NEW YORK – When you see Adrian Flygt for the first time, you don’t feel like this is a man who should ever be overwhelmed. The imposingly tall, bearded man with the booming voice commands the room – even if the room is technically a park – and his presence practically screams lumberjack. That said, this was a 6-foot-4, 270-pound lumberjack in New York City, and this city has a way of overwhelming just about anyone who isn’t prepared for it.
So as Flygt entered the taxi queue outside the airport, he was out of his element. But as an on-air personality for the Stihl Timbersports series, he wasn’t afraid to ask questions. And a simple “this is the cab line, not a line for some sort of boat or bus?” question did just fine, although it drew the obligatory “You’re not from around here, are you?” response. When he was finally ushered through, he found a driver willing to break all sorts of land-speed records to get him to his hotel in Manhattan.
While Flygt still reeled from the terrifying ride — a quick-dunk baptism into New York if there ever was one — the driver nodded, motioned toward the door and told him, “Have a great trip.”
To celebrate its 30th anniversary, the series upped the ante and brought the championship to Central Park. That meant big men packing cars and driving across the country with hundreds of pounds of gear to compete in a sport that typically feels more at home in a place like Wisconsin or North Carolina, where lumber is a way of life.
“Once we get everybody in here then we’re going to have a wood-chopping event,” Timbersports executive producer Brad Sorgen said June 19, the day before the event. “The challenge is the simple aspects. You’ve got guys that are from Virginia and Minnesota. Pretty small towns, in rural logging communities, and they’re coming here to compete. They’re used to driving right up, unloading their stuff and having an event. We’ve got to get guys who have never been outside their home town into Central Park.”
Not everyone is completely familiar with Timbersports. And that’s OK. Even if you’ve seen them on ESPN over the years, you may still know it as the “wood-chopping” events or the “lumberjack” show.
Timbersports has six primary disciplines that the athletes become experts on. As collegiate champion Ben Kniceley (from Haywood Community College) told me, the most important thing is to “train every day.”
“You have to do these events enough to know where you should be at different times,” Kniceley says, “and where you’re supposed to stand, how the wood is going to act. You gotta read the wood. The more you chop, the easier it is to do all that.”
Each discipline is meant to simulate something lumberjacks do out in the field every day.
Athletes cut a hole in a 9-foot pole, then place planks (or springboards) into the groove before hopping up on those springboards, cutting another hole and doing the same thing. At the top, there’s a log that is nailed into the pole they have to fell.
Competitors stand on a block and chop in between their legs at an angle as quickly as they can with downward strokes to try and cut through the block. They also wear chain mail (yes, like Game of Thrones-style) on their legs. As Arden Cogar, Jr. said when asked by a passerby why he had it on, “to keep from lopping stuff off – it can happen. I have some nine-toed cousins.”
Sanding Block Chop
Footwork seems critical here, but foot placement isn’t quite as important as the angle of the cuts. The competitors chop down, then up, trying to make a pointed cut into the block before going around to the other side and doing the same thing in an attempt to fell it with as few cuts as possible. Pros can usually do it in 16 chops – eight on the front and back – although the best can get there in 15.
This is the event with the giant old-school saw, which has been nicknamed a “misery whip.” They have to cut through 19 inches of white pine as fast as possible, and it takes incredible body control to keep cutting consistently without getting stuck. Athletes have spotters who spray WD-40 and also put in a wedge to keep the cut going.
Competitors do two cuts with a standard chain saw, requiring smooth cuts all the way through. This tests strength – merely holding the chain saw down, then cutting back up is difficult enough – and the judge is constantly monitoring the cut. A bad saw through the block, and the yellow flag comes out.
This is the stock saw on steroids. Athletes modify chain saws on their own, using everything from jet-ski engines to motorcycle engines, pouring their own money into making this saw a force of nature. This adds a third cut rather than just the two in the stock saw, and the weight of the saw is enough to force some guys to wear weight belts just to keep everything stable. This is by far the loudest of the events, and ear plugs are recommended even if the only plugs you have are your fingers.
Fish Out Of Water
“Quite honestly,” two-time defending champion Matt Cogar remarks as he looks around the park, “this is beautiful.”
It’s hard to argue. There’s a reason so many people flock to Central Park in the summer. Even on a rainy day like this Saturday, where the sun seems to be fighting a losing battle against the clouds, the cover of trees and green space tucks you away from the rest of the city. It’s a thing that’s only noticeable in New York once it’s finally absent – there’s always noise somewhere at all hours. It’s easy to get used to it, but actual silence really is deafening. In the park though, before the saws and the axes get going, it’s just people and trees.
As one competitor mentions, “It’s a lot like places we’ve had wood chops before.”
Right about when “Super” Dave Jewett breaks the U.S. record in the Single Buck, an event where you basically saw as fast as you possibly can at a downward angle through a 19-inch block of white pine, people start filing in.
The rain is keeping a giant crowd from gathering, but it is a Saturday in Central Park in the middle of June, and people are definitely intrigued by the giant stage and the sounds of sawing and chopping.
It doesn’t hurt that there’s tents with free stuff everywhere – granola bars, popcorn, energy-water samples, bracelets and a hype team of STIHL folks tossing out shirts and bright-orange foam chain saw hats.
“I have three kids and we’re going camping in two weeks for the very first time,” Jason Peralta from the Bronx says. “It’s a good way to show the kids that there are other sports out there. We don’t get to see this on TV much, and being up in New York we don’t get to see this live at all. The trees we have we want to keep because there aren’t many, but it’s really nice exposure. Even just the saw hats, it’s silly but they see there’s timbersports, and we had a conversation about what sports they could do.”
A Family Affair
Family comes first in this sport, as it always has.
In the finals alone are multiple sets of relatives, including Cogar and his cousin Arden (whose father Arden Sr. made the finals at the age of 60 in 1994), as well as Mel Lentz and his son Jason.
Even in the finals, with family member competing against family member, there’s no shortage of advice being given. As Arden mentions, “We don’t celebrate any failures of anyone.” Everybody pulls for each other. They share snacks and help lug boxes around. If someone’s missing a tool or has a piece of equipment break down, someone else will step up to loan theirs.
Obviously these are fiercely competitive individuals, and there’s money and prizes on the line, but everyone wants the people they’re competing against to stay healthy and do their best. The winner will just do a little bit better.
“Everybody in the sport,” Matt Cogar says, “you’re kind of rooting for. You want to see them do well. Because to me it’s about the personal best. Putting up the best cut you can. It’s exciting because everybody’s achieving the goals they set for themselves.”
As the semis start wrapping up, two of the athletes who are long shots to make the finals take a seat next to each other. They shake hands and stare forward.
“I’m in ninth place right now,” one says.
“Hey, I’m in 10th,” the other responds.
“This f*cking sucks,” the first jokes, as both burst out laughing.
Family members and friends mill around backstage in an area that’s staying dry for the most part thanks to some of the trees overhead. There are boxed lunches floating around, and a couple tables with drinks, pretzels and arguably the biggest pile of hardboiled eggs in our nation’s history.
Competitor Matthew Marks has grown a mustache just for the event. He wanted to see it on TV when the ABC broadcasts air in the fall, and he can’t wait to shave it, although he has entertained the idea of keeping it at least through the evening so he can go out in the city with it.
Marks is not one of the ones who will make it through to the finals, but he has a playfully wonderful outlook on it.
“Hey I’m here and I don’t have to worry about the finals,” Marks says. “I can drink beer now. Life’s too short to be negative. You’ve got to look at the positives.”
Just You And The Log
The finals are extremely tight at the top heading into the last event, the hot saw. For those who have never experienced a hot saw, there are a couple things to keep in mind. First, it’s loud. Like louder than NASCAR loud.
The saws are modified chain saws made to look like props from Mad Max, with spray-painted words on the side and metal everywhere. They’re souped up with jet-ski, snowmobile or motorcycle engines and they can cost anywhere between $5,000 and $15,000.
Even these guys, some of whom look like they could moonlight as professional weightlifters, seem to have trouble wielding the machines. So to hold one up, make a solid cut down, then up, then down again, takes incredible patience and discipline, not to mention strength.
Logan Scarborough, who is in his first finals and has surprised everyone backstage with how poised he’s been throughout, has made a jump up the board thanks to a scorching time in the stock saw – 9.67 seconds – a new U.S. record.
After he walks off following the stock-saw event, someone asks Scarborough, “Who are you and what have you done with Logan?” The Wadesboro, North Carolina, native grins and sarcastically yells, “I’m sandbaggin’!”
As he’s warming up for the hot saw just a few minutes later, the chain goes on him, and a look of terror crosses his face. Someone tosses a wrench on stage toward Scarborough, who has a little bit of time to get it fixed and avoid a disqualification, but after a few seconds of messing with the chain saw, Logan throws his hands up. He’ll finish sixth overall, still a great feat for the 2010 North Carolina State graduate.
Matt Cogar says the best advice he’s ever been given is that “It’s just you and the log out there,” but that doesn’t account for the chain saw breaking. And that’s what makes the hot saw such a wildcard of an event. You can be ready. The log can be ready to be cut. But a simple mechanical error could spell doom.
Nathan Waterfield, or “Bucket” as he’s been called all day, has put himself in a position to make things interesting with a heck of a hot-saw time. Cogar’s time was good not great, but if enough people can sandwich their times between Bucket’s and Matt’s, Waterfield could potentially tie for first. As they run through the heats, there’s still a chance, but after Walt Page and Jeff Skirvin best Bucket’s time, it’s clear now Matt is going to be the champ yet again.
Matt lets it all wash over him for a few seconds to make sure it’s real before putting his hands up in the air and letting out a big sigh. Tears start flowing down his cheeks, and he can’t stop himself from smiling as the athletes come by one by one to congratulate him.
Lumberjacks also cry, even the best ones in the world.