The Jackrabbit—Lessons From the Man Who Changed Skiing Forever

Ken RothJune 21, 2023

If you need a little diversion from whatever you do in the off season and want to connect with skiing’s past, check out this 30 minute documentary on YouTube about Jackrabbit Johannsen. This 1975 video produced by the National Film Board of Canada chronicles the life of the Norwegian outdoorsman turned backwoods legend.

Johannsen is widely credited with being one of the first Europeans to popularize cross-country skiing in North America. I’m not certain how widely known Johannsen is outside of the Midwest and Canada, but around those parts, his name and legend are commonly known, even to younger skiers.

Jackrabbit is a skiing legend. The 1975 video about his life was filmed when Johannsen was 100 years old. The producers probably didn’t imagine they would miss another 11 years of this amazing man’s journey. (Photo: WikiCommons)

The Johannsen documentary harkens back to skiing’s heritage; simpler times, when people skied on wooden skis, in tweed sportcoats, wearing neckties, and wool caps. It was a time when ski trails were just a little wider than the width of a skier with poles, unlike today’s superhighways through the woods. The documentary provides an interesting look back—when grooming meant a couple of people going out on a trail ahead of skiers or—if you were lucky—a snowmobile dragging something behind it to smooth the path a bit.

One of several Jackrabbit trails in North America. This one in the Lake Placid, NY area.

The video chronicles Jackrabbit’s life from his childhood to his 100th year of life in Canada. He led an amazing life full of ups and downs, but through it all skiing persisted at his core. Johannsen lived all around North America, but it was a trip to Canada in 1903 that led to his relocation there in the 1930s after his life savings had been wiped out from the great depression. As it turned out, losing everything is what freed Johanssen, and turned him into the legend he would become. Johannsen was an extremely active skier and outdoorsman well into his late 90s, and there’s nice video which shows this.

Johannsen died in 1987 at age 111­—yes, that’s right, 111—after a lifetime spent as outdoorsman, ski trail builder, and namesake of the Canadian ski development program (which produced many famous Canadian skiers). For his efforts he was awarded the Order of Canada, one of the highest civilian Canadian honors. Jackrabbit knew eight languages, including Cree.

Next time you feel like complaining about trail grooming, remember there was a time when this was considered state of the art racing conditions. (Photo: WikiCommons)

For most skiers, cross-country skiing is more of a way of life rather than a sporting pursuit. This video is a gentle reminder that there’s more to skiing than worrying about the fastest wax, the proper ski camber, or having the best technique—something we may occasionally forget when reading about the hyper competitive world of ski racing.

This video is a poignant reminder that there’s both a history and an ethos of skiing that speaks to something deeper in each of us. Jackrabbit Johannsen was the very embodiment of that message. Watching a 100 year old putter around on skis will definitely give you cause to pause and reflect.

Among Johannsen’s many talents was producing his own line of ski wax. Here is a box of Johannsen’s “solid” klister from the author’s collection of antique ski wax. (Photo: Ken Roth)

This short film is definitely a product of its era, and the pacing, editing, and narration reflect it. Viewers born in the digital age may find this video difficult to watch because of that; but you should stick with it as the content is well worth viewing. The Jackrabbit video won’t change your life, but it will give you an appreciation for a bygone era of skiing. For older viewers—those in masters and super-masters categories—it will be a helpful reminder that there’s always a little bit more to get out of life. As Jackrabbit himself said in his hundredth year, “I live in the present…I think of the old days with pleasure and thankfulness… but the best thing I can do is get all I can of our present day of living.”

There’s a wonderful line from the movie and play The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” When it comes to Jackrabbit Johannsen, the fact and the legend are one.

So, give yourself 30 minutes to be transported back into the past and visit with a man who, it’s fair to say, literally transformed skiing in North America.

For more details on the well-lived life of Herman Jackrabbit Johannsen, there’s a very cleverly named Sports Illustrated article about his life, The Old Man and the Ski.

This plaque marks the spot of Jackrabbit’s house (Photo: WikiCommons)

Ken Roth

Ken lives in Southeastern Michigan. He's an avid outdoor sport enthusiast. He's an attorney, former Mayor of Northville, Michigan, and former bowling center owner. He's spent much of the last 35 years trying to chase down his wife on classic skis; to no avail.

Loading Facebook Comments ...

Leave a Reply