeared as a winter pastime in North America.

The revival of cross country skiing in North America prompted a flurry of trail development. While I was working on one such project in 1972, Jackrabbit came out to see how we were doing on a trail he had built in the 1930s. He arrived at our camp before we had finished breakfast. His son-in-law supported him by the elbow (he was 97 years old) as he spent an hour walking our crude trail. Jackrabbit continued to ski well past his 100th birthday. He passed away in 1987 at the age of 111 and is commemorated in the Jackrabbit Ski League, a nation-wide program that fosters Nordic skiing among children.