The scent of woodsmoke could be traced to a backyard temple of towering elms, tangled bushes, logs like ruined columns, coins of wood, berms of wood, shavings, bark. And partly hidden by flora was a lumberjack gym bolted to a wooden deck.
Suburban in front, North Woods in the back — not unlike his hairstyle — Cassidy Scheer's Lumberjack Lifestyle (that's his Facebook page) unfolds a quarter-mile as the crow flies from one of the busiest highway junctions in the Twin Cities.
While lumberjacks in the wild are nearly extinct, lumberjacks as professional athletes — branded, televised, trained, Instagrammed — are multiplying. Scheer, 38, is a modern timbersport athlete. Born into a lumberjack sports clan in Hayward, Wis., with 26 world championships among them, he started logrolling at age 4. He's a 10-time national speed-climbing champion, the 1999 world champion boom runner, and this year's Stihl Timbersports national champion who will represent the United States at the Stihl Timbersports World Championship on Friday and Saturday in Prague.
Competitive lumberjacking is splintered. There are collegiate programs and some one-off competitions. The annual Lumberjack World Championships, held in Hayward since 1960, feature chopping, sawing, speed-climbing and logrolling (boom running is a subset of logrolling in which competitors run across floating logs chained together). But, according to Scheer, the Stihl Timbersports series is the most prestigious and lucrativecompetition, an international league that focuses on chopping and sawing, disciplines that, not coincidentally, involve Stihl products.
In a nod to tradition, Scheer wore plaid, in the form of leggings, and chainmail shin and foot guards for his backyard visitors. He chatted as he prepared to demonstrate the six timbersport disciplines: springboard, hot saw, single buck saw, standing block chop, underhand chop and stock saw — measuring firmly fixed logs and marking where he wanted to cut with red sidewalk chalk from his 3-year-old daughter's collection.
Below are excerpts from a conversation, edited for length and clarity:
On wood: "We compete on white pine and aspen because it's soft, readily available and inexpensive. They'll use logs from the same tree or trees growing next to each other so the wood is as similar as possible. But for training, I can't be picky. I get some of this wood from Craigslist's free page. Once it's cut, I use it to heat the house."
On axes: "Competition axes have a thinner edge. If you hit a dense pine knot it might take a dime-size chunk out of the edge. Then you're looking at a $150 repair. Training axes have a thicker edge. I might be able to make 100 hits with a training ax before it has to be reground. I have axes specifically for aspen, specifically for pine and general hardwood axes. And then for winter, the thickest, most durable head for frozen wood. I have 25 axes in my arsenal, at about $550 a pop."
Underhand chop (standing on the log, chopping between your feet): "Underhand chop is one of the safest events because if you hit at the wrong angle, the ax glances off the wood and away from your toes. In the standing chop, it can glance toward your leg. Underhand takes 14 to 20 seconds [to cut through a 13-inch log]. It's a timed event."
Standing block chop (mimics felling a tree): "Typically it takes 14 to 17 hits. Eight inches off the stand and 33 inches off the ground is the power zone for me. The ax penetrates wood best at a 45-degree angle. I open up the diameter of the log, then move around to the back and hit 2 inches higher to create a hinge where the wood severs easily." (Watch him in action here.)
Springboard (the athlete cuts two ascending pockets in a vertical 9-foot log, sticks boards in the pockets creating a scaffolding, from which he chops through the log up about 7½ feet): "Springboard has always been my best event. For training, I'll cut pockets on this tree two more times because it's a pain to get a 9-foot tree back here and set up. Sometimes the pocket is cut wrong and the board [you're standing on] starts sagging. Springboard takes about 40 seconds — my best is 37.7 seconds."
Hot saw (using a custom chain saw, the athlete cuts three "cookies" all within 6 inches of the end of the log): "This has a dirt bike engine, from a Honda 250. A guy in California made it for me. Hot saws are a lot faster than stock chain saws — 50 horsepower vs. 10 horsepower. The only constraints are that it be one cylinder, and you have to be able to carry it out on stage by yourself. [Scheer puts on chaps and Diadora shoes] I ground off the soccer cleats and attached logging spikes. The hot saw can really push you around. I'm one of the guys who wears a full face mask — if the chain breaks, shrapnel flies everywhere. If you get the first cut lined up, the others are easy."
Single buck saw: "I have training saws and competition saws. I can make 100 cuts with a training saw before I have to get it stoned. It's crazy, these saws cost $2,500 and there's a three-year waiting list to get one. People are selling them for more than they paid. There are only three manufacturers, and the sport is really growing, so supply and demand. The logging industry is mechanized — these are only for people in the sport."
Stock saw (timed cut through a log using an off-the-shelf chain saw): "You have to listen to the RPM and apply just enough pressure to keep that pitch high."
On training: "I go to the gym three days a week and do a typical power athlete program — explosive, powerful movement over short periods of time, compound lifts. The gym is where I work on strength, speed and conditioning. Out here [on the training deck], I pick two or three disciplines — usually one saw and two chops — and go hard for short bursts. All told, I'm moving for about three hours, but most of it's peeling bark, sharpening axes, moving training wood, splitting firewood. Single buck sawing is by far the most taxing — you're maxing out every muscle in your body, even though it only takes about 11 seconds. Chopping, I can put in 30 to 40 hits and I'm breathing but not exhausted. The primary objective of event training is to develop efficient form and accuracy. I'm tapering now by not doing the gym work, and focusing on refining my skills."
On injuries: "The most common injuries are basic sprains, strains, and joint/connective tissue overuse-type stuff. The extreme cuts have mostly been eliminated by the chainmail we wear. The only serious risks to an experienced competitor on the chopping and sawing side are falling from the springboard, having an ax land on you, or having a hot-saw chain break at full rev, which sends shrapnel flying."
On winning the U.S. title: "I can do all six events at a high level and didn't make any big errors. Legal cuts are better than fast cuts. I guess that's a conservative approach, but that's my strategy."
On the costs: "I have $40,000 worth of equipment. A hot saw costs $5,000. It's hard to afford that right out of college. You reach peak strength and size in your 30s, too. Having good equipment is a big part of it and also building relationships with the best ax grinder, the best saw filer, to maintain that equipment. You have to butter those guys up, send them a bottle of nice Scotch at Christmas. It's not easy for young guys to stay competitive."
On making a living: "I make more money right now from my real estate projects and the Wisconsin Dells lumberjack show [than from lumberjacking]. I'll make $40,000 in prize money from timbersports this year. The world championship prize is not that much — about $18,000 — but you can usually get a sponsorship package. The demographic who watch timbersports is male, 22 to 55 years old, so beer or tools or snacks."
Winning the world championship: "Australians and New Zealanders are the Kenyans and Ethiopians [distance running] of competitive wood cutting. It started in Tasmania, and now every town has a competitive club. The Sydney (Australia) Royal Easter Show is the Wimbledon of wood-chopping. In the 25 years of Stihl Timbersports, there was only one year it was not won by an Australian or New Zealander. They have more history with it, more opportunity, and all the wood there is a species of gum, which is very hard. It forces you to be more accurate, to have better technique. In the world championships, 70% of the points are in hot saw, single buck and springboard. Hot saw and single buck were my weakest events, but I've been putting in a lot of time. I plan to win those events."
Will he take down the sick elm tree in his backyard? [Laughs] "No."
Sarah Barker is a freelance writer. She lives in St. Paul.