story and photos by Derek Doeffinger
Why is this early fall event my favorite Finger Lakes festival of the year?
Maybe it’s because I like to watch women throwing axes (and they’re not throwing them at me). Or perhaps I get a kick out of seeing a big burly guy heft a huge axe overhead and then smash it down between his feet, mere inches from his toes. Or possibly because I sense my own wood chopping efforts could yet turn into a greater glory.
Bottom line? The Macedon Center Lumberjack Festival is simply fun, fast-paced, and authentic. You get to watch unique athletic events in a relaxed country atmosphere. In addition, it’s a fundraiser – for the Macedon Volunteer Fire Department and the Methodist Church across the street.
If you think you can do what these jacks and jills do, dream on. Here, in a race against time, male and female contestants, smash butcher-sharp steel axes against logs in an explosion of wood chips. Glistening with sweat and rippling with muscles, they slice chainsaws through logs in a geyser of sawdust, and furiously pump crosscut saws across 19-inch-diameter logs in a display of “cookie” cutting. All hope to grab a portion of the $5,000 in prize money.
Jacks and Jills
You might be surprised to see that many of the guys (not all) look less like Paul Bunyan and Daniel Boone and more like Rob Gronkowski and LeBron James. Brutish strength no longer guarantees success. These guys and gals are athletes. They need speed, agility, precision, power, and strategy. Thankfully, there are a few old-school-looking lumberjacks who carry the bulk and beard of Hagrid, the enormous gamekeeper friend of Harry Potter. They add a comforting retro cinematic warmth to the event.
This year, for the first time, all the 50 or more contestants are pros, including a few world-class performers like Pittsford’s Dave Jewett, who is well-known for his chainsaw art. He travels the world competing, promoting, and instructing in things lumberjack.
The women, known as lumberjills, also ripple with muscles, but often are surprisingly sleek. Some look like they’ve just come from a spinning class or an L.L. Bean photo shoot – until they begin slamming an axe into a log. Just how well equipped they are to heave double-headed axes, thrust bucksaws, and wrangle chainsaws may come as a bit of a revelation.
About the relatively recent inclusion of lumberjills, contestant Tracie Henning says, “People think it’s pretty cool.”
Not only muscles are unleashed here. So is the mouth of off-the-wall announcer, Kevin Holtz. A former pro competitor and now a part-time professional lumberjack sports announcer (shows on ABC, ESPN, and other outlets), he spouts constantly with knowledgeable insights about all aspects of the sport. There’s a lot going on here so listen to him. From his stream of patter you’ll learn event essentials, pick up colorful gossip (who’s marrying whom), and laugh at his constant stream of good-natured jabs.
Training, tools and protection
The athletes range from muscular to very muscular, so you might think that weightlifting and strength-building exercises are at the core of their workouts. That’s not always the case. “These events are bursts of activity that last less than 30 seconds, so working on fast twitch muscle is important,” explains Holtz, who knows most of these athletes.
With a few hundredths of a second often making the difference between a win and a loss, efficient movements matter. One inaccurate swing could be game over.
Tracie Henning and her husband Chris, also a competitor, emphasize event training. “We bought a house that backs up to the woods so we’d have enough space to practice our actual events,” she says. “We videotape ourselves for analysis.”
The tools are critical to success. Most competitors bring a couple of saws and several axes to an event. It’s no myth that a lumberjack can shave his beard with one of his axes. “They’re surgically sharp,” says Tracie. “A competitor may test the sharpness of his or her axe by sliding it along their arm to see if it shaves off the hairs.”
The best racing axes are custom-made in Australia and New Zealand, and sell for $400 and up. They are designed for specific events and specific types of wood. In addition, a two-headed throwing axe and a lighter axe for the springboard competition are also required.
Most of the axed wood is aspen; its soft knots won’t ruin an expensive tool. Sawn wood is often white pine.
Crosscut saws start at $1,000. The modified hotsaws easily run $5,000 and up.
Hockey players may regularly lose teeth, but most lumberjacks and jills remain sandal-ready with all toes intact, thanks to effective protective devices that reduce injuries. They include chainmail socks to prevent toe departure (but not bruises). Chaps made with chainmail or stuffed with shredded Kevlar protect against chainsaw wounds. Ear and eye protection do their jobs.
Everything takes place in a common infield ringed by grandstands. There’s a constant flurry of activity.
The winner is the fastest to finish an event. Most events last less than a minute, but the hotsaw lasts only a few seconds. It’s a two-day competition, so on Saturday the athletes compete to make the cut for the Sunday finals. On Sunday, the survivors compete for the prize money and glory. Competitors randomly draw logs before the start of an event.
The axe events include the axe throw, underhand chop, standing block chop, and springboard. Sawing events include the single buck saw, crosscut saw, stock chainsaw, hotsaw, and jack-and-jill relay crosscut.
The hot rod of lumberjack events is the hotsaw, a souped-up chainsaw. Typically powered by a 250cc to 350cc dirt-bike engine, it can cut through a log before you can wipe the sweat off your brow.
The springboard chop may be the most entertaining and demanding event because several competitors compete simultaneously. Each swings an axe while standing on an improvised and flimsy “diving board.” With an axe and two planks (the springboards), the lumberjack, standing on the ground for the first swings, cuts a notch into an upright 9-foot pole, then inserts the plank into it, hops onto it (hoping it holds), and then cuts the next higher notch, inserts the next springboard and hops onto it. Now 6 feet in the air, he chops away at the top log, hoping he doesn’t tumble before severing it.
Even if you’ve never swung an axe or handled a chainsaw – or even if you have – you’ll be amazed at what these athletes can do.
When: Saturday and Sunday, September 8 and 9, from mid-morning to late afternoon.
(Lunch break 12 to 1 p.m.)
Saturday – all athletes compete.
Sunday – the top-scoring athletes from Saturday vie for prize money.
Where: Behind the Macedon Center Fire Department
at 2481 Canandaigua Road, Macedon Center
What: In addition to the competition, there will be craft booths, food vendors, displays of assorted farm and lumbering equipment, and demonstrations of chainsaw carving and other wood crafts.
Cost: Adults, $3; seniors, $2; kids ages 6 to 14, $1; ages 5 and under, free. Proceeds support the all-volunteer Macedon Center Fire Department and the Macedon Center United Methodist church.
For the most up-to-date information, go to http://macedoncenterfire.org.