Redefining the modern lumberjack.
STORY BY LEW FREEDMAN
There is something primeval about the thwacks of the axes, the recipe for manufacturing sawdust time-tested over centuries when man made his shelters from the trees in the forest and cut all his wood for heat.
The cries of “Tim-ber!” echoed as big trees became logs and America spread across the continent.
Lumberjacks challenged one another to see who could chop the fastest, saw the swiftest, who had the daring to spin logs with their feet. What once was solely an art performed with sweat as labor gradually morphed into Timbersport, the way working ranches and cattle drives transformed into rodeo. “The very beginnings, the origins, are like rodeo,” says Cassidy Scheer, who should know as well as anyone who slices wood today.
Scheer’s father Fred and his aunt Tina operate exhibitions where Cassidy began his lumberjack education as a four-year-old. Cassidy still runs such shows for tourists in the Wisconsin Dells.
But the audience has grown, and Stihl, the German-based maker of steel to whipsaw wood, now has its own circuit. Once, timber skills were all about wages. Now they are about international sport.
Stihl holds competitions in 26 countries, distilling lumberjack sports into Timbersport by eliminating log rolling, tree climbing, and any activity that doesn’t require an athlete swinging or sawing. In prison vernacular, the stereotype is making big rocks into little rocks. In Timbersport the goal is to make big hunks of wood into smaller chunks of wood, of spattering the sky with chips—as fast as you can accomplish it.
Rodeo imaginations figured out some fans just want to see cowboys bucking on the backs of bulls. Stihl cut through what it might call the ancillary events to pit men and women versus wood with the sharpest of blades and to heck with the other events. “We think it is the original extreme sport,” says Roger Phelps, Stihl’s corporate communications manager in the US. “As Americans, we are extremely good at turning anything into competition.”
It may be that the vast majority of Americans never wield an axe at all, and of those who do, it is only to cut seasonal cords of firewood. The days of everyone building a cabin have gone the way of the frontier.
Chopping, sawing, and log rolling—which is still a popular event at the annual World Lumberjack Championships in Hayward—may have been birthed in lumber camps in New England, the Upper Midwest, and the Pacific Northwest, but the passage of time has vastly diminished that profession. The athletes Stihl features include lawyers, teachers, and physical therapists, as well as some hanging-in-there lumberjacks, and many who work in wood-related fields.
“I think people are attracted to that,” Phelps says of picturing themselves cutting wood like the individuals they see on CBS-TV, livestreaming, on or Twitch.
Nancy Zalewski, 52, is in her 21st year of timber sports, except she spent much of 2020 like millions of others—sidelined from regular activities by the coronavirus pandemic. There was no Stihl circuit last year.
Zalewski is a chemist, and she spent the COVID-19 frenzy helping to develop chemicals for vaccines. It was a different kind of pressure than rearranging molecules of wood and a break from exercising her arm muscles, which, resemble tree trunks in size. “In a way the forced leave of absence was stressful. But now I can go outside and chop. It’s refreshing.”
Events at the Stihl competitions include the underhand chop, which describes the axe’s approach angle, Jack-and-Jill Sawing (mixed doubles), standing block, single buck, and wielding chainsaws (the hot saw) which roar like drag racing cars.
While many of the ace competitors shop in stores that handle triple XL clothing, any watcher who believes these events are only about power are fooling themselves. Technique is at least as important. “If you can take someone strong with good technique, they’re going to win,” Zalewski says.
Zalewski, who grew up in Hayward working at the summer lumberjack championships, says there has been a dramatic improvement in the quality of equipment. “Huge,” she says. “The average person looking at it would never know it though.”
The blades appear silver in color. They shine in the sunlight. They are sharp. One-person and two-person saws feature teeth that resemble those belonging to a great white shark. The improving Stihl utensils contributes to speedier times cutting the round discs off logs and in splitting wood blocks. Winning times are measured in seconds.
Like anything else, becoming good at these events requires practice. When she was much younger, Zalewski, who has won a record 10 lumberjack All-Around Lady Jill titles, thought she had a handle on her events. A sager chopper told her, “When you’re at 5,000 blocks, you’ll know your event.”
One aspect of both Stihl and Hayward competitions is the attraction of youngsters to the athletes. Just as in any other pro sport, the fans seek souvenirs. They gravitate to acquiring the cut wood discs remaining after a log is sliced and seek autographs on them.
Zalewski loves that. She saves some special discs herself, personal memorabilia trophies. But she hasn’t scooped up sawdust and stored it in Tupperware.“It just gets swept into the fire and burned,” she says.
Scheer, now 40, is a real estate developer as well as a wood whacker. He weighs about 200 pounds, on the smaller side for chopping and slicing. As a youth, he did almost every event in exhibitions and used to think size made the man in sawing and chopping. He bulked up to about 220 around 2015 when he began emphasizing cutting, but then trimmed down, improved his technique and in 2019 became Stihl’s US all-around champion by accumulating points in three chopping and three sawing events. “I had a good base to build on,” Scheer says. “I can swing the axe just as hard.”
There is something satisfying about man teaming with steel to dismember the wood. “The chips fly,” Scheer says. “I love the feeling of knowing I took a block of wood apart.