The Ax Men

Norfolk’s Scope Arena Recently Played Host To The STIHL Timbersports Championship, A Spectacle Of Flying Sawdust And Lumberjacks Full Of Rip-Roaring Adrenaline

STIHL Timbersports Championship

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In a backstage dressing room, giant, bearded, thick-necked, mean-looking men are getting into their competitive modes. The air reeks of body odor and ethanol fuel. One burly man gently thumbs his ax to check for any dull spots on the edge. Another sucks on a wad of tobacco chew before spitting the juice into a cup. A father and son tighten the bolts on a supped-up, ultra-destructive chainsaw outfitted with a 55-horsepower modified dirt bike motor. It is a scene befitting a horror film about backwoods brutes having to fend off the zombie apocalypse with whatever tools they have handy. But in minutes, they each grab a weapon of choice and head out to the television cameras, arena lights and crowd of around 4,000 people, which turns this menacing sight into an entertaining spectacle.

Once a year men who look like mercenaries compete with tools that sound like racecars in the STIHL Timbersports U.S. Pro Championship lumberjack competition. This fringe sport purportedly began in Tasmania in 1870 as a bet between two loggers over who could fell a tree faster. Over the next century, logging communities in Australia, New Zealand, Western Europe and the United States held regional tournaments and expanded the variety of chopping and sawing disciplines. By 1985, STIHL began sponsoring the Timbersports Series in America to determine the world’s best lumberjack, broadcasting it on ESPN and drumming up fandom worldwide.

“As we like to say, the original extreme sport was born,” said STIHL head of promotions Roger Phelps. In the last decade, STIHL reconfigured the Series so that 24 countries held their own competitions, with the national champions advancing to an international contest that determines the best lumberjack in the world. The 2014 world championships will take place on Nov. 15 in Innsbruck, Austria.

Over a weekend in June inside the Norfolk Scope Arena, a short drive from the STIHL headquarters in Virginia Beach, 16 professional lumberjacks chopped and sawed through pine logs as quickly and accurately as possible in front of an eclectic, hollering crowd. Sitting four rows from the springboard event—in which competitors scurry up 9-foot logs to hack off the tops—Marcos and Vanessa Lozano had flown from Houston with their 4-month-old baby girl for her first experience with the world beyond their home.

“It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever seen!” squealed fellow spectator Veronica Shifflett at the sight of a chainsaw shredding pine and spraying sawdust into the air.
“I didn’t think a power tool could be a sport,” said Rembert Johnson, who arrived not knowing anything about the sport.

Despite many spectators like Johnson discovering Timbersports in person on a whim or at home by channel surfing (Phelps said the ABC network airings in September and October will attract 18 million viewers), the tradition was deeply rooted in the densely wooded regions of America long before the advent of a chainsaw. Most of the competitors are second- or third-generation loggers by profession from the Pacific Northwest or Appalachia. They basically grew up together in the sport, giving the circuit a fraternal feel because of its small turnover. Matt Slingerland was so eager to follow in his father Mike’s footsteps that in high school he took online college courses so that he could turn pro at 19. The wives compete in female and coed contests. Jason Lentz, 28, is a fourth-generation competitor. “It means sawdust runs through my veins,” he said.

Beyond the glitz and frivolity of the televised event—at one point, hernia belts were given away to the loudest fans—the blue collar ethos of Timbersports makes it appealing. “We use actual tools,” lumberjack Branden Sirguy, 39, a forester in Washington State, pointed out. “We’re pretty spoiled in this country. I think for my children to see how things were done before we had mechanization, we will have greater appreciation for where we’re at and the things we have.”

These are men who are proud of where they came from and how many hours of labor they put into the land. They do not say much, even when prompted. During the competition, when their muscles strain and adrenaline drives those critical final ax strokes, the most demonstrative they get is to raise a celebratory clenched fist. Although they do lighten up in one respect. “There are a lot of awkward wood jokes,” explained commentator Adrian Flygt. “It is very easy to indulge the junior high boy sense of humor. You set your blocks up and you say, ‘You got good wood today?’”

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