Taking a Hack at 'The Original Extreme Sport'

The Stihl Timbersports Championships Come To German Fest.

American mythology often guides our perception of the lumberjack: strength, brawn, endurance, the sheer will to lay low a tree that precedes them by half a century. After seeing demonstrations from Stihl Timbersports, however, a single word remains foremost in my mind: precision.

Stihl Timbersports was established in 1985, a six-discipline gauntlet to determine the best lumberjack in America. Decades later, the championship has ballooned to include a women’s and collegiate division. “The original extreme sport” now features competitors from 27 countries in its world championships.

Photo Credit: Stihl Timbersports Championships

The disciplines first remind you of a simpler time. The standing block chop, where a lumberjack simulates the felling of a tree and cuts through a 12-to-14 inch block of wood. The single buck saw, where a lumberjack uses a crosscut saw meant for one person to hack through 19 inches of pine. The underhand, where a lumberjack stands on top of a block of pine and swings down at their cutting marks until its split in twain completely.

But then, gleaming axes and single buck saws are soon replaced by what can only be described as the chainsaw to end all chainsaws. The hot saw competition places a custom-made Stihl chainsaw into the hands of lumberjacks with a snow-mobile engine (you read that correctly) that runs up to 200 miles per hour. In the hands of lumberjack Matt Cogar, the hot saw cuts through white pine like butter.

Stihl’s single buck saw is a marriage between futuristic and traditional craftsmanship. A 60- to 66-inch piece of steel is laser-cut; after that the teeth of the saw are hand-filed to the razor’s edge. If that process sounds intensive, it is; serious buyers are placed on a waiting list for anywhere from two to 18 months.

Erin LaVoie got into the sport in college while she was studying forestry, when she joined a team and was competing four days later. With bloody hands, grit and four days of experience, she was able to finish top three in each event she competed in. Seventeen years later, she’s the reigning women’s champion.

“I don’t half-ass anything,” LaVoie says.

Photo Credit: Stihl Timbersports Championships

A fierce competitor, LaVoie has seen the women’s division of Timbersports grow from the beginning, evolving from a sparse competition where sometimes top-three finishes were guaranteed to events where qualifying rounds are needed to weed out competition. With a mind driven by victory and some mathematics and angles, LaVoie sits atop that crowded field.

“It’s all physics,” LaVoie says, likening swinging an axe to throwing a baseball.

Matt Cogar was practically born into the lumberjack business. His great-grandfather worked timber and each generation has followed suit up to him. In his native West Virginia, competitions like Timbersports have a rich history.

“That’s how this got started,” Cogar explains. “Timber camp versus timber camp, putting their best guys out.”

Cogar is a full-time lumberjack athlete, but during the off-season, he’s a stay-at-home dad to his 3-year-old daughter, who he refers to as “a threenager” because of her personality.

Cogar is a six-time Timbersports champion with sponsorships from Red Bull and John Deere, but the prolific axe-handler’s greatest pride is for his state. He says it’s important to him that he represents West Virginia and he can bring brightness to a state that’s fallen on hard times. It’s a very complex sentiment, bound up with something that’s really very simple.

“It’s the man versus the wood,” Cogar says.

That’s good enough for me.

The Details

What: The Stihl Timbersports Championships
Where: German Fest, located at Henry Maier Festival Park (200 N Harbor Dr.)
When: The men’s qualifying rounds will start at 5 p.m. on Friday, with the championship taking place on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. Women’s division and collegiate will take place on Sunday starting at 4 p.m.