Maple Leaf Trail Marker
Organization: Musée du ski des Laurentides
Address: 30 Filion, Saint Sauveur, QC J0R 1R0
Contact: Sylvie Lebeau, sylvie(a)museeduski.com
Description: Square metal trail marker from the historic Maple Leaf Trail of the Laurentian region of Quebec. Photo 3 shows the backpack and mittens that belonged to “Jackrabbit” Johannson, and Photo 4 is a photograph of him.
Year made: 1930s
Made by: Unknown
Materials/Medium: Sheet metal
Colours: Metal (originally painted red with a dark green leaf)
Size: 15 cm x 15 cm
Photos:(1-3) Rachel Garber. Courtesy Musée du ski des Laurentides; (4) Courtesy Musée du ski des Laurentides
Maple Leaf Trail Marker
As a child in the 1950s, I spotted a maple leaf etched onto a small metal plate in the woods just where the forest gave way to alders and swampy ground at the edge of the lake. It seemed oddly out of place and I gave it little thought. Some days later I mentioned it to my mother. She told me it was a marker for the Maple Leaf Trail and that, in the winter, people skied over the deep snow through the trees and alder brush, out onto the back of the little bay where I had seen the marker, and across the lake. What she didn’t tell me, and years later I would discover for myself, was that the marker alone was not enough to find your way. On the wind-blown surface of the ice you would have to look for traces of previous skiers and choose your path with the help of Laurentian Ski Charts that showed many of the trails that crisscrossed the Laurentians.
Even in my childhood the trails were more than a generation old. Émile Cochand – a Swiss who brought skiing to the Laurentians before the First World War – the Nymarks, the Wheelers of Gray Rocks Inn, and other members of the Association, all built trails off into the woods from their small inns, or else they used the ones skiing pioneers like Paul d’Allmen built. People had already been arriving by train for the weekends before Émile Cochand, owner of Chalet Cochand in Ste. Marguerite and co-founder of the Association, invited both Bill McEnroe of CP Rail and Baz O’Mara, the sports editor at the Montreal Star, to come to Chalet Cochand in the mid-1920s. He hoped to convince them that the resorts could fill the train with skiers. He succeeded, and the first ski train was inaugurated in the winter of 1926 –27.
Only a few years later, the Laurentian Resorts Association set an elderly man the task of laying out the trails and joining them together more formally. This was Herman Smith Johannsen. He was 57 in 1932 when he first dreamed of a trail network that would run from Labelle to Shawbridge, and he skied those trails for another five decades. Dubbed "Jackrabbit" by the Cree, he called his main trunk ski trail the Maple Leaf, and the trail marker became a comforting indication in the Laurentian woods for two generations of skiers and three generations of puzzled kids during the summer.
Skiing came to define the Laurentians and, at its peak of operation, the ski train – effectively the original Laurentian ski lift – disgorged as many as 10,000 skiers a weekend. These Montrealers followed the well-marked trails, staying and partying at one of the inns on Saturday night, then skiing back to a different railroad station on Sunday to return to the city.
According to his daughter Alice Johannsen, the name for the Maple Leaf Trail was first conceived in a conversation Herman had with his son Bob in 1932. Johannsen was an engineer who had worked in many parts of Europe and the Americas selling heavy equipment, but when the stock market crash hit in 1929, he and his family were ill prepared. In his mid-fifties, he faced total financial loss and, taking it in stride, he moved to the Laurentians and dedicated himself to skiing, a skill he had learned in his childhood in Norway. He rapidly became the darling of the young ski industry and accepted the task of joining existing trails between Shawbridge and Labelle, north of Mont Tremblant. Such an active man of his age was rare and he was present at many of the great events, often skiing to them from Shawbridge where they had become the guests of 80-year-old Sue Harding, the aunt of some friends. In June 1942, they found their way to a house belonging to Colin Shaw. Herman and young Bob spent the summer planning and working the Maple Leaf Trail.
Over the years, Jackrabbit Johannsen became a living legend, with stories of him in his late fifties, riding up in the ski train filled with skiers 20 years his junior, and standing on his head in the moving train, but the legend grew into full bloom when, at 92 in Canada’s centennial year, he completed the first Canadian Ski Marathon, skiing from Pointe-Claire to Ottawa. At 94, without consulting with his family, he got himself a job as a merchant mariner and worked his way across the Atlantic to Norway and back.
Johannsen passed away in his son’s arms in Norway in January 1987. He was 111. His story and work served to promote skiing, not just in the Laurentians but across Canada, and his long, full life left us with a Canadian legend. But his star should not blind us to the other extraordinary pioneers who were involved in the birth of skiing in Canada.
The Cochands, the Wheelers, the Nymarks, Paul D’Allmen, Herman Smith Johannsen and other resort owners and their families today all belong to the rich history of the Laurentians north of Montreal, and people right across Canada have reason to remember the simple square metal marker with the maple leaf.
Laurentian Ski Charts, copyright CPR 1937.
Album Historique de la Paroisse de Sainte Agathe des Monts, 1849 –1912 Dr. Edmond Grignon. Lois Nymark Martell, correspondence, December 1, 2012.
Stanley Ferguson, conversation, summer 1993 Sainte Agathe.
Chas Cochand, Those Fabulous Skiing Cochands, unpublished, May 2006.
Fred d’Allmen, conversation December 2005 – January 2006, Sainte Anne des Lacs.
John Fry, “Sporting Life,” The Walrus, February 2007.
Alice E. Johannsen, The Legendary Jackrabbit Johannsen, 1993.
http://montrealize-montrealize.blogspot.ca/2011/09/le-ptit-train-du-nord..., consulted January 6, 2013.
The Canadian Ski Hall of Fame: Herman Smith Johannsen O.C., http://www.skimuseum.ca/bios/web_Smith-Johannsen_Herman.pdf . Consulted January 6, 2013.
Joseph Graham is an historian who specializes in examining the world through the lens of Laurentian history. He is the author of the best-selling book Naming the Laurentians, writes a regular column for Main Street, has frequently been published in the Gazette of Montreal and the Quebec Heritage News, and authored the feature article of a recent issue of Canada's History Magazine.