I’m a lumberjack, and I’m OK

The UNR Lumberjack Team

David Gonzalez demonstrates “bucking,” or sawing wood the old-fashioned way with a two-man crosscut saw.

David Gonzalez demonstrates “bucking,” or sawing wood the old-fashioned way with a two-man crosscut saw.

Photo By Nick Higman

These guys start drinking beer and swinging axes at 8 a.m. on Saturday mornings. By noon, they’re tossing axes tomahawk-style at a bright red bull’s-eye target. “This is what we do to relax, when we start getting lazy at the end of practice,” says UNR Lumberjack Team captain Russell Garrison, 23, gesturing to a group of five or six lumberjacks and lumberjills taking aim at a defenseless, wooden target. “Ax-throwing is just a lumberjack drinking game,” agrees team co-captain Andreas Hespelt, 31.

The UNR Lumberjack Team is a university organization that participates in intercollegiate competitions of various forestry-related events, from the mundane (tree identification) to the noisy, violent and exciting (chainsaw competitions).

Like a track and field team, the team members tend to specialize.

“Some of these guys are buckers,” says Garrison, referring to his teammates who focus on “bucking,” that is, sawing logs and links using a traditional two-man crosscut saw, “but Andy and I—we’re choppers.”

Garrison takes great pride in identifying himself as a guy who chops wood. He’s been on the team for three years and is lean and soft-spoken, the way a guy who carries a big ax should be.

“We try to keep our blades razor sharp,” says Garrison, brandishing a slasher-worthy ax. “Look at this …” he says, searching his hands for a notable scar, or better yet, a fresh cut. “Hmm … usually my hands are a lot more nicked-up than this by the end of practice.” He expects, without feeling any pain, to find gaping wounds on his hands, and is disappointed when there aren’t any.

There are two kinds of chopping events: horizontal and vertical. Both events are judged for speed and accuracy. The primary difference between the two events is in approach. In vertical chopping, also known as standing-block chopping, the log is placed straight up in the air, and the chopper approaches from the sides. In horizontal chopping, the chopper stands on top of the log and attacks it with downward strokes.

It’s not a simple matter of brute force. Aim must be accurate. Cuts must be precise. The choppers cut into the block at a 90 degree angle, chopping in a circular motion to ensure an even cut. They work one side at a time. A crucial moment during competition is the switch from one side to the other. This must be timed carefully, especially for the horizontal choppers standing atop their logs.

Gonzalez chops wood.

Photo By Nick Higman

The bucking events employ methods no longer used by professional loggers. Two sawyers pushing and pulling with a crosscut saw, doing work that most modern professional loggers would do with a chainsaw. But it connects the team to old traditions, to old ways of working.

For some of the team members, this connection to tradition is abstract, a way of understanding outdated modes of production. But for others, like Garrison, the connection is tangible: “My dad was a timber faller for 20 years.”

Sleep all night, work all day
And they get college credit for it. The UNR Lumberjack Team is technically a class, and team members earn class credits for their first two years on the team.

Since this is Garrison’s third year on the team, he’s no longer earning credits, and it’s clear that simply earning school credits was never a major factor in his motivation to be on the team.

“He likes to beat up wood,” says Roger Walker, 52, a UNR professor of forest resources and the team’s advisor. The UNR Lumberjack Team itself has a long tradition. “I came in ‘85, and the team was already going,” says Walker. “It’s more active now. There’s more participation now … because the forestry program is growing.”

Though the team is open to all UNR students, most of the teammates belong to the UNR forestry program. Lumberjacking isn’t all just hacking and bucking. Team members are quick to explain that the sport isn’t symptomatic of wanton environmental destruction but is instead a part of responsible resource management.

“Modern forestry is all about sustainability,” says co-captain Hespelt. Modern loggers must consider water quality, wildlife management and recreation when managing their resources. “In addition to environmental concerns,” he says, “sustainability is important for us because otherwise we’d be working our way out of a job.”

Teammate Brent Moore, 28, chimes in: “It comes down to forest products versus petroleum products. I’d rather use forest products because with sustainable forestry, wood is a renewable resource."The big event in The UNR Lumberjack Team’s calendar is the regional primary competition of the Association of Western Forestry Clubs (AWFC). Different schools host this week-long competition that attracts dozens of teams from different colleges and universities every year. The 2008 competition was held at the University of Montana in Missoula last week.

In addition to the field events (chopping and bucking), there was also tree-climbing events and technical events: tree identification, tree measurement, and traverse, surveying work using a map and compass.

Russel Garrison, UNR Lumberjack team captain, chops wood. Its in his genes—his dad felled timber for 20 years.

Photo By Nick Higman

Stihl, the chainsaw manufacturer, sponsors the event, which is filmed by ESPN for its university network, ESPN-U.

Garrison made respectable showings in the horizontal speed chop, placing sixth; and the single buck, placing fifth. The rock-solid Hespelt placed second in the chainsaw-wielding power saw portion of the competition. But the big UNR star of the 2008 AWFC championship was Stephanie Brana, 21, a biochemistry major, who placed in no less than five events, including bronze prizes in the vertical speed chop, vertical hard hit and the power saw.

“It takes a lot of skill, power and motivation,” she says, describing her sport. “It’s hardcore. If you’re not fit … you’re going to hurt yourself.”

She was impressed by the Montana setting. “It’s really green, and there was still a lot of snow … it really is ‘Big Sky Country.'”

Brana began chopping wood at a young age. Her father, Juan Brana, a Basque immigrant, would compete at festivals throughout the West and now acts as a part-time coach for the UNR team.

In the fall, the team raises money by selling firewood, and they hire themselves out for odd logging jobs year round. Some of the teammates also compete in events at Basque festivals in Elko and Winnemucca. They can pick up a little prize money at these events. But the money, like the class credits, isn’t a major motivation.

“It’s about bragging rights,” says David Gonzales, 21, an environmental science major on the team. “It’s like bike racing or anything else … proving who’s best.”

And, the team claims, it’s fun.

“I like to work,” says Garrison. “This is fun for me.”

But isn’t chopping wood something most people consider a chore?

“Yeah,” says Garrison. “Because they’re crazy.”