From Norway to Canada

A Canadian skier and storyteller looks back on the history of cross-country skiing</STRONG

cross-country skiing

Photo: Gorm Kallestad / NTB scanpix
Skis have been in parts of Siberia Northern Europe for 5,000–6,000 years, and today, cross-country skiing is a Norwegian national sport. It had even been said that Norwegians are “born with skis on their feet.”

Preeceville, Saskatchewan, Canada

The word “ski” comes from Old Norse “skid,” meaning a board or a piece of split wood. Archaeological finds show that skis have been used in large parts of Siberia and Northern Europe for 5,000–6,000 years.

A Viking rune stone carving discovered in 1930 in a cave at Rødøy in northern Norway depicts a skier and has been dated back to 5, 000 B.C. Skis found in peat bogs in both Norway and Sweden are believed to be from the year 400. The Vikings were avid skiers; they had to be, as it was one of the main modes of transportation in Scandinavia in the wintertime.

The Vikings used a long ski for gliding and a short ski for pushing (somewhat like our modern freestyle technique). They used animal pelts or beeswax for gliding and grip. Skiers only had one pole, which was used to push with. The pole was a multiuse tool, as it could also be used as a lance, and the flared end was detachable and used as a drinking vessel.

Very little has been written in the Old Norse sagas about skiing. Snorri Sturluson writes in his saga about the Norse god Ull being the best skier and archer. In the skaldic poem Ragnarsdrápa from the ninth century, the bard Bragi Boddason writes about the Norse goddess Skade, who could use a bow and arrow while skiing.

The kings of Norway
Norway’s King Olav I (better known as Olav Tryggvason), who ruled Norway from 995 to 1000, was described as a fine sportsman, both on land and sea. According to the kings’ sagas, “He skies faster than any other man.” The sagas tell us that skiing was also mastered by King Harald Hardrada, who ruled Norway from 1045 to 1066. The sagas go on to describe a famous competition in which a young man named Heming challenged King Harald. The king found himself matched stride for stride by young Heming, who won the race.

In 1206, the sagas describe how the Birkebeiners saved the 2-year-old Prince Håkon Håkonsson from certain death by the Baglers. Two of the Birkebeiners’ best skiers, Torstein Skjevla and Skjervald Skrukka, skied with the little Prince Håkon from Lillehammer across two mountain ranges to safety in Rena. Håkon Håkonsson, who ruled Norway from 1217 to 1263 is to date the longest reigning Norwegian monarch in the history of Norway. King Magnus Lagabøte then ruled Norway from 1263 to 1280. His land laws forbade skiers to hunt moose.

Skiing and national identity
Some Norwegian history is necessary to put modern skiing in the proper perspective. Norway came under Danish rule after the collapse of the Kalmar Union (1397–1523). During the Seven Years’ War in 1564, the Swedish army skied to Trondheim and occupied the area until the Norwegian army arrived on foot. This is the first recorded history of skis being used by any army. It should be noted that the Norwegians sent the Swedes packing!

In the 19th century, the literary elite of Norway wanted independence and wrote the Norwegian Constitution in 1814, which was proclaimed at Eidsvoll on May 17 the same year. The Constitution was based in part on both the French and American constitutions, but it called for a monarch as the supreme head of state. The Norwegians were negotiating their independence from Denmark, and after the defeat of Napoleon, Norway was ceded to Sweden.

King Karl II of Sweden wanted a Norwegian troop as his king’s guard, alongside his Swedish troop. The Norwegian troop brought along their skis, something that the Swedish troop was not using. The Swedish troop equipped themselves with skis as well, to be equal to the Norwegians. The very first recorded international skiing competition was held in Stockholm, in 1816, as a result of a challenge by the Swedish troop.

The Norwegians accepted the challenge on the condition that sharpshooting would be part of the competition. Thus, the very first international skiing competition was indeed a biathlon event, which, of course, was won by the Norwegian, or so the legend goes. The first officially recorded cross-country skiing competition was held in 1843 in the city of Tromsø in northern Norway.

The army skis were totally flat with an even width from tip to tail. The bindings were sort of a big loop to fit the toes of the boots. It was easy to get in and out of the bindings, but the boots also tended to slip out of the bindings while skiing. The skis were pine tarred to make them waterproof, and animal pelts were usually used for both kick and glide.

The Norwegian elite still wanted independence and searched all over Norway to find a Norwegian of royal heritage but had no luck. Their research showed that Danish Prince Carl was a descendant of King Olav Tryggvason, and explorer Fridtjof Nansen (1862 – 1930) was sent to Copenhagen to ask Prince Carl to accept the Norwegian throne. The union with Sweden was dissolved in 1905, and Prince Carl took the name King Håkon VII of Norway.

Pioneers of modern skiing
Nansen increased awareness of skiing by publishing his book describing his 500-kilometer ski trek crossing the south of Greenland. Nansen was quoted in 1930, saying, “Skiing is the most national of all our Norwegian sports.”

The first official Nordic Combined (cross-country skiing and ski jumping) competition was held at the Holmenkollen ski arena near the capital, Christiania (today’s Oslo), in 1893. It was to become the first of the annual Holmenkollen Ski Festival.

Sondre Norheim (1825 – 1897) from the province of Telemark is recognized as the pioneer of modern skiing. He had developed a new type of ski with a new binding of a toe loop and heel strap. The skis were equally wide at the tip and tail but with a side cut making them narrower at the waist (middle) where the binding was mounted. The skis were cambered, so as to glide only on the shovel at the tip and the tail behind the waist. The skis were much more maneuverable on the downhill than the skis were in use. From then on, all skies would be made with camber and side cut.

Norheim wanted to show the rest of Norway his new skis and his new skiing technique. The Swedish King Oscar I, who ruled Norway from 1844 to 1859, was visiting Christiania in January 1845. Sondre requested and got permission to make a public skiing demonstration with the king present.

Norheim dazzled everyone with his new skis and skiing technique. He made many turns down the hill, and these turns are still being used by today’s skiers. The Telemark Turn is named after his home province, and the Stem Christie is named after the capital, Christiania. Norheim also pioneered skiing in the United States. He emigrated to North Dakota in 1884, where he lived on a small farm. Today, he is called the “father of Telemark skiing.”

Modern times
Scandinavia, especially Norway, led in all cross-country skiing competitions up until the late 1960s, when the Austrian ski manufacturer Fischer developed a wood ski with a synthetic base. All the ski manufacturers in Norway rejected the synthetic base, and the Norwegians had a small victory when skier Pål Tyldum won the prestigious Holmenkollen 50-kilometer race on wooden skis in 1969, beating out the other Europeans and North American skiers on synthetic base skis.

Fischer and other German, Austrian, and French ski manufacturers continued to improve on their synthetic bases, and the Norwegians soon were “outskied” by competitors from the central Europe. The manufacturers continued to develop lighter skis and have now developed lightweight totally synthetic skis. The cost of switching from wood to synthetic materials caused many of the traditional Norwegian ski manufacturers to close their plants. Today, there is only one Norwegian ski manufacturer left in Norway, Madshus in Gjøvik.

In Canada, cross-country skiing took off in the 1950s and ’60s, when the “father of Canadian cross-country skiing,” Herman Smith-Johannsen, also known as “Jackrabbit Johannsen,” started promoting skiing wherever he traveled in Canada. Johannsen was an engineer by trade, and he emigrated from Horten, Norway, to Canada in 1928.

Cross-country skiing for people who are blind or visually impaired was introduced in British Columbia by Annar Jacobsen in 1979, and in Alberta the same year by Lillian Ofstad in Calgary and Kaare Askildt in Edmonton. Ski for Light Canada, Inc., a Sons of Norway outreach program dedicated to making cross-country skiing available people with visual impairments, was incorporated in 1981, with Kaare Askildt serving as the first president.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 11, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.