Timbersports team chops its way toward season opener
Orange chaps clipped around their legs, Rankin Fender and Zac O’Connor square off inside the sawdust-and-bark-filled woodshed at Haywood Community College. Late afternoon sunlight angles through the lean-to’s open walls, and the two students each grab hold of one handle of a razor-sharp crosscut saw. They slide the blunt end back and forth along the bolted-down log between them, marking out a groove.
“Timer ready? Sawyers ready?” asks Ethan Bolick, a seasoned member of the HCC timbersports team. “Three, two, one, go!”
Fender and O’Conner spring into action, the push-pull rhythm of the saw soaking up every ounce of their attention.
Encouragement pours forth from the other timbersports team members circled around them.
“C’mon, you guys!” shouts Julie Doll.
“Don’t rock it,” cautions another team member.
“Keep going, you got it.”
“C’mon boys, you almost got it,” Chris Hall says from his perch atop the butt end of the bolted-down log.
“Cut ‘em off,” Logan Hawks urges.
The blade reaches the bottom of the wood, and the “cookie” falls to the ground.
The team cheers.
The final countdown
Closing in on the final week of practice before their first meet of the year, timbersports practice has an air of intensity to it, a consciousness that the big day is fast approaching. The John G. Palmer Woodsmen’s Meet, held at the Cradle of Forestry in America near Brevard, is HCC’s home meet, and they’ve taken home the trophy for five consecutive years. Of the 19 years the meet has been held, HCC has won 12.
“We don’t go there to lose,” said Bolick, who’s now in his fourth year on the timbersports team. “They all know Haywood’s here.”
“They” is a diverse group of schools that often includes a good many four-year universities whose notoriety and enrollment numbers far outstrip Haywood’s. This year, the six teams include North Carolina State University and Penn State Mont Alto.
But Haywood students are all about their timbersports. Practice sessions start pretty much as soon as classes do, and team members practice from 4 p.m. up until about half an hour after sunset, everyday Monday through Thursday.
It’s paid off in the past. Last year, the team came in third at the STIHL Timbersports Mid-Atlantic Collegiate Championship, and one student, Logan Hawks, took third at the national competition.
“It’s great fun. It’s really a lot of fun,” Hall said. “Good exercise, too.”
It takes a little more work to set up to drill on chopping a block of wood, throwing an axe or sawing a log than it does to prepare to dribble a soccer ball. At any one time, some students are actively sawing or throwing. Some are just sitting around waiting for their turn. Others are keeping time, or watching the younger students practice, throwing out tips and coaching on technique.
“We’re here to help each other out, give them good technique and make sure they’re safe,” explained team captain Dakota Gentry.
“Everyone just helps you learn the techniques and cheers you on while you do it,” agreed Kristen Cabe.
Not something you pick up overnight
Mastering feats like hacking clean through an upright block of wood isn’t as simple as it sounds. There’s a lot of skill that goes into doing it right, a lot of accuracy.
“It’s not something you pick up overnight, for sure,” said Bolick, who’s won numerous awards at previous woodsmen’s meets and does timbersports for pay at his summer job.
He demonstrates how that applies to the standing block chop — in other words, hacking through an upright block of wood with an axe.
Before chopping, Bolick puts in his lines, marking with his axe where he needs to hit to break through. His axe traces a semi-circle angled upward at the height of his knuckles, and then a down-angled semicircle 9 inches above that. The same pattern on the other side, except shifted about 2 inches higher. Then the timer starts, and all that remains is to hit those lines accurately.
Which Bolick does, toppling the block in 52.64 seconds.
“There’s something about being able to take a razor-sharp axe and go hard as you can all the way through it,” Hawks said.
Building a network
Though the tools are not as widely used as they were 50 years or so ago, skill with an axe or saw can come in handy when students graduate to embark on forestry careers. For Bolick and Hawks, who work at The Lumberjack Feud Dinner Show in Pigeon Forge, their skills have already earned them some cash over the summer.
A lot of the value, though, stems from the simple act of competing, said faculty advisor Blair Bishop, lead forestry instructor at HCC. Forestry in itself is a small world, and by competing in the same events year after year — the team appears in about seven meets each year, some involving car rides of 10 hours or more — students get to know their competition.
“Many times, they’ll be interacting with these folks professionally years from now,” Bishop said.
Like rodeo for cowboys
And in the meantime, it’s just a lot of fun. On the weekend of the Woodsmen’s Meet, the teams camp out together on Friday and Saturday nights, eating dinner together on Friday and rising early Saturday to eat a big pre-competition breakfast. Competition events start with tree identification and wildlife quiz bowl events and then warm up to more physical events, such as the horizontal speed chop, the pole climb and crosscut saw events. The whole thing finishes with a banquet and awards presentation Saturday night.
“The past few years, we’ve got to know them really good by now,” Bolick said of the competition. “We’re serious about it, but we like to have fun.”
Rivalries are part of the fun — HCC has a “friendly” rivalry with Penn State Mont Alto, Doll said — but so is just the thrill of competition.
“They just made a game out of it, kind of like rodeo is for cowboys,” said Frank Potts, an HCC forestry alum who serves as safety supervisor for team practices.
For a little community college that doesn’t have any other sports teams, having a game that students and faculty can rally around is important, Bishop said.
“For the college,” he said, “it’s a chance for the faculty and staff to rally around a team and cheer for our students that compete.”
Drawing foresters of the future
But there’s definitely a real-world application, Hawks said. Though the hard skills involved in timbersports success might not be in as high demand as they used to be, dealing with wood every night at practice really does illuminate the book learning part of forestry.
“You get to learn about wood — different blocks, species,” Hawks said. “Forestry really does tie into it.”
And having the team also draws foresters of the future to Haywood.
“We start seeing more and more that it attracts students to our program,” Bishop said. “They’re really interested in timbersports.”
Hawks was one of those, basing his decision to attend HCC partially on the timbersports team, partly on the academic program. After taking third place in the national timbersports competition last year, he’s feeling good about his decision.
Shoes to fill
With an even split between freshmen and returning members, this year’s team is a young one. After Hawks’ third-place national finish last year and the team’s first-place showing at the Woodsmen’s Meet and third-place win at the mid-Atlantic meet, expectations are high. And the team members are feeling good about their chances of coming out on top again.
“We have a lot of shoes to fill,” Gentry said. “We know what we have to do, and we’re ready to shoot for the stars.”
Want to go?
The 19th annual Intercollegiate John G. Palmer Woodsmen’s Meet will be held Saturday, Oct. 4 at the Cradle of Forestry in America, with events running from 7:45 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Six teams, including Haywood Community College, will compete in events ranging from wildlife and tree identification knowledge to axe throwing, pole climbing and chopping through a horizontal block of wood. The quiz-based events will take place in the morning, with the more physical events happening in the afternoon and evening.
Along with the meet will be displays and demonstrations from a variety of craftsmen and exhibitors. Demonstrations will include whittling, woodcarving, candle making, wood turning, fly fishing and tying, falconry and creating cornhusk dolls.
These events will be part of the larger event taking place around the Woodsmen’s Meet, Forest Festival Day. The festival celebrates the Cradle’s status as the birthplace of forestry in America. Dr. Carl Alwin Schenck, forester for George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate from 1895 to 1909, founded America’s first forestry school in 1898 and used the present Cradle of Forestry area as its summer campus. At that time the word “forestry” was a vague and new idea in the U.S.
$6 for ages 16 and older; $3 for ages 4 to 15 and holders of America the Beautiful and Golden Age passes; free for children under 4. Located at the Pink Beds Picnic Area 4 miles south of Blue Ridge Parkway Milepost 412 on Hwy. 276 in the Pisgah National Forest, 25 miles from Waynesville.
A schedule of events for the Woodsmen’s Meet is online at www.haywood.edu/news/hcc_to_participate_in_john_g_palmer_intercollegiate_woodsmens_meet_at_forest_festival_day.
www.cradleofforestry.com or 828.877.3130.