Sharpening their skills: HCC lands spot on the national lumberjack scene
Dana Dowdy raised a razor-sharp axe above her head, let it hover a moment and then slammed into her competition with the first of many swift, deft blows.
The throngs of cheering people on the sidelines became background noise. The other lumberjills looking on weren’t her concern either. Today, her beef was with the large, stubborn block of wood between her feet.
“You’ve got to hit the wood as hard as you can, split it as fast as you can, and just get it done,” she confidently stated.
A member of the Haywood Community College timbersports team, Dowdy is one of numerous competitors who landed in the lumberjack limelight during the Intercollegiate Woodsmen’s Meet hosted at HCC last Saturday. Timbersports teams from five colleges and universities from the Mid-Atlantic region converged at the event.
Now in its 17th year, HCC’s timbersports team started as an extracurricular pastime for students majoring in forestry, wildlife and fisheries. It has since become a legendary and storied tradition for the school’s reputable natural resources program.
The annual competition not only puts students head-to-head against peers from other schools, it seamlessly weaves camaraderie and teamwork into the rich fabric of traits the college hopes to instill in its pupils.
“It has definitely become a big draw for our program with the interest in it growing tremendously in the past decade,” said Blair Bishop, timbersports club advisor and professor at HCC. “The programs here are obviously more than just timbersports, but these events give the students something to get involved in and be proud of.”
And proud of it they are. With a lineage of national timbersports champions, the team at HCC is one built on passion, grit and an attitude of never giving up, no matter how difficult that task at hand can be.
During the water boil competition, where a team of two has to start a fire and boil a cup of water as quick as possible, the event heats up, literally. Taking first in the category, Matt Reich and Ben Kniceley are covered in soot and sweat, with a few battle scars to take home with them.
“I definitely burned some eyelashes in that fire,” Reich chuckled afterwards.
While it doesn’t carry the might of the axe throw or stamina of the cross cut saw, building a fire as hundreds of people yell and scream, the clock ticking towards the difference between a triumph and defeat, can be harrying in its own right — especially with more than one cook in the kitchen.
“It’s a little chaotic, like a dance almost. Everything has to go together or else you’ll be stepping on everybody’s foot,” Reich said.
A timbersport meet may seem like most other collegiate events: diehard fans and doting parents sporting their school colors and logos on hats and T-shirts. But, there’s one notable difference here. No matter who is up in an event, everyone — from every school — is cheering the last person to finish as enthusiastically as those who emerge champions.
“The whole point of this is to have fun and show appreciation for the woods,” said Jonathan McColl, a timbersport athlete from Montgomery Community College in Troy. “It’s nice to have everyone cheering for you, helping you out and giving you tips to get better. It’s about being outdoors, having friendly competition and being aware of taking care of the environment. And I just like swinging an axe and chopping some wood.”
Categories range from the water boil and team log roll, to the horizontal speed chop and axe throw, to the cross cut saw and pole climb. Each as difficult as the rest, each with students as unique as a lone tree in the vast woods they aim to immerse themselves in and protect in their future careers.
The pole climb pits competitors in a race against the clock to scale a 40-foot pole, heaving their way up with spiked boots and a leather strap. As MCC student Cameron Richmond gets ready to scramble up the towering pole, he doesn’t think about the dizzying aspect of being high in the air. For him, it’s about precision and doing his job as best he can.
“It ain’t easy, that’s for sure,” he said between deep breaths following his arduous climb. “If you never practice, you’ll never make it. You have to be willing and have to practice to do this.”
Richmond enjoys participating in timbersports because it offers him things to do outside of school, something worthwhile that is completely out of the ordinary.
“It’s something besides schoolwork, and it keeps you out of trouble,” he said. “It keeps everybody active. We have a pretty good time practicing and cheering everybody on.”
Standing on the sidelines nearby, HCC Interim President Dr. Bill Aiken is taking it all in. He sees the importance of timbersports at the school and its ultimate benefit to the health and integrity of the programs it ties into.
“It’s a unique sport, not one that you see often and we’re pleased to be able to host it here at HCC,” he said. “In terms of a community college, you try and find what you think is very unique at your particular school, and one of the things unique about us is we’ve done a great job distinguishing ourselves with our top notch natural resources program.”
With the hot Southern Appalachian day winding down, it’s time for the immensely popular cross cut saw competition. Kniceley and Logan Hawks are gearing up for the two-man team battle of vintage saws, strong arms and an even stronger ambition to take the title home. Dozens of spectators crowd the duo, shouting and hollering at them during their speedy cut, which, as smooth as a knife through butter, ultimately proves victorious.
“This is the biggest adrenaline rush I can get and I love it,” Hawks said. “It’s just really physical, with a bunch of techniques. Once you get it down it’s something to be proud of.”
Bishop points out how the origin of professional forestry management and conservation started just down the road at the Cradle of Forestry on U.S. 276 between Waynesville and Brevard. He is greatful for the support of local businesses and Stihl, who is the main sponsor of these activities alongside the contributions from fundraisers the team puts together.
Though a handful of the students may end up in careers as professional timbersport athletes, all will walk away from HCC with a mindset of tradition and innovation.
“There are excellent forest resources out here and having students that can wisely manage and conserve our resources is so important, not only for Western North Carolina, but also for our nation as a whole, and that’s just what we’re doing here,” Bishop said.
• Besides the collegiate events that occurred at HCC on April 13, there was also a Stihl national timbersport competition that happened at the Haywood County Fairgrounds on April 14. Both days were filmed by ESPN, with footage expected to air on the Outdoor Channel in May and on ESPNU in either June or July.
• At the Mid-Atlantic Collegiate Competition at HCC, Penn State-Mont Alto took first place, HCC came in second and Dabney S. Lancaster CC was third. Allegany College of Maryland and Montgomery CC also competed.