I never wanted to be a reporter. I wanted to be a lumberjack! Leaping from tree to tree as they float down the mighty rivers of British Columbia!
This is a flagrant lie, but today in Morinville I get to live out the lyrics to one of my favourite Monty Python skits and try out logger sports.
Some 35 lumberjacks were at Morinville’s Ray McDonald Sports Centre last weekend to take part in the St. Jean Baptiste Day Festival Logger Sports event – the only professional logger sports competition in Alberta.
This year’s two-day challenge not only included a slew of new events such as speed climbing, birling, and choker racing, but also had a whole day dedicated to amateur tree-splitters like myself.
I decided to give it a shot. How hard could it possibly be?
My coach today is competition organizer Kat Spencer – a petite yet powerful Smoky Lake resident with axe-shaped earrings, a wicked throwing arm, and way too much energy.
Logger sports refers to a series of physical challenges taken from the forestry industry, Spencer explains. Many draw on real activities lumberjacks did for centuries during the pre-chainsaw era.
“Logger sports is an amazing event that everyone should try,” says Spencer, who got into it through a university club when she got her forestry degree. There are up to 10 different events involved, each of which requires a different combination of strength, speed, and skill.
“There’s always an event for everybody.”
Also giving me tips is Spruce Grove car repair shop owner Wayne Paulsen – a former King of the Klondike competitor who’s been doing logger sports for 20 years.
“Since I was young I was always into the full-contact (sports),” he says, when asked how he started, noting that he’s practiced karate since he was 13.
“Any sport that tested you to your limit, I’ve always enjoyed.”
How I chop wood?
Paulsen and Spencer say the best event to start with in logger sports is the axe-throw, as it’s the one you’re least likely to maim yourself doing.
The axe-throw involves throwing an axe at a target from at least 20 feet away. The closer you are to the bull’s-eye, the more points you get.
The idea is to find that perfect swing that gets the axe on target and to reproduce it every time, Paulsen says – you need finesse, not force. That swing can be overhead, underhand, sideways, over the shoulder, tomahawk-style, whatever works for you.
“I relate it to golfing in a way,” Paulsen says.
Did I mention I suck at golf?
Spencer hands me a beautiful customized 2.5 pound throwing axe that I just manage to avoid dropping on my toes. Just line yourself up with the target and let fly when your arms are in line with your ears, she says.
“You want to end up almost looking like Superman.”
Apparently I ate Kryptonite for breakfast, because all of my throws eat dirt. I hit the base of the target once, but never get on the board.
The axe-throw is easy to learn but hard to master, Spencer says. “At least you’re (throwing) in a straight line!”
The double buck is another beginner-friendly event. Here, you take a 5’10” crosscut saw and work with a partner to cut through a log as fast as possible.
Teamwork is essential, Paulsen says: if you’re not in sync with your partner to keep the blade level, you risk jamming your saw.
“It takes years and years to get it perfect.”
The most important elements to remember in buck sawing are to watch your angle and to crouch down as the blade sinks into the wood, Spencer says. You don’t need to push down on the blade – the saw eats into the log on its own.
I grab one handle of the saw, Spencer grabs the other, and we start pulling and pushing, sending up a merry stream of shavings as the steel teeth “shing!” and “zing!” through the wood.
We cut through the log in about 55 seconds – and by “we” I mean “Spencer,” as I’m too busy keeping keep my arms from being ripped out of their sockets. (Spencer is really, really strong.)
I elect not to try any of the block-chopping or chainsaw events as I value my limbs. Those require chainmail boots, goggles, and ear protection I don’t have, in any case.
The choker race catches my eye.
Here, competitors race to carry a cable (the choker) over a ramp and a floating tree to a cow-sized log about 50 metres away. Once they secure the cable around that log, they have to race back to the start, hopefully without taking a dive into the pool in the process.
“You can do the choker race with absolutely no experience,” Spencer says, and if you’re fast, you’ll probably place in the top five. I even see three-year-olds at the Morinville event managing it without trouble.
Unfortunately, the adult chokers weigh about 80 pounds. I can barely lift one of them, let alone run with it. Yeah, this one’s a bust.
I would have tried log rolling if I had brought my swim trunks.
Also known as birling, this event puts two people on a floating log and has them try to spin each other off of it. Other than no contact and no crossing the centre line, anything goes in this event, so there’s usually lots of smack-talk and splashing.
“The biggest mistake everybody makes is they jump on the log and they try to run,” Spencer says. The log will naturally want to spin, and running makes it whirl too fast to handle. Instead, you want to pitter-patter your feet in one spot as you watch your opponent and try to seize control of the log’s motions.
It’s so simple a child could do it. And indeed, one of the top rollers at the Morinville event is Amanda Pouchnik, who sends many adults flying into the drink with her fancy footwork despite being just 11 years old.
Pouchnik says she’s been doing logger sports since she was seven, having picked it up from her parents, and now regularly competes in junior and intermediate events.
There’s no big secret to her success, she says. “I just try to stay on the log and have fast feet.”
One event that gets an immediate “aw heck no” from me is the speed climb. It involves using metal spurs and a rope to climb up and down a pole as fast as possible. Said pole is 60 feet tall – that’s taller than the nearby condo complex.
Competitors don’t so much climb as they do jog up the side of the pole, spurs clinking and rope-loop flying, and don’t so much descend as plummet, legs flailing to make the minimum amount of contact with the pole required by the event’s rules.
Spencer says the descent is the toughest part, as you can easily catch a spur on the log and get a knee to the face. But if you’re good at it, you can get up and down the log in about 15 seconds.
I’ll leave this one to the squirrels and professionals, thanks.
Learn to lumber
While logger sports does require specialized equipment, some events need so little skill that even a goof like me can try them – and you can always borrow an axe. The tricky part is finding a coach who can teach you how to do logger sports safely.
That’s changing, through. There are now several axe-throwing halls in the Edmonton region, and NAIT is offering log-rolling lessons. Spencer says she’s working to start logger sports clubs at NAIT and the University of Alberta.
All the competitors at last weekend’s event were also very collegial, giving each other tips, encouragement, and, when faced with some particularly stubborn logs, a helping hand.
I’m no lumberjack, but for a fun day out with some friends, I’d be willing to chuck an axe or two.
And miss, of course.
How to Lumberjack
Check out the online version of this story for video of several logger sports events, including the speed climb.
Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.