WATERVILLE — Competitive timber sports are bringing an 1800s-era tradition to today’s students.

Teams from seven colleges and universities across New England gathered Saturday at Colby College to face off at the annual Woodsmen Mud Meet. Mother Nature delivered — with mud aplenty.

Events ranged from dry land log birling to team crosscut. The former, which often is held in the water during warmer seasons, involves players attempting to stay on top of a large spinning log. The latter is a group effort in which three pairs take turns using a 5-foot saw to cut discs off a log in the shortest possible time. Some are solitary events, some are doubles and others require six-person teams.

Dave Smith, who has coached Colby’s co-ed woodsmen team for 30 years, said the sport grew out of an old logging tradition.

“It came as a result of the work that was done in the woods in the 1800s,” he said. “The folks that were in the logging camps would get together and have competitions amongst themselves, and then also when they finished the spring drives and they were down in the mill cities like Bangor, they would have competitions … between the various lumber camps. It ended up turning into a sport on its own, and it was also used by the ax manufacturers in order to promote their axes, which was a very competitive business. They would hold competitions and have professional choppers representing the ax manufacturers trying to show that they had the best axes. So that helped to bring the chopping competitions along in the early 1900s.”

The earliest collegiate competition of which Smith has found a record took place in 1947 at Dartmouth College. Though technology has advanced since that time and new wood tools have been introduced, Smith said, the woodsmen’s competitive events have largely remained unchanged. He once competed on the Unity College team himself.

For the most part, the events that we’re doing are the same events that have been done for a long time,” Smith noted. “We do have one chain saw event, but everything else is based on jobs that were done in the woods and based on the tools that were used.”

Now, he added, manufacturers make high-quality, particularly sharp tools designed for competitive use, but “the concept of how a crosscut saw works is still the same as it was in the 1800s.” The only event that involves a chain saw is the singles event “Chainsaw Disc Stack,” in which people cut and stack as many wood slices as possible without knocking any off of the stack.

Colby’s team, which consists of roughly 20 students, is made up largely of people who had never tried pole climbing, block chopping or other lumber sports before college.

This is a very different sport in that very few people grow up in this sport with experience in middle school or high school, the way that most (athletes) seem to get started on football or basketball or baseball at a young age,” Smith said.

It can be a mixed bag to train newcomers, he noted.

Nowadays, many people have never swung a hammer, never utilized a shovel to dig in the dirt; and so for some of those folks, it takes a little longer, and for other folks it’s quicker,” Smith said. “It depends on natural athletic ability and the ability to draw the line in the brain between what the brain needs to think about and what the hands and arms and feet need to do.”

Sydney Greenlee, a 20-year-old junior from Chantilly, Virginia, joined the team as a freshman, never having participated in timber activities before.

“My mom din’t let me climb trees or play with sharp objects or light matches and stuff, so I thought it would be cool to do those things,” Greenlee said. “It’s really different from anything I’ve ever done before. My parents love that I do this. They couldn’t make it this year.”

Greenlee competed in ax throw and horizontal chop, or “H-chop,” on Saturday. In horizontal chop, competitors stand on a horizontal block secured to a post a few inches above the ground and hack at both sides of the wood at a 45-degree angle until it breaks in half.  The event is a co-ed two-person relay.

I like H-chop because it’s very satisfying,” she said, though ax throw is her favorite. “It’s speed plus power, but also accuracy. That’s the other big thing I like about (Colby) Woodsmen. Strength is important, but you also have to be accurate to throw.”

Taylor Dimock, 23, a senior at Unity College, also had not competed before coming to Maine from Coventry, Connecticut.

“I remember coming up and touring the school and seeing our pole climb — because we have 60-foot poles and I’m a monkey,” he said. “I went down in the beginning of (my first) year and stayed ever since. … It’s a lot of fun — like any team sport, it’s like a family atmosphere.”

Though there are opportunities to compete after college at fairs and other venues, Dimock said he wasn’t sure yet if he would keep with the sport after graduation. Dimcock competed in axe throw and “Crosscut to Death” on Saturday. In this event, two teammates work to hand-saw 12 wood slices off an eight inch by eight inch cant.

Last time I did it here me and my partner did 13 cuts in two minutes,” Dimock said. “It’s just all out for two minutes. I couldn’t lift my arms afterwards.”

Smith said that while lumber sports are enjoyable to compete in, they can have practical applications, “depending on your viewpoint.”

“Many people are growing up in an environment where they’re not using hand tools, and so this kind of brings them back to some of those skills,” he noted, later adding, “I get a lot of feedback from alumni in terms of how all the aspects of of doing these events and the setup and the tools that we utilize to make things happen has helped them be confident with working with tools and tackling projects on their own.”

The Colby Woodsmen Mud Meet lasted from 8 a.m. to about 4 p.m. Saturday, at the Woodsmen Field, a clearing in the woods off Washington Street used by the club. This year’s participants included home team Colby, Dartmouth College, Unity College, the University of Connecticut, the University of Maine, the University of New Hampshire and the University of Vermont.

 

Meg Robbins — 861-9239

[email protected]

@megrobbins


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