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Finding a new home – Ornulf comes to Canada



"The ski bums were always better looking, they took bigger risks, they had more glamour, there was an air of adventure about them..."

- Romain Gary. The Ski Bum (1964)


We've been talking for five hours. It seems like five minutes. Really - it feels like I've just been on a whirlwind ski bum tour of the late 1950s. He's Kerouac's Neil Cassady with a pair of skis on his shoulder; Romain Gary's Lenny with a Norwegian accent.

There's simply no getting around it. With his straight-faced delivery, slightly-spicy speech and near-infallible memory, Ornulf Johnsen is a uniquely entertaining storyteller. His timing is excellent. His sense of humour razor sharp. And I pump him for all the ski tales he can marshal from his voluminous store of reminiscences...

Take the Spanish bordello story. No, let's put that one aside for a moment. Better to start off with something a little less steamy.

If you recall from last week, we left a 20-year-old Ornulf teaching wilderness survival courses to NATO personnel during the Cold War. But the young officer soon found himself questioning his career choice. "When I wake up in the morning - no matter where I am - I usually lie in bed and think of the day ahead for 10-15 minutes," Ornulf explains. "Well, this one morning I was lying in bed and I thought: Do I really want to stay here and devote my life to killing people? Hell no! So I decided to quit the military."

A week later, Ornulf ran into an old buddy who was studying to become a phys ed prof. "My friend Bjorn suggested I join him at the ski school he was working for in a town called Geilo. I thought that was a pretty good idea because I really didn't know what I wanted to do." The year was 1959; Ornulf had finally found what he was looking for.

"I really enjoyed my time in Geilo," he says. "The school director, Arne Palm, even became something of a mentor for me. That's when I decided: I like this work. How do I make it into a full-time job?" By the winter of 1963-64, Johnsen had launched his own school at a small Norwegian resort called Bergsjo. "It was a huge operation," he laughs. "One director, one chief instructor and one staff member - and I filled all three roles!"

Still, he was making a living from skiing. And meeting interesting people...

"At the end of that winter, a wealthy Swedish family invited everyone working at the Bergsjo Hotel to a farewell dinner," recounts Ornulf. Another booming laugh. "Well, there was a fair bit of alcohol consumed that evening. We were all in very high spirits." As things were winding down, the party's host asked Ornulf if he'd ever thought of travelling to Chile to ski the Andes Mountains. The ski school director's ears perked up. "I told him I couldn't afford such a trip," he says. "But I'd love to go. And he told me that he ran ships from Hamburg to Buenos Aires and would be happy to offer me a berth across the Atlantic. 'Just call me when you want to go,' he said."