With an ax heaved over his head, 13-year-old J.C. Broadsword swayed back and forth, then sent the tool sailing through the air, end over end.
It bounced off a target painted on a tree stump 20 feet away.
“What I’m seeing here is a lack of concentration,” coached Terry Oliver as he gave a quick lesson in ax throwing.
Sticking an ax in stump isn’t a skill the average teenager or the average logger needs nowadays, Oliver admits. But it is a historical skill of North Idaho woodsmen and a piece of logging heritage that shouldn’t be lost.
“We want to pass along an appreciation for the skills that once were used in the woods,” said Steve Dybdal.
Oliver and Dybdal are timber managers for Ceda-Pine Veneer Inc., a Bonner County wood products company. For the past five weeks, they have donated their time to teach 14 students traditional logging skills such as ax throwing, crosscut sawing, pole climbing and log rolling.
The course, called the Youth Timber Sports Program, is coordinated by the Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce. Every year, the chamber is host of Timberfest, a celebration of the timber industry and a competition for loggers to test their backwoods skills. This year, the chamber wanted to get local students involved in the competition.
“We decided it was time to pass on some of these historical logging skills to the next generation and preserve them,” said Shawn Keough, the chamber’s timber information officer. “Some of these skills are used less nowadays, and we don’t want to see them dead. We were lucky enough to have some instructors here who still have the skills and can teach them.”
Dybdal has competed in woodsmen competitions across the country. He said old logging skills actually are making a comeback and woodsmen competitions have turned into a worldwide sport.
“They don’t use an ax in the woods like they used to, but everyone still likes to try to throw one,” he said.
Loggers started the ax-throwing habit to save time and free up their hands. Once he had finished working on a tree, a woodsman would toss his ax into a tree near his next job.
“That way, they wouldn’t have to carry it along with their other gear,” Dybdal said. “They got very accurate.”
Sticking the ax is much harder than it looks, as Broadsword discovered. He hurled the ax three more times before finally drilling it into the target at the Bonner County Fairgrounds where the students are training.
“The pole climbing is the toughest. It’s a lot higher than it looks when you are up there,” said 15-year-old Ben Gunter, pointing to a towering pole set in the ground for the June 14 Timberfest.
Students are climbing only 25 feet.
They also practice log rolling, also called birling, without getting wet. A massive log is set up on a makeshift axle so it can spin freely as if it were in the water.
In days of log drives down rivers, woodsmen called “river pigs” scampered over the floating logs, freeing jams and feeding logs into the mills.
Because the log drives ended, there is no need for river pigs. Birlers now mount a log floating in a plastic pool of water and compete to see who can stay on the longest.
“I watched the first class and decided I wanted to be a part of this. I’ve always wanted to learn to throw an ax, too,” grinned Ben Steines, 14.
He was catching his breath after yanking a crosscut saw through a timber. Chain saws have eliminated the need for the two-man crosscut saws, Dybdal said, noting loggers used to call the saw a “misery whip.”
“If you ever pulled one, you would understand,” he laughed.
The Timberfest celebration will begins June 14 at 10 a.m. with a truck rally through downtown Sandpoint. A day of activities and competition will take place at the fairgrounds.
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