What is Cross Country Skiing?

Scandinavians invented cross country skiing and we are indebted to them not only for its ancestry, but for the development of the equipment we use, touring techniques and even for the relatively recent art of waxing.

The Nordic peoples, whose Vikings began conquering the sea about A.D. 700, apparently had found ways of conquering their own wild wintry land about 3000 years earlier. Skiing was used for transportation for hunters, messengers, soldiers and monarchs by the Vikings as early as the 10th century A.D. Remains of primitive skis found above Sweden’s Arctic Circle have been carbon-dated to 2000 B.C. Prehistoric cave drawings found above the Arctic circle indicate ancient inhabitants of Scandinavia may have used skis made of long bones of animals for transportation.

Legends tell of the kings own crack guard, the fierce Birkebeiners, transporting the two-year old heir to the throne, Prince Haakon, out of danger from enemies of the crown, by skiing him to safety. The Birkebeiner annual Loppet, commemorates the episode and covers 50 kilometres.

Many modern-day recreational events in Scandinavia, such as the Vasaloppet in Sweden, commemorate political struggles which charted historical events in Scandinavia. The Vasaloppet, one of the most demanding ski races, is based on the legend of Gustav Vasa.

The first known competition or prized race took place at Tromso, Norway in1776. The first cross country race on skis apparently was held in Northern Norway in 1843. By 1879, the first Huseby race was held and 1892 marked the first Holmenkollen race. Nordic Combined, a combination of ski jumping and cross country skiing, was originally looked upon as the premier Nordic event and it wasn’t until 1900 that a separate cross country race was held, at a distance of 30 kilometres (km).

The form of skiing, therefore, in which one travels from point to point over relatively level terrain is named “Nordic” to denote its Scandinavian origins.

Cross country skiing was introduced to North America in the late 19th century by Europeans. In 1849, skis were used in California during the gold rush days by miners for survival. John “Snowshoe” Thompson, carried the mail on skis across the High Sierras from California to Nevada for 20 years. This was the only form of communication for the miners during the gold rush days.

In Canada, the legendary Herman “Jackrabbit” Smith Johannsen is considered the father of the Canadian skiing movement. Johannsen moved to Quebec in 1928 and cut cross country ski trails, set the first slalom courses, and designed and directed many of Canada’s ski jumps. Well known trails such as the Maple Leaf, Tachereau and Kandahar were all planned and cut by Jackrabbit.

Montreal, Ottawa, Camrose, Banff, Trail and Rossland all claim to have originated, introduced and practiced certain aspects of the sport in Canada. However; skiing was known to have been practiced as early as 1879 in Quebec. It was not considered a competitive sport until 1898 when, as part of the Rossland Winter Carnival, a prized ski jumping and ski running competition was held. The first Canadian Ski Championships were held on February 13,1909 on the Westmount Boulevard Hill in Montreal and was a ski jumping event. By 1921, the Dominion Ski Championships became the most important single ski competition in Canada. Competition was limited to cross country and ski jumping events.

On February 19,1921, the first official Dominion Ski Tournament, sponsored by the Canadian Amateur Ski Association (CASA), now the CSA, was held in Montreal. The cross country events were held on Mount Royal. Frank McKinnon become the first cross country champion of the CASA in the 10 mile (18km) race which he finished in a time of 1:10:20. He was presented with the Devun bowl, which today remains a perpetual challenge trophy for Canadian cross country racing.

Cross Country skiing has been part of the Olympic Winter Games since 1924 and during the first three Olympics, Nordic skiing events were the only contested sports. Up until 1952, there were only men’s events and it wasn’t until the 1988 Olympics, in Calgary, that races featuring the separate free technique and the classical style were introduced. The new “pursuit start” was introduced at the 1992 Olympic Games in Albertville, France.

Canadian skiers participated in their first Winter Olympics in 1928, marking the first appearance of North American ski teams in the Winter Games. A four person team arrived in St. Moritz, Switzerland and W.B. Thompson of Laurentian, Quebec and Merritt Putnam of Toronto placed 37th and 40th, respectively, in the 18 km cross country race.

Since these first Olympic athletes, Canada has produced many well-known cross country athletes. Some of Canada’s most noted successes are: cross country World Cup gold medal winner; Pierre Harvey; Al Pilcher; whose 7th place finish in Lahti was Canada’s best ever World Championships result; four-time Olympian Angela Schmidt-Foster; the renowned Firth twins from Northwest Territories, Sharon and Shirley; and 1989 Junior World silver medallist, Marie-Josee Pepin.

Canada has been host to many international cross country events ever since. Communities such as Silver Star; Hardwood Hills, Canmore, Thunder Bay, Whitehorse and Labrador City have all been selected to host World Cup events. Canadians have also viewed dramatic junior athletes when in 1979 Mt. Ste. Anne, Quebec hosted the Junior World Championships and in 1997, Calgary will have that honour. Calgary has also been host to the most prestigious amateur sporting event when, in 1988, the city successfully held the Winter Olympic Games. 1995 marked Canada’s first opportunity to host the Nordic World Ski Championships in Thunder Bay.

Reprinted from “100 Mile Nordics Ski Club