A Cut Above
Woodcutters aren’t just mythical folk heroes. They’re modern-day athletes who put their skills to the test at the Lumberjack World Championships
Photos by David Ellis. Above: Matt Cogar competes in the Springboard Chop.
Matt Cogar has an axe to grind. On a wooden dock beside a narrow strip of water, he and his burly, sunburned opponents stand at the foot of four tall poles. Cogar—a 6-foot-4, broad-faced bear of a man—is utterly still as the announcer begins the countdown, which concludes with a flurry of arms and flying wood chips, some as big as paperback books.
The event, one of 21 at the Lumberjack World Championships in the town of Hayward, Wisconsin, is known as the Springboard Chop. The idea is that the lumberjacks—or “timbersports athletes”—ascend a trunk-like pole by cutting out a notch, inserting a springboard, jumping up onto it, then using their axe to make the next notch, and so on. Once high enough, they chop through a 12-inch aspen log mounted at the top—all in under a minute, for the best finishers.
The Lumberjack World Championships (LWC) is a three-day event that combines the charm of a county fair with the power and intensity of the CrossFit Games. Some 12,000 spectators (nearly six times the population of Hayward) gather to watch 120 professionals and amateurs—from hometown heroes to those who’ve come from as far away as New Zealand and the Czech Republic—compete in events like logrolling, pole climbing, various forms of chopping, solo and tandem sawing and precision axe throwing. The competitors, both male and female, come in all ages, shapes and sizes, from lithe teenagers toe-tapping across floating timbers to brawny septuagenarian block choppers.
Cogar is hoping to reclaim the coveted Tony Wise All-Around Lumberjack title he won in 2016, and his prospects look good. In some qualifying heats, he finishes so far ahead of his opponents that he’s calmly putting his axe away while they’re still racing. “It’s you versus the wood,” he says, sitting on a rough-hewn bench beside the pond between events. “It’s you versus you.”
Cassidy Scheer uses a one-person bucking saw in the Single Buck
The 31-year-old West Virginian is a full-time competitive lumberjack who supports himself through prize winnings and sponsorships. He comes from a renowned family of woodcutters, and has competed in the LWC for the last 10 years, winning a variety of titles along the way.
“My great-uncle was the one who got us started,” he says. “He competed in timber camp competitions in West Virginia back in the 1940s and ’50s.” Cogar put himself through college (he earned a degree in biology) by competing in lumber sports, and now travels to at least 18 international tournaments a year. “They range from shows that are as big as the Lumberjack World Championships,” he says, “or as small as a local farm festival.”
“A lot of us would like to make it to the Olympics one day.”
It can seem a little odd that, in these high-tech times, people would be drawn to these anachronistic, folksy sporting events. But then, as many lumberjacks point out, the throwback element is a big part of the appeal. “Most logging these days is mechanized,” says competitor and Hayward native Cassidy Scheer. “The last log drives, where they rode the logs down the river, were in the 1920s and ’30s. But the athletic aspect of it is still alive and well: Most people can relate to it. They’ve climbed a tree in their backyard or they’ve split firewood or they’ve pulled a saw.”
Hayward has long been known as lumberjack country. In the late 1800s, when timber barons established the North Wisconsin Lumber Company, teams of burly men floated logs down the Namekagon River to a settlement that had grown up around Anthony J. Hayward’s “Big Mill,” not far from where the games take place today. By 1890, there were around 450 logging camps and over 1,000 mills scattered around Wisconsin’s vast forests.
Life in those remote camps was dangerous and exhausting, with a constant threat of frostbite, crushed limbs, lacerations and drowning. Lumberjacks routinely worked 12-hour days, returning at night to overcrowded bunkhouses with a lingering aroma of wet wool socks. The busy season was winter, when choppers and sawyers felled trees and teamsters skidded the logs out of the woods with the help of horses or oxen. That timber was piled on frozen riverbanks, and when the spring thaw came, the river crew guided the shifting raft of logs downriver to be milled. It’s the world from which the legend of Paul Bunyan grew.
In their free time—what little there was of it—loggers entertained themselves with music, dancing and games. Occasionally, teams from neighboring camps would test each other’s skills. Today’s lumber sports grew from the chopping, sawing, climbing and log-wrangling of those informal events.
Meredith Ingbretson and Samantha Hadley work together in the Double Buck
In 1960, as Hayward gained popularity as a rustic resort destination, local entrepreneur Tony Wise had the idea of staging an event that presented logging as a pillar of local culture. In the subsequent decades, the Lumberjack World Championships has become a cherished summertime tradition here, drawing crowds of vacationers and local fans—from grandmas with fancy hairdos to babies with pink earmuffs—to this celebration of sweat and sawdust.
As much as anything, it’s family that keeps lumber sports alive. Skills are passed between generations and among cousins, creating lumberjack dynasties. Cassidy Scheer is a lanky and kinetic 37 year old who started logrolling at age 4, coached by his father, Fred, a four-time champion of the sport. Scheer grew up in Hayward, working summers at Fred Scheer’s Lumberjack Shows, which combined timber sports with history and humor. These days, the 6-foot-2 athlete and real estate developer also runs Dells Lumberjack Show in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin, along with his father. He has a showman’s flair, often flouting dress codes by wearing a straw fedora and a pair of tartan leggings while wielding his favorite chainsaw, dubbed “Purple Rain.”
“People can relate to this. We’ve all climbed a tree or split firewood.”
Scheer is one of the few athletes who participates across all the categories. But he’s famous for his astonishingly fast pole climb. He scales a 60- or 90-foot pole with his hands grasping a loop of steel-core rope, his feet finding purchase through football cleats fitted with toe spurs. The moment he reaches the top, he plummets down in a near freefall as the crowd gasps. Scheer holds seven world titles in the 60-foot speed climb (his fastest time is 12.54 seconds) and three in the 90-foot (with a personal best of 21.1 seconds). This year, he wins the 60 foot, but loses the 90 foot by six hundredths of a second.
Although Scheer has been a part-time professional timber athlete for two decades, he avoids calling himself a lumberjack. “It’s like what rodeo is to ranching,” he says. “I’m not a logger. I don’t work in the woods, but I’m very much involved in the sporting side.” There is, however, a direct link between many of the LWC competitors and timber management. “A good 50 to 75 percent of lumberjack sports athletes work in the forest products industry as loggers, log buyers, foresters, consultants, or arborists,” Scheer says.
Meredith Ingbretson races across logs in the Boom Run
Some competitors lean more toward athleticism. Meredith Ingbretson scrambled onto a floating log when she was 3 years old, and she’s been rolling ever since. “Growing up in Hayward, it’s just something you do,” the 23 year old says. “I think everyone who lives here has probably tried it at least once.” Ingbretson excelled at cross-country, track and hockey in high school, and captained the ice hockey team in college. She’s intense and focused, and clearly loves competing. Over 10 summers teaching at the local Namekagon River Rollers school, Ingbretson’s become a mentor for younger athletes—earning two logrolling and four boom-running world champion titles along the way. This year, in the Boom Run, she sprints over and back across a dipping and spinning bridge of red cedar logs, making it look easy. She takes her fifth championship in 14.47 seconds.
Both logrolling and boom running require fast feet and extraordinary balance. Paired rollers stare fixedly at each other’s feet and make split-second calculations—tiny steps backwards and forwards, sometimes splashing each other with aggressive little kicks of water. “Having good posture and control of your arms is a big thing,” Ingbretson says. “Once you see people throw their arms to counterbalance what their feet are doing, you can tell they’re probably going to go off.” Although the logrolls are crowd-pleasers—ending, as they do, in someone getting dunked—participants take the sport seriously. “This is high-level competition,” Ingbretson says. “A lot of us would like to make it to the Olympics one day.”
A competitor uses a single-motor power tool for the Hot Saw contest
On the final day of the LWC, things take a downward turn for Cogar. He injures his shoulder during the Springboard Chop, making another All-Around title a distant prospect. With an enormous ice pack strapped to his torso, he nonetheless continues to compete, prevailing in the Standing Block Chop and Double Buck Saw events. He’s proud of those wins, and he’ll try again next year. “In this sport, from your mid-20s to your 40s is your prime,” he says. “I take advantage of my youth while I can, and just try to experience it in its fullness.”
In the end, the All-Around winners are Jason Lentz, a fourth-generation lumberjack from Diana, West Virginia, and Erin LaVoie, a CrossFit gym owner from Spokane, Washington. As the sun sets, the athletes pack up their gear, pausing to shake hands and congratulate each other.
From the start, clever promoter Tony Wise understood how the spirit of the hard-scrabble lumberjacks and their ragtag logging camp fellowship would resonate among the people who attended the games. “The camaraderie and friendship that is so evident among competitors, officials and spectators at the Lumberjack World Championships each year makes this event resemble a grand homecoming,” Wise said back in 1975. That feeling hasn’t changed. “It’s very much a family,” says Cassidy Scheer. “At the end of the show, most everybody is going to have beers together.” He smiles and adds, “It’s such a small niche sport that you can’t afford to make enemies.”
Four of the most compelling contests at the LWC
Single and Double Buck Saw
In the old lumber camps, crosscut saws were nicknamed “misery whips,” and they still require plenty of muscle and stamina. Today’s competitors, in pairs or solo, use the saws to slice through horizontal white pine logs.
Lumberjacks guide super-charged chainsaws to create thin discs or “cookies” that fans can have autographed during meet-and-greet sessions. “You’re using a dirt bike or snowmobile engine,” Matt Cogar says. “It’s a motorhead event.”
Rollers compete in a three-out-of-five match format, with narrower logs for each round. “The important skills are quick feet, core strength and just being aware of what your body’s doing,” says Meredith Ingbretson. “It all kind of ties into each other.”
Underhand Block Chop
Standing on horizontal aspen logs in flat, thin-soled shoes, athletes use sleek, hand-forged racing axes, to chop a deep “V” between their feet, then turn around and repeat the process on the other side until the log breaks in two. The fastest time wins.
On a Roll
A different kind of spinning class
Want to give logrolling a try? You’re not alone. A growing number of gyms, aquatic centers, camps and colleges are offering classes and clubs for fun and fitness. Minnesota-based Key Log Rolling makes lightweight synthetic practice logs equipped with detachable “paddles” that slow things down, so you can minimize your time in the water. Organizations like Key Log Rolling and the United States Log Rolling Association offer information on finding a program near you.
If You Go
Where to Stay
The lavish Victorian mansion built for lumber baron Robert Laird McCormick is located just a block from Hayward’s Main Street. McCormick House might have the best front porch in town, overlooking a park with a pond and gazebo.
Angry Minnow Brewing Company
The handsome 1889 brick building that once housed the Northern Wisconsin Lumber Company’s offices has been revived as a craft brewery and restaurant, with a Friday night fish fry and innovative “Up North” cuisine like brat tacos topped with kimchi.
The River Deck Restaurant
Perfectly situated in a rustic log cabin right beside the Lumberjack Bowl, diners can tuck into a walleye sandwich on the umbrella-shaded deck within a splash of the log rollers.