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Norwegian-Canadian Herman Smith 'Jackrabbit' Johannsen who pioneered cross-country skiing in North America.

The Canadian Ski Hall of Fame and Museum

Has there ever been a ski season remotely like this one? The parking lots stuffed with skiers gamely putting their boots on against their car bumpers. The hills garlanded with shiny new, speedy multi-passenger lifts, and yet only household members can ride together. And don’t let Dr. Theresa Tam or Dr. Anthony Fauci know if you conspire to sneak into a gondola crammed with other skiers.

But if, given these circumstances – which give new meaning to the term “ski conditions” – you choose to avoid the chair lift this winter, take heart. There is consolation in the easy chair.

As a reader who loves to ski – or, as my children, mindful of the priorities of their father, would put it, as a skier who loves to read – my ski books over the years have piled deep along the living-room floor. So, in this winter of coronavirus discontent, let’s take a run down my trail of ski books. No need to bundle up.

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I’m a dual citizen who learned to ski on both sides of the border, and in truth two of my favourite volumes are resolutely Canadian offerings.

No skiing reader with any passport should be without a copy of The Legendary Jackrabbit Johannsen (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993), written by the daughter of the fabled Quebec ski pioneer who died at the age of 111, presumably with his (ski) boots on. Johannsen, born in Norway but with a particularly Canadian outlook on the outdoors, is credited with being one of the founding fathers of cross-country skiing in North America and surely is the only one to have set out for five miles of skiing at an age approaching 100.

Johannsen is one of the vivid characters portrayed in W.L. Ball’s I Skied the Thirties (Dineau, 1981), which chronicles the early days of Canadian skiing, reminding us of the primitive ski tows produced when, as Ball put it, an ingenious Montrealer “jacked an old car … up on blocks, removed a tire from a back wheel and passed an endless manila rope around the drum several times and then over a series of other wheels supported on poles.”

Jackrabbit Johannsen at the summit of Mont Tremblant, Que. with his dog Nick in 1935.

McGill University Archive

Nor is any Canadian ski bookshelf complete without a copy of Skiing Legends and the Laurentian Lodge Club (Price-Patterson Ltd., 2012), Neil and Catharine McKenty’s heroic effort to trace the ski tracks of Eastern Canada’s early ski days. Just as inviting is John and Frankie O’Rear’s The Mont Tremblant Story (Les Editions Altitude, 1988), the story of the frosty Quebec resort that Ski Magazine’s most recent ranking of North American ski areas placed at second-best in the East.

They are among the vast collection of accounts of the origins of various North American ski resorts that might substitute for your annual ski trip, at considerably less cost.

My favourite is Tom Eastman’s The History of Cranmore Mountain (The History Press, 2012), in part because Cranmore, in North Conway, N.H., is dripping with ski history, including my own; it was where Hannes Schneider, fleeing Nazi oppression, transplanted his Arlberg ski method. I also like dipping into Lost Ski Areas of the White Mountains (The History Press, 2008), which will remind you of the ski days of yore, when the seating in the lodge was somebody’s discarded chesterfield, the stuffing exposed near the crest rail.

And while we are in a New England reverie, substitute a trip to Vermont’s Jay Peak – at 9.7 kilometres from the border station at Highwater, Que., a favourite for Montrealers – with an excursion through the pages of New England Skiing (Arcadia, 1997) by the indispensable ski historian E. John B. Allen. There, you will find what hasn’t appeared at Jay for multiple decades: a rare picture of “two-on-a-pole” skiing, performed, not artfully but effectively, while two downhillers held a long pole behind their knees.

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McGill Outing Club breaking trail in winter near Shawbridge, Que.; Johannsen leading four members, c. 1943-44.

Van/McGill University Library

With the base lodges largely closed except for brisk in-and-out missions, stolen foggy-goggles moments to warm the toes and unfurl the fingers, there are several anthologies of great ski writing to fill your winter wanderlust. Have a look at the weighty America’s Ski Book (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958) by the editors of Ski Magazine, or The Ski Book (Arbor House, 1982) by Morten Lund, Robert Gillon and Michael Bartlett, and the misleadingly titled Ski Magazine’s Encyclopedia of Skiing (Harper & Row, 1970), which is less an encyclopedia than a compendium of ski articles.

Two books bear the same evocative title, one of the lyrics of the lives of skiers on both sides of the border. One is For the Love of Skiing (Norcon Press, 2002) by Edna Northrup and Lillian Congdon, an affectionate look at the ski town of Ellicottville, N.Y., a long-time destination of the skiers from Toronto and the Niagara region who, with the first winter whisper of lake-effect snow, head to the Holiday Valley resort. The other also is titled For the Love of Skiing (Gibbs-Smith Publisher, 1998), and it is an illustrated history of skiing with a distinctive Western flavour, the product of the efforts of Alan K. Engen, the former director of the Alta Ski School.

Skiing’s old days were cold days, long before the emergence of ski gloves with wire mesh flat flex circuits and when “base layers” were described in more evocative terms as “long johns.” But the old days were great days when it came to a sense of adventurousness. Those old days also had a sense of innocence, captured brilliantly in two old volumes. One is The Hannes Schneider Ski Technique (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1938) by Benno Rybizka, a protégé of the great Austrian skimeister, a book that offers comforting advice for the beginner (“It is not a disgrace to fall”). Another is simply titled Skiing (A.S. Barnes and Company, 1939) by Walter Prager, the famous Dartmouth and U.S. Olympic ski team coach who offers some sage advice that spans the generations: “Liquor is usually the first thing many skiers pack in their rucksacks, but it is not so helpful and saving as is generally believed.”

On the lighter side, the Henry Beard and Roy McKie paperback Skiing: A Dictionary for Bunny Slopers, Sunday Schussers & Après-Skiers (Workman Publishing, 1989) is a long-time favourite of skiers everywhere. Here, for example, is the authors’ definition of the word parka: “The larval stage of a blimp.” On a more serious side, plunge if you dare into Snow in America (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997) by Bernard Mergen, which was marketed as the “first cultural history of snow.”

For a look at the ski lifestyle with a Western flair, dip in to Ski Style: Sport and Culture in the Rockies (University Press of Kansas, 2004). The transformation of skiing from adventuresome risk to mass-audience recreation – here the progression in British Columbia from Red Mountain in Rossland, (b. 1890) to Whistler Blackcomb (b. 1980), 738 km away, comes to mind – is captured in one of the chapter titles: “Call of the Mild.”

On my night table rests one of my two cherished copies of a single title, The Dartmouth Book of Winter Sports (A.S. Barnes & Company, 1939), edited by Harold Putnam. Putnam, Dartmouth class of 1937, inscribed one of those volumes for me, Dartmouth class of 1976, with a special message, scrawled in thick black ink: “62 years after this was written – and it still reads well!”

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He was right about that, though some of his advice, now nearly 80 years old, is more than a little outdated: “In order to obtain skis of the correct length for safety on all snow conditions and all slopes,” he wrote, “one should purchase skis whose tips just reach to the base of the fingers when the arms are outstretched above the head.” I actually have four pair of skis like that. They are antiques and are nailed to my wall.

Just as I have had my fondest ski days at small ski areas – tiny Black Mountain in Jackson, N.H. (vertical drop only 335 metres), for example, and Mont Habitant in Saint-Sauveur, Que. (vertical drop a mere 183 metres) – I’ve found big rewards in the small presses, which over the years have made a great contribution to ski bookshelves.

Mary Jo Berscheit, who died this year at the age of 93, had two great passions: ending clerical celibacy in the Catholic Church and proving, when it comes to skiing, that what matters is – as she put it in Joy on the Mountain (Pitkin Press, 1981), an account of her years teaching at Snowmass (vertical drop 1,342 metres) in Colorado – “attitude, not altitude.” That surely is the case in Skiing by Clayne Jensen and Karl Tucker (1968, Wm. C. Brown Co.), a slender volume produced in the unlikely environs of Dubuque, Iowa (only 199 metres above sea level), that celebrates “imagination and a spirit of adventure” in skiing.

In that regard, the Stephen Greene Press in Brattleboro, Vt.. – named for an avowed flatlander who settled in Vermont and who selected a deer cookbook as the first offering of his publishing house – has had an outside influence. One of its products is The Skier’s Companion (1984) by Curtis W. Casewit, who proclaimed that “an hour on skis can magically bring out your well-being.” In more than a half century of skiing, I have never wasted an hour on my boards. The Greene Press also produced John Caldwell’s The Cross-Country Ski Book, first published in 1964, with multiple editions accounting for a half-million copies in print. Another Dartmouth skier and a five-time U.S. Olympic Nordic coach, Mr. Caldwell has a no-nonsense approach, urging winter sport enthusiasts not to “spend time worrying about all the flexes and measurements” and simply to heed his advice: “Have fun at it and remember, keep the curved part in front of you.”

Words to live by, and words to ski by.

But for the time being, here by the fire, contemplate whether there is a better opening line in any autobiography than this, by Jean-Claude Killy (with Al Greenberg) in Comeback (MacMillan, 1974): “I am alone again in the starting gate” And is there a more inviting sentence than this one, by Lyn and Tony Chamberlain, in Guide to Cross-Country Skiing in New England (Globe Pequot Press, 1985)?: “The world remade by new snow, bright sun in an endless sky … and no commitment beyond a full day’s skiing.”

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We skiers will be in the starting gate again, if not in this season then in the next, when the world will be remade, by new snow, bright sun – and hearty good health. See you then, on the slopes with poles in hand, or by the crackling hearth with book in hand.

David Shribman, who teaches American politics at McGill’s Max Bell School of Public Policy, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He did not win his Pulitzer Prize for ski writing.

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