It’s a beautiful Sunday morning in Morinville. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, the chainsaws are growling – wait, what?
It’s June 21, and about 25 professional lumberjacks from as far away as New Zealand are here in the outdoor rink by the Ray McDonald Sports Centre to take part in the first annual Morinville Logger Sports Competition. Cheered on by about 40 locals, they were here to show off their skills by transforming some 6,000 kilograms of logs into splinters and sawdust.
North Vancouver’s Stirling Hart gets the show started in the men’s underhand chop event. After warming up with some push-ups and practice swings with his Australian-made axe, he steps onto a 20-centimetre thick hunk of aspen poplar and hacks it to bits in less than a minute.
If he makes it look easy, that’s probably because he’s been doing this stuff since he was four. The fourth-generation lumberjack is also the 2014 Canadian logger sports champion.
“It’s the same as putting hockey skates on a kid,” he says of his early start in the sport.
“I just got an axe instead.”
Running today’s contest is Kat Spencer, 30. Manager of the Axe Hole, an axe-throwing centre in Edmonton, this Smoky Lake resident might look petit, but she’s got arms that can shatter trees.
Spencer says she started in logger sports back in university.
“I was a farm-girl, and I really liked the idea of learning more than one skill.” Logger sports, with its multiple events, caught her attention.
She’s since spent the last 12 years doing six to 10 competitions a year, travelling the world and training in her own practice yard.
Logger sports all but died out in Alberta 10 years ago when Klondike Days dropped its annual contest, Spencer says. She’s now working to revive the sport here with events in Morinville and Fort Saskatchewan.
The Morinville Festival Society toyed with logger sports last year with a log-splitting challenge during the St. Jean Baptiste Day festival, says society member Korien Sampson. She and Spencer teamed up to bring a full-fledged contest to this year’s celebration.
The St. Jean Baptiste Day festival is all about appreciating heritage, and so are logger sports, Spencer says.
“That’s how the land was cleared and how the original homesteads were built.”
All the events in logger sports are based on skills real lumberjacks used a century ago, Hart says. (That includes axe-throwing – wood-choppers would often hurl their axes so they didn’t have to haul them from tree to tree.) Bored loggers would boast of their skills back at camp at the end of the day, and would hold contests to see who was truly the best.
Logger sports used to be quite sexist and banned women from competition, Spencer says. Although that’s changed now, it’s still a mostly male-dominated sport – there were nine women competing at Sunday’s event.
While some participants are actual lumberjacks or foresters, many more have day jobs in biology, massage therapy, and other fields, Spencer says.
Age isn’t an issue, either. Participating and assisting in many of Sunday’s events is Karl Bischoff, 60, a logger sport veteran known to many as “the godfather of wood-chopping” for his 38 years with the sport.
“I just liked the fun of axe-chopping, chopping a piece of wood,” says the Shuswap Lake rancher.
Proving he’s still got it, Bischoff leaves his competition in the sawdust in almost every event he enters Sunday, hewing faster than Paul Bunyan himself.
Like all the competitors here, Bischoff is exceptionally fit, and possesses a handshake that could probably crush coal into diamonds.
Most loggers are athletes, and many play sports or run marathons, says Hart.
Loggers also use customized axes and saws built for speed and performance.
“Every axe is about $500 to $700 apiece,” Spencer says, with the large crosscut saws running for up to $2,000.
The axes are high-carbon steel and specially weighted, while the saws are laser-cut and hand-filed to precise specifications – there are just two people in North America qualified to make pro-level saws, Spencer says.
These axes are sharp enough to shave with and can cause serious injury if mishandled, Hart notes. He’s got a bright red scar six cm long on his right cheek from when his axe fell on him during an event four years ago.
“Eighty-eight stitches,” he says of it.
That’s why competitors wear chain-mail covers on their feet as well as goggles, chainsaw-jamming leggings and ear protection whenever they’re in a competition.
The sport of timber
Logger sport events challenge participants to hack or saw through hunks of wood as fast as possible using axes, chainsaws and crosscut saws. Some feature tree-climbing and log-rolling contests – events Spencer hopes to bring to Morinville next year.
Skill beats strength in almost all these events, Hart says. He’s often the smallest competitor at a contest, but he’s also the hardest-hitting because of his good technique.
“It’s exactly like a golf swing,” he says of a proper axe swing – the power comes from your legs and core, not your arms.
You ideally want to strike the wood at a 45-degree angle, with two up-angled strikes followed by two down-angled ones, Bischoff says. You hack a wedge out of one side of the log then do the same on the opposite.
Technology is a bigger factor in the hot saw event, which has competitors use customized chainsaws to slice disks of wood.
Wayne Paulsen of Spruce Grove spent hundreds of hours and around $7,500 to build his hot saw, which features a blade painted with electric-blue skulls.
Paulsen says his 24-kilogram monstrosity is built around an old Yamaha dirt-bike engine. It’s got 60 horsepower, roars like a motocross race on start-up, and can take three slices from a foot-thick log in seven seconds.
Other competitors will field saws powered by car engines or nitrous oxide, he continues.
“Pretty well the sky’s the limit.”
These saws are so powerful they’re tough to handle, he notes – he broke his finger trying to start his recently. They’re also unreliable – his and Bischoff’s saws simultaneously stalled on start-up Sunday, costing them precious seconds.
Still, he says using these overpowered contraptions is a lot of fun.
“I used to race cars, and I gave that up … I decided to race chainsaws (instead).”
The axe throw is considered one of the easiest events to learn but the hardest to master, say loggers at Sunday’s event.
Morinville Mayor Lisa Holmes manages to hit the target when she tries it, but the axe bounces off.
“I suck!” she quips afterwards.
“I’m better at cutting paper, budgets and money than I am at cutting wood, that’s for sure.”
Hart, Paulsen, and Bischoff all managed to hit the bull’s-eye repeatedly, in contrast, with Bischoff doing so while throwing underhand.
“It’s like throwing darts,” Bischoff says of the event.
“You take your hand to the bull’s-eye.”
Small prizes, big fun
Winners of Sunday’s events each took home cheques worth up to $150.
You don’t get rich off of logger sports, Spencer says – on a good day, you might cover your travel and equipment expenses.
“Everybody does it for the love of the sport.”
There’s a tonne of camaraderie around as you travel from event to event with other competitors, Spencer says.
“It becomes your summer family.”
And there’s something satisfying about being able to chop wood with an axe, she continues.
“It’s such a primitive sport … You feel really proud when you can recreate these skills.”