“In a backstage dressing room, giant, bearded, thick-necked men [I’m listening] are getting ready to compete. The air reeks of body odor [still listening, but from a distance] and ethanol fuel. One burly man gently thumbs his ax to check for any dull spots on the edge. Physical strength is apparent in the prototypical build of a Timbersports star: broad shoulders, meaty hands, massive forearms, trunklike thighs, and a gut. But as much as in any athletic competition, success is rooted in experience.” [You had me at ‘broad shoulders’ .]
When I first read this, I thought ‘Mike Rowe is working at another dirty job where men are men and women squeal, “It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever seen!”‘ (fan Veronica Shifflett, at the sight of a chain saw shredding pine and spraying sawdust into the air.)
But I was wrong; Mike Rowe isn’t participating. Although I do think sawdust pulses through his veins, and axel grease . . . well, let’s just say I suspect Rowe has a way with axel grease. But I digress.
It’s easy to digress when presented with one of only a small handful of events nowadays that feature masculine men honoring age old manly productivity.
Also, where have all the cowboys gone? I don’t know. But lumberjacks were found in Virginia competing in a little known annual contest pitting man against tree, risking life and limb. [See what I did there?]
I had no idea modern day Paul Bunyans roam among us of the Smart Phone & Drone era. (I’ve gotta get out more.) But here it is in black and white from National Geographic:
It is like a prelude to a scene in a backwoods horror film: testosterone-charged brutes preparing for whatever menace might cross them. But within minutes, the showman in them is evident. They each grab a weapon of choice and head into the bright lights of an arena with 4,000 cheering fans, television cameras, and the vibe of an entertaining spectacle.
Once a year, these rugged men who can look something like mercenaries compete with tools that can sound something like race cars for the U.S. championship in lumberjacking.
This fringe sport began, so the legend goes, in Tasmania in 1870 as a bet between two loggers over who could fell a tree faster. During the next century, logging communities in Australia, New Zealand, Western Europe, and the United States held regional tournaments and expanded the competition into a variety of chopping and sawing events.
In 1985, Stihl, the Germany-based maker of chain saws and other tools, began sponsoring a series of contests in the United States to determine “the world’s best lumberjack.” The events in the United States now are broadcast on ESPN, have fans worldwide, and are known as the Stihl Timbersports Series United States lumberjack championships.
“As we like to say, the original extreme sport was born,” said Roger Phelps, Stihl’s head of promotions.
Over a weekend in June inside the Norfolk Scope Arena in Virginia, 16 professional lumberjacks chopped and sawed through pine logs quickly and accurately in front of a boisterous crowd.
“I didn’t think a power tool could be a sport,” said Rembert Johnson, who said he had arrived at the arena not knowing anything about lumberjacking contests.
The competition, which involves six events (known as disciplines), is rooted in the densely wooded regions of America and began long before chain saws were common. Most of the competitors are second- or third-generation professional loggers from the Pacific Northwest or Appalachia. Many grew up in the sport together, giving the circuit a fraternal feel.
Matt Slingerland, 23, from Rockwell, North Carolina, said he was so eager to follow in his father, Mike’s, footsteps that in high school, Matt took online college courses so that he could turn pro on the lumberjack circuit at 19. Jason Lentz, 28, is a fourth-generation competitor.
“It means sawdust runs through my veins,” he said.
Beyond the frivolity of the televised event in Norfolk—at one point, hernia belts were given away to the loudest fans—the blue-collar ethos of the competition makes it particularly appealing to many.
“We use actual tools,” lumberjack Branden Sirguy, 39, a forester in Washington State, pointed out. “We’re pretty spoiled in this country. I think for my children to see how things were done before we had mechanization, we will have greater appreciation for … the things we have.”
The lumberjacks are proud of where they come from and the hours they spend on their craft. They typically do not say much, even when prompted. During the competition, when their muscles strain and adrenaline drives those critical final ax strokes, the most demonstrative many of them get is to raise a celebratory clenched fist. They do lighten up in one respect: “There are a lot of awkward wood jokes,” said television commentator Adrian Flygt, who also competes and teaches high school physics in Colorado. “You got good wood today?”
That’s not just a joke. A comparatively dense log, known as a bone, could ruin a lumberjack’s chances in a competition if it is particularly difficult to cut.
For every event, a specific log is assigned to each competitor, who inspects it, rotating it to find the softest point of entry, likely the side of the tree that was exposed to the least wind. Lumberjacks bring a dozen axes to competitions to cater to various types of wood.
“It’s like a very lethal golf bag,” Phelps said.
The women’s equivalent competition, called The Woodcutter’s Ball, where lumberjills compete, held its inaugural event in June, 2014.
Axe wielding men with broad shoulders who don’t talk too much, mmm. Put him in plaid and call him Mike–I’m in!