Russell, the Creator

Mario Zucca

Blades of Glory

Rolling logs, swinging axes, saws aplenty, and even an appearance by the Musky Queen: welcome to the Lumberjack World Championships in Hayward, Wisconsin.

The deal with Hayward is, you can’t get there from here. The nearest interstate highway is about an hour and a half west, over the state line from Wisconsin in Minnesota. Any way you try to approach it, you’re going to have some substantial stretches of time alone with your thoughts as you wind through thick woods and farmlands and a nighttime darkness so total you’re surprised to reach your destination without finding a hook hanging from the car door handle.

Once the sun is safely up, you can navigate toward the Lumberjack Bowl arena by driving past the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame,1 and toward the cluster of cedar poles sunk into the earth and the array of flags that honor the nations about to be represented in the Lumberjack World Championships. Hayward is a small lake resort town with a permanent population of around 2,300 that balloons each summer as thousands of spectators wedge into a collection of grandstands nestled around a finger-shaped inlet of Hayward Lake that used to serve as a North Wisconsin Lumber Company holding pond for cut timber. For most of the warm months, it serves as a home base for Scheer’s Lumberjack Show, enticing tourists with feats of woodsy strength and speed. And for one long weekend every year at the end of July, it hosts the world’s best lumberjacks and lumberjills2 for three days of sawing, chopping, logrolling, running, and climbing. The games have progressed with the years — there are laser timers on the footraces now and teams of women pulling double saws — but in the crucial ways, things here stay the way they were.

2015 marks the 56th-annual edition of the “Olympics of the Forest,” founded in 1960 “to perpetuate and glorify the working skills of the American lumberjack,” and with more than 120 qualifiers, this year’s games boasts the largest field of competitors in event history. The larger sporting sphere looks in every once in a while. Wide World of Sports was here in 1979. The Great Outdoor Games, while they existed, featured its events. Kenny Mayne did a segment at the championships in 2013. But whether the outside world is watching or not, the games continue, without a lot of regard to who’s paying attention. These athletes are not here for your cameras. They’re here for themselves, and for each other, and for a lucky few to be able to go home and say, “Look at this chain saw I won.”

Lumberjack 1Holly Anderson

Thursday and Friday of championships weekend are given over to heats and novice contests, and are lighter on tourists, but loud with relatives and supporters of the athletes. Like the entrants, the crowd trends toward the blond and Scandinavian. There are multigenerational-family cheering sections, off-duty policemen idly arguing over whether they could chop trees faster than the entrants, lone fishermen in T-shirts reading YOUR BAIT SUCKS AND YOUR BOAT’S UGLY or I CAN’T HEAR YOU, MY HEAD IS UP MY BASS. Dogs splash in the rushes; a couple of kayakers hang out in the open end of the inlet; a woman in a broad-brimmed sun hat gripes that Green Bay has gotten “so touristy.” An audience giveaway is conducted, with the winner taking home one ton of premium wood pellets.

On the nearest side of the inlet to the arena entrance, a dock has been raised to stage the sawing and chopping events that make up the bulk of the schedule. The contests on the main dock range from exactly the kind of thing you’d expect — standing next to a block of wood and swinging an ax at it, or pulling a saw through a felled tree — to the faintly insane, like the underhand chop (competitors stand on an aspen log and swing axes between their feet to hew it in half) and the springboard chop (this one involves sometimes very large men cutting a notch in an aspen log, sticking a board in the incision, climbing up on that, and repeating the process until they’re standing on a board 9 feet in the air trying to hack off the top of the pole). There’s the Jack & Jill, in which male-female teams work double saws through white pine logs, and this year for the first time there’s the Jill & Jill, featuring two-woman teams.

Competing in the inaugural Jill & Jill event is Erin LaVoie, the 2014 all-around women’s world title holder. Younger and more compactly built than many of her peers, she doesn’t look anything like you’d picture conjuring up “lumberjill.” She does look like she could break you in half. The 33-year-old CrossFit gym owner came to the sport not through a family pipeline, like many of her peers, but by happening on a meeting of her college forestry club in Spokane, Washington. “They had a team just down the hall from where I was taking all my classes,” she says. “And I’m just a competitive person, so I peeked in the room, saw what they were doing, asked a bunch of questions, and then five days later, after picking up my very first ax, I went to a competition and actually, like, won.”

Nearing the opposite end of her career is Sheree Taylor, chicken farmer, captain of the New Zealand women’s woodchopping team, two-time ESPY nominee for Best Outdoors Athlete,3 and grandmother of three. She’s looking for a return to form this season, after entering the 2014 games with 50 percent lung capacity due to a pinched phrenic nerve that inflamed her diaphragm. For the first time since she started competing in 1995, the three-time all-around world champ missed out on the finals; this season, she’s just happy for progress. “This January I had another test with a respiratory specialist and my breathing capacity was up to 89 percent. And I think it’s increased since. I’m excited about it, because it was really horrendous. But anyway, I’m here.”

Past the dock, heading clockwise around the inlet, a festive village of trucks and tents has been erected by the visiting athletes. In the middle of the bustle, Arden Cogar Jr. is shirtless, faintly coated with sawdust, and wearing brown Birkenstocks over black socks, conducting a business call over an iPhone plugged into a generator outlet next to a pile of sawed-off tree slices.4 An attorney in a midsize West Virginia firm, he comes from a sprawling family of lumberjacking enthusiasts, but didn’t take the sport seriously until college at WVU, “when I was humbled into realizing I wasn’t D-I college football material.” And while he may be built like an old-timey circus strongman, for Cogar, the most important elements he puts into and gets out of this sport are cerebral. “Total stress relief is what this is for me. This is what keeps me sane.

“I’m a daily practitioner of yoga and tai chi, and what a lot of people don’t realize is that this sport is more predicated upon timing and technique than it is brute strength. One of the real truths of this sport is it is an event you can do until your senior years and still be competitive.” Cogar has a daughter just beginning college, and like her dad at that age, she’s a dabbler in the sport who hasn’t really caught the bug yet. “My guess is once she gets out in the real world and gets her ass kicked a little bit by life, then she’ll realize woodchopping’s kind of fun.”

Serenity is also the name of the game in the hot saw competition, where chain saws powered by snowmobile and dirt bike engines blaze through 20-inch white pine logs. “I’ve trained to be as strong as I possibly can,” says Chris Bradshaw, another West Virginia native, hefting his 59-pound machine. “The time I’ve spent in the gym, whenever you’re moving a heavy weight, you’ve got to be so focused, to have your technique exactly right.

“Arden and I are physically the two strongest people that you’ll see here today, OK? But the mental aspect, it’s taken me the last five years to hone.”

Lumberjack 2Holly Anderson

In the shallows next to either end of the main dock, tiny children are being taught logrolling, a pastime with its roots in 19th-century river drives that floated cut trees from logging camps to sawmills. Then, deaths were common, as workers balancing on logs fell and knocked their skulls on their cargo or slipped beneath floating wood and drowned. Today, kids as young as 4 toddle on synthetic beams that spin beneath their feet, learning first just to remain upright through the rotations, and later to buck their opponents off one end of a shared log and into the lake. “Our muskies are friendly muskies. They don’t eat kids,” an announcer reassures the U7 division.

The elite logrolling takes place out in the deeper waters, in the middle of the cove. There are a few crossover competitors who divide their time between the strength-based events on the near side of the lake and the speed and agility contests opposite, but for the most part the athletes on the far bank skew younger and lither than those wielding saws and axes. The gaggle waiting for the running and rolling events could pass for a prep school team decked out in custom soccer shoes with metal golf or logging spikes in place of cleats. Two by two, they’re paired off onto lengths of floating red cedar and pushed away from the dock, where the first roller to fall three times out of five tries will be eliminated. Occasional whistles are blown when stray lily pads drift too near the competition.

There are discrete styles of logrolling on display; most of the male competitors favor a faster-paced match with more frequent tumbles, while the women tend to play more of an endurance game, but the goal is the same: nudge your opponent into the water without touching or breaking the invisible plane that divides the floating log in half lengthwise. And as with the choppers and sawyers, the best rollers preach clarity of thought as the path to victory. “It’s definitely a balance,” says Meredith Ingbretson, a Hayward native and youth logrolling instructor. “You have to stay mentally focused on what the other person’s doing, so that your physical game can knock them in. Read and react. There’s a lot more to it than you think.”

Shana Verstegen, who took home first-place logrolling honors in 2008 and 2012, credits a cooling of nerves, not an uptick in training intensity, with the biggest leaps forward in her athletic career. “You’re on a 12-inch piece of wood, and if you’re not focused the entire match, it’s all over. But my life doesn’t depend on it. And once I clicked into that mind frame, I started winning. I still train hard. But I wasn’t feeling like throwing up before I got on the log. So not any meditation, but just a constant reminder of why I’m here and why I do this.” Eight weeks removed from giving birth, she feels even less pressure this year. “I’ve won a few matches, and it feels good. It’s different, but it’s good.”

It’s one thing to fall behind on the main dock, where bearing down and speeding up can allow a lagging lumberjack to catch up to a pack of choppers or sawyers. In logrolling, though, missteps are magnified; one slip and it’s into the drink. This is even truer on the boom run, where athletes must dash all the way across the inlet, balancing on a series of logs chained end to end, circle a barrel on the main dock, then run back. The boom run used to be a sort of sideshow event, to take up time between chopping contests, but it gained greater prominence with the advent of Great Outdoor Games. “That’s when everybody got serious about it,” says Verstegen. “I had to ship a million logs down to Madison to build our own boom runs, because none of us had even practiced for it. Before, it was kind of just a fun thing to do. Then we all started training.”

Boom running requires the most overt physical grace and leads to the most undignified wipeouts; falls are frequent and racers can occasionally be seen swimming back to shore rather than attempting to remount the slippery cedar poles.5 More than the others, just loving this event seems to matter more than who wins or loses, with potential calamity waiting at every step and twitch. On the return trip across the water, runners are not only battling the wake their first sprint created, but that of their opponents, and by the time they near the start/finish line, most runners’ arms are waving as if directing unseen symphony orchestras, propelling the contestants back to land by flailing momentum and pure will. On some of the best boom runs, the racers’ feet never seem to touch the logs at all, adjusting to every slip and slide with inhuman poise. It’s the ones that don’t make it look easy that are most memorable, though, slamming onto the dock at 45-degree angles, wresting wins from the jaws of gravity.

There’s an even bigger battle against the pull of the earth’s core being waged in the final event, speed climbing. On the far bank of the inlet there’s that stand of 60- and 90-foot poles, capable of inducing reverse vertigo in anyone standing at their base and staring up, surrounded by orange plastic fencing that marks off an area cheerfully referred to as “the loony bin.” Lumberjacks outfitted with coils of rope and lineman gaffs, like those worn by utility workers, race straight up and down in contests that look delicately acrobatic from a distance but up close are revealed, through flying sweat and splinters, as something much more powerful and primal.

For all the talk elsewhere in the arena about mental games, to even attempt to compete in the speed climb it helps to be just the tiniest bit crazy. In the boom run, falls are common; in the logroll they’re the entire point. In speed climbing, they’re not so frequent, but they do come with scarier consequences. Defending 60-foot champ Derek Knutson says he still gets nervous every time he straps up. “When you start racing, you forget about your form. As soon as you make a mistake, you slip and then you’re out of the race.”

Out of the race, or worse. Brian Stearns, a 19-year-old boom runner and logroller, recently added the speed climb to his repertoire, and on world championships weekend is competing a week removed from what he casually refers to as “a pretty bad fall” from the 60-foot pole at a lumberjack show in Wisconsin Dells that left him with a concussion and lumbar spine injuries. “It wasn’t a controlled fall,” he explains, “because it had rained 30 minutes prior, so there was no friction on the pole. Usually I’m able to control it by pulling the rope in tight and scraping down, but the pole was soaking wet.

“So I’m going down and I’m still speeding up as I’m falling; I had fallen about 45 feet at this point. I push out from the pole so I don’t smack my head into it, and land with my feet out in front of me. My spine compressed when I landed and then whiplashed my head back. I thought I was paralyzed at first. I was freaking out. My teammate carried me back into our shack, I threw my spikes on and I went back out and did the boom run. We have two booms for the show, and I saw four clearly defined booms. I slapped my face a couple times, slapped my legs, and just ran. I even made it across the first time. I wiped out coming back.”

They actually had to put rules in place on the speed climb to keep athletes from trying the plummet from the top on purpose. To avoid the spectacle of a pile of crumpled lumberjacks at the base of each pole, black bands are painted every 15 feet, and each racer must touch at least one foot in every 15-foot section on the way down. The regulations keep the madness at bay, a little, but the math on this is still somewhat unsettling: For a legal descent on the 90-foot climb, a lumberjack can fling himself backward into space, held within reach of the pole only by a length of rope, touch one foot or the other to the pole six times on the way down, and call it good.

Lumberjack3Holly Anderson

Saturday afternoon brings on the finals. It’s hot, and still, and as the temperature hovers around the mid-80s, the shaded areas get crowded. The Pinery Boys sing the national anthems of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Czech Republic, and the United States in rapid succession, one for each home country represented in the field, and Erik Maki, a plaid-clad man with a thick Finnish accent,6 takes over the microphone on the far dock. “Folks, we have spectacular competition lined up for you tonight, and I want to remind you all that audience participation is extremely important. So you have to yell, shout, scream, throw small children into the air! And every time you see something you like, or something you don’t like, you let loose with a great big lumberjack YO-HO!”

Sheree Taylor places sixth in the underhand chop and fifth in the master’s double buck with partner Warrick Hallet. Arden Cogar makes the finals in single buck, standing chop, and underhand; he pairs with Chris Bradshaw to take sixth place in the double buck. Brian Stearns places sixth in logrolling and eighth in the boom run. Meredith Ingbretson sweeps the women’s boom run and logrolling honors, and then the arena erupts in ovations for Hayward native J.R. Salzman, who won six world logrolling titles and the 2005 ESPY for Best Outdoor Sportsman before deploying to Iraq with the National Guard, where a bomb cost him most of his right arm. He returned to Wisconsin to win three more championships, and today’s triumph marks his 10th. Taking the microphone, Salzman laughingly admonishes the crowd to not exert themselves on his behalf. “Thank you all, sit down, it’s hot. Enjoy your beverages.”

“I just need to thank God above for giving me a second chance. Look, I’ll be honest. I never thought I’d come back and win. I knew I’d come back and roll, but to win four more world titles, it’s a dream come true. I also need to thank my little boy, Brody, for enduring many mosquito-filled nights at the lake. My family for supporting me. And everybody here in the community. The guy that I rolled against in the finals, Brian Duffy, I’ve been rolling with him for over 20 years. I couldn’t ask for a better training partner.”

He’s choking up a little in spots, and the audience is on its feet again. “To come back year after year, and have such a great event, there’s no place like it. Thank you.”

Erin LaVoie places second in this year’s women’s single buck title race to Lindsay Daun, whose Jack & Jill partner, Dave Jewett, takes the men’s single buck title. They accept their trophies on the main dock from Rachel Radcliffe, 2015’s Musky Queen,7 along with gifts of brand-new chain saws. On the far dock, Tom Lancaster, who placed third in the 60-foot climb and fourth in the 90-foot, takes a microphone and proposes to his girlfriend, who accepts. Everybody yo-hos. A quip from the PA: “That event sponsored by Hi-Ho Silver Jewelry, down on Main Street.”8

The grand finale of the weekend is an exhibition relay of mixed-gender teams racing first on the boom, then underhand chopping, sawing, and finishing on the standing block. A final flurry of chips, another round of cheers, and as the crowds begin to file out, the announcer booms back in. “How ’bout a hand for all our competitors in the relay race! Ladies and gentlemen, that is the 56th-annual Lumberjack World Championships, presented by lumberjacks eat more, Dinty Moore! The only meal that works so hard, it wears flannel!”

And just like that, it’s all over for another year. The proceedings in Hayward will reconvene on July 28, 2016, but for now it’s time to retreat en masse to a nearby bar and drink and dance under a dozen watchful mounted deer heads. Organizers here worry about the future of the championships. So much of running these games relies on volunteer labor, and so many key figures within the operation are nearing retirement age. But the vanishing point in this future, if there is one, is just too far off to see. As the craft of lumberjacking has passed from survival, to work, to a pastime, to organized sport, the world has moved on, too — but the waning of the desire to touch this kind of spirituality is impossible to imagine. The games don’t have to be huge to be sustainable, and to be necessary, because the further away we get from our roots, the greater the desire to get back somehow. You can still find the precise serenity you’re looking for, and a few sights you never expected to behold, in these athletes rooted to the earth or flinging themselves toward the sky, battling cedar and ash and white pine, and gravity, and equilibrium, and time.

Filed Under: The Great Outdoors, Lumberjacks, Our Friends in Wisconsin, Bad Monty Python Puns

Holly Anderson is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ HollyAnderson