They Came, They Sawed, They Conquered

These campers don't bring home paper mache hat. They bring home blisters

Story by Adam Patterson
Photos courtesy of Brett McLeod

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Sometimes sawing is done in teams.

After taking a work canoe out in the St. Regis Canoe Area, the campers disembark and set up base. Bow drills in hand, they make a fire. Tents are pitched, and the last things the campers see before they head off for a rock-like slumber are the stars; the last thing they feeland the first they feel after waking—are their blisters. It’s an unusual day for a summer camp.

Paul Smith’s College in Paul Smiths, N.Y., is the only college in the Adirondack State Park. The school has had a competitive lumberjack team for over five decades, producing students who can speed chop through wood, climb wooden poles with minimal effort, and run on logs in water. Now the school is home to a unique summer camp: The Adirondack Woodmen’s School. The new summer camp is proving to be a training ground for competitive lumberjacks.

After the concept hibernated for 10 years in the mind of its creator, Bret McLeod, The Woodmen’s School was finally launched in summer 2010.  All his life, McLeod felt he was born 100 years too late, preferring trees to video games and nature to television. After graduating from Paul Smith’s College and traveling to Alaska to compete in the Ironjack professional lumberjacking competition, a free-fall from speed-climbing a wooden pole broke both of his ankles and his chances of competing further. He then became an instructor at his alma mater and created the camp to satisfy the perceived needs of some students. “I felt like there were a lot of students out there, or people in general, that would like to have a more basic lifestyle and sort of have the skill sets to match it,” McLeod says.

“They’ll be exhausted when they go to bed.”

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Chopping things in half involves a lot of technique.
The camp's fees includes room, board and food, and the camp uses wood from the school’s forest that is Forest Stewardship Council certified, meaning that it is sustainably harvested. This way, when they take wood for use, it doesn’t damage the forest it came from.  The wood is purchased the same way someone would buy lumber from a lumberyard; while they use the timber for sports, the ecological impact is not the camp's responsibility. Joe Orefice, assistant director at the Woodmen’s School, explains that the responsibility falls on whoever is selling the wood, so environmental activists tend to avoid protesting the sport. “I don’t know how it could be any different for getting on someone’s case about building a house out of wood,” Orefice says.

The school isn’t, however, just about learning how to start a fire and pitch a tent on a rural campus. “The Woodsmen's School is sort of a combination of several things,” McLeod says. “It’s traditional back country wood skills ... but it’s also primitive skills in the context of the history of the Adirondacks. Also, it segues to the traditional skills to the modern competitive skills to lumberjack sports.”

Lumberjack sports sound very esoteric, but with coverage by ESPN, it’s reaching a wider, albeit still small, audience. Its audience has grown ever since its humble beginnings of friendly competition at lumberyards. Jim Tucker, athletic director at Paul Smith’s College, says, “You have people who have axes or bow saws ... so they’d take what they were doing for work [and] see who’s the best at it. I imagine it probably went from lumber camp to lumber camp until each one competed against one another.” Though not widely publicized, the students who enroll at the camp are in some way familiar with lumberjack sports, but typically have no experience doing it because of its niche appeal—after all, there are no high school lumberjack teams. Just like the sport itself is nestled in its own niche of competitive sports, campers soon find their own niche in lumberjack sports.

“They’d take what they were doing for work [and] see who’s the best at it.”

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That pole will be in two pieces before you can say "Paul Bunyon."

Some campers arrive having a bigger build than most and may instantly adapt to speed chopping, the act of chopping through wood with an axe as fast as possible. Some of these bigger campers prefer not to be a speed climber, the act of quickly ascending a tree with your hands, feet, some rope, and a harness. In collegiate climbing, the race is only to the top. On the professional circuit, it’s a race from top to bottom without harnesses. Their event of choice is found while going through the three, week-long motions of the camp.

When campers arrive, each one-week session is tiered by difficulty. Campers start as a novice, and by the end of the session, they ascend in difficulty and rank. It may seem like the program is short, being only three weeks to carve people into competitive lumberjacks, but the program is 13 hours a day, every day.

At the end of each session, the professors have the campers compete against each other for a prize. The reward is a custom made speed-chopping axe, fashioned from Aussie hands and valued at more than $500. The competitions run the range of timber sport activities, from axe throwing, speed chopping, and speed climbing to sawing, with the best all-around athlete taking home the prize.

Injuries may seem to be a common problem because students use chainsaws and axes—some of which are thrown— and climb trees with minimal gear, but McLeod spends a large portion of the lecture time at camp going over safety procedures. He’s yet to have an injury, or maybe even worse, a quitter. If campers survive unscathed and undeterred, they may go onto the professional circuit, as many alumni have, by way of the county-fair competitions. If they’re successful at the county level, potential lumberjacks may work their way up to professional competitions.

If a person feels they were born in the wrong century, yearning for the outdoors and the kind of primal hard work that made Paul Bunyan an American folk hero, the Woodmen’s School has a place for them. A cautionary tale has to be told, however — this is not for the faint of heart. However, this camp is the kind of intensely satisfying experience that comes after a long day of hard labor. “They’ll be exhausted when they go to bed,” McLeod says, “but at the end of the week, they have the basic skills to move on and progress.”

What would you say if your child wanted to go to a camp that has activities like chainsawing, throwing axes, and climbing poles?

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