Welcome to the world of timber sports, where flying sawteeth and missing toes are just par for the course.
By Sam Eifling
OK, you’re a lumberjack. You sleep all night, you work all day, you cut down trees. For nutrition, you wolf flapjacks.
For companionship, you play fetch with your big blue ox.
For months at a clip, you live in a camp with other lumberjacks, somewhere in the American wilderness. Six days a week you climb trees, strip them of limbs, fell them, haul them to water, brand them and, after spring thaw, ride them downriver to mills. You have calluses, body odor and flapjack crumbs in your briar-patch beard. Along with the cowboys out West building cabins and harassing cattle, you embody American masculinity. So much so, in fact, that on Sunday, your only day of rest, you challenge your lumberjack buddies to compete in such frivolities as climbing trees, sawing stumps and rolling logs.
This, in essence, is the genesis of what today you may know from late-night ESPN2 or some Midwest state fair as “timber sports,” which is to the clearing of original North American forests what the modern-day marathon is to the eponymous Greek battle.
“It truly is Americana, the workday skills of the lumberjack on display,” says Diane McNamer, the executive director of the Lumberjack World Championships. This woodsy Olympiad attracts competitors from as far away as Australia and 12,000 spectators to Hayward in northwest Wisconsin. This year’s championships, held in the final weekend of July, will be the 48th, but the roots of the sports reach back at least to the late 1800s.
There are three basic categories of these competitions. The climbin events require men with daggerlike spurs on their boots and a loop of rope in hand to scuttle to the top of a 90-foot-tall pole of Western Red Cedar, touch its tip and virtually free-fall—bouncing spurs-first off the wood, trying not to dig too deeply—back to a cushion at its base.
The climb is stunning; the fall, harrowing. The world record in the event was set last year by a strapping Oregonian named Brian Bartow, who made the round trip in 20.05 seconds. “And if you’ve seen Brian, he does it in his little sprinter’s shorts,” McNamer says. “It’s like, are you insane? You could get a splinter there.”
The cutting events involve razor-sharp axes, or a two-man bucking saw, or a tricked-out custom chainsaw built perhaps from a modified snowmobile engine that runs the same fuel that racecars use, but the goal is the same in each event: Be the first one through an aspen log or block…and try to miss your foot. Some chainsaw competitors wear stainless steel plates on their legs in case their saws, turning 14,000 revolutions per minute, throw a tooth. It seems like showmanship until you notice the pockmarks in those plates, as though they’d stopped bullets.
The water events involve either rolling a competitor off a log, or racing across a string of logs tethered tip-to-tip, called a boom.
Balance is critical, not only to remain on the logs but to avoid gashing oneself on the jagged spikes of the shoes used.
According to Rob Scheer, whose company Lumberjack Sports
International holds timber sports competitions in Alaska, the safest event of the lot may just be axe-throwing.
Timber sports are “man against one of the most simple elements on planet Earth,” Scheer says. “There’s nothing contrived about it. I can’t tell you how many days I’ve been in competition where I’ve seen buddies pick their toes up off a dock, or seen guys carried off in a gurney because they did something bad on a tree.”
For years, timber sports were staples on ABC’s Wide World of
Sports, and they had perhaps their greatest exposure in the early part of this decade, when ESPN organized and televised a timber counterpart to its X-Games called the Great Outdoor Games (competitions that Scheer helped to run). The last GO Games was in
2005, but timber sports still get play on the occasional cable documentary and anywhere a crowd may gather. Last year Scheer took exhibitions to professional bullriding events, to Mandalay Bay, to a
NASCAR race. He says the Minnesota Vikings paid him a high compliment, telling him that his timber exhibition at the Metrodome kept so many of the 70,000 spectators in their seats that halftime beer sales were the lowest of the season.
As entertaining as they are—$10 right here for anyone who can ignore two speed-climbers running a heat up a 90-foot pole—they remain decidedly niche sports, even with companies such as Dodge and Stihl and Cabela’s sponsoring tours. Grassroots growth is tough.
College campuses, which have long fielded woodsmen’s teams, are now the main incubator for young talent, drawing axmen and axwomen from forestry programs.
“The timber industry has gone from a man working in the woods, to build what was a growing country, to a completely mechanized industry,” Scheer says. “The guy carrying an axe and teaching his son how to swing it has completely been lost. We’ve turned a corner in our sport that rodeo turned just after World War II, when the Jeeps came back to this country.”
And yet, if you were to attend the World Championships, you would see your share of working stiffs. David Bolstad, a Kiwi counted among the world’s finest axmen, works in a sawmill. A Nova Scotia log roller named Darren Hudson hails from a family that owns a mill and still runs on the logs to guide them from the river to a conveyor. Wade
Stewart, a speed-climbing great, spends half his year climbing trees in British Columbia, either to service them or to help hang block and tackle to fell them.
They are throwbacks, no doubt, even if their competition-day breakfast is said not to consist of flapjacks, and not a one has bothered to grow anything resembling a real beard. •