Buzz, whack, chop, crack, splash, gasp, cheers, YO-HO! These were the sounds rising from grandstand of the World Lumberjack Championships in Hayward, WI where athletes from the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and China squared off in some of the burliest competitions the AFP has yet to witness. It still is undetermined how much wood a woodchuck could chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood. But if you’re a swarthy axeman from New Zealand with hands like catcher’s mitts, then you can chuck a heck of a lot of wood in just a few swings. And take home some decent prize money to boot. For a few top competitors, a major percentage of their income comes from these lumberjack “shows.” But for most of the athletes competing, the games are about honoring a family tradition, excelling as an athlete, and remembering a past time that has moved on or been replaced by machines.
This year marked the 50th anniversary of the Lumberjack Championships, all of them hosted in Hayward at the site of the old holding pond for Weyerhaeuser’s North Wisconsin Lumber Company. On a small finger of Lake Hayward that used to hold thousands of board feet ready to be stripped, ripped, and planed, is now the “Lumberjack Bowl” where 12,000 spectators annually flood in over 3 days to see the world’s best in log rolling, boom running, pole climbing, the under hand chop, the single buck, the double buck, the standing chop block, and the springboard. Basically, if you can think of a way to cut, climb, or cross a piece of wood, then it’s an official event here at the Lumberjack Championships. But don’t mistake these lumberjack competitions as anything less than athleticism at its highest level. Truly. Yes, there’s pure brawn. But anyone who fails to see the endurance and exquisite precision exhibited in each event, is missing out on the best of these games.
Imagine the fatigue you might feel swinging a 20lbs axe as hard as you can for 3 straight minutes into a 21 inch diameter log landing the blade each time exactly on a thin line you’ve sketched out across the grain before the start. Or imagine sprinting 100 yards in 15 seconds across tree trunks that spin and bob underneath your every step because they’re floating in water. Or better yet, try to pretend you can even begin to race up a 9 story tapered pole and make a “controlled” free fall back to the base in 13 seconds with nothing but a rope and a cleat on each shoe. An out of control elevator couldn’t even make that run.
So it was no surprise when we discovered that these “lumberjacks” aren’t in fact bearded and plaid-shirted woodsmen, but actually athletes who practice and train year round. For Jason Wyngrad, the swarthy New Zealander and 11-time All-Around World Champion (including 2009), his axe blades stay sharp year round as he and his wife slice into timber as workout training. Sisters Katie and Abby Hoeschler moved to Hayward this summer from La Crosse, WI to focus solely on training to be the best in women’s logrolling (Katie won this year). And Brian Bartow, the world’s fastest pole climber, wears Hawaiian shorts, hails from Portland, Oregon, and travels as far as China to compete and perform.
Huh…China? Why are there lumberjack shows in China? (Well, because of “Crazy Bob” of course…but more on that in a second). As it turns out the Chinese love the idea of the lumberjack, the quintessential bold American, that intrepid and independent frontiersman who cut and carved a life out of an uncharted and untamed wilderness. In Guangzho, in particular, thousands show up to lumberjack shows to see the spectacle of the wild American in sleeveless plaid and ball cap, cranking on the starter of a deafining speed saw and buzzing through logs of yellow pine with the muscular control and indomitability only possessed by someone spawned from a land unoccupied, free, and dangerous. It’s a show of course; an exaggeration of an outdated archetype. And it’s a show that has made “Crazy Bob” a wonderfully humorous transport from Ft. Lauderdale, into a provincial celebrity over there (and soap opera priest on call!)
Yet, the lumberjack shows in Guangzho seem to fit as the perfect foil to the actual competitions we saw in Hayward, where celebrity is minimal, the competition is fierce, where plaid is obsolete, and the fried cheese curds are actually a dietary staple. Crazy Bob was in Hayward, mainly, to be with his father (age 83) to logroll and compete in fun against the man who introduced him to the games. In Hayward, there is an undeniable revery for the tradition of lumberjacking and the axemen, woodsmen, and lumberjacks who made a life in the woods and passed their skill, technique, and appreciation for athletic excellence down the family line. Unfortunately, there may not be another 50 years of lumberjack championships left as the future of the sport and its history grows increasingly distant. Nevertheless, these are athletes of the highest caliber and the AFP would love to see the skill and integrity demonstrated, if not the actual championships, live on in perpetuity.