‘Ax Men’ gets up close with Northwest loggers
ASTORIA, Ore. – Move over chain saws. There’s a new “buzz” in the logging industry.
The creators of “Deadliest Catch” and “Ice Road Truckers” will soon be broadcasting “Ax Men,” a new television series about loggers in the Pacific Northwest. And several Astoria characters are the hand-picked poster boys.
The “Ax Men” camera crews followed workers with Astoria’s J.M. Browning and Gustafson logging companies as they harvested trees along the Coast Range. They also followed teams from Pihl Logging of Vernonia and Stump Branch Logging of Banks.
After three months of filming late last year, the show premieres March 9 on the History Channel, highlighting the dangers and drama of logging and documenting what it takes to make it in the industry.
Over the course of 13 episodes, the series will compare modern-day loggers with the rugged, pioneering “legends” of the American West and take a sweeping look at the deep-rooted history of the profession. Local loggers say they hope it will clear up misconceptions about the work they do and give their beleaguered industry a boost.
The History Channel has quite literally made Astoria loggers Jay Browning and Darrell Holthusen the poster boys of modern logging culture. They’re on billboards in New York City and Los Angeles, and they’ll appear on the Jimmy Kimmel Show in early March.
In mid-February, Holthusen was feeling anxious at a logging site off Oregon Highway 53 – but not because of the perils facing him on the job.
He’s used to the risks involved in cutting 100-foot trees, operating heavy equipment on breakneck slopes and facing treacherous workloads under tight deadlines.
Broadcasting his life on national TV, on the other hand, is a new kind of risk.
The “Ax Men” camera crews followed Holthusen through his work days as general foreman for Gustafson Logging and peered into his personal life as a husband, a father of two children, a coach for Astoria Youth Football and a counselor at Oregon Youth Authority in Warrenton.
He doesn’t know how all the footage will be put together on the show. Aside from the premiere screening event March 8 at Astoria’s Liberty Theater, he said, “We’ll be sitting at home in front of our TVs watching it for the first time like everybody else.”
The show names Holthusen “the Superman of logging” because of his double life as a logger and family man.
“What they couldn’t understand is why I did what I did and then lived my other life, which is my family,” he said. “To them it seemed like it was out of character. If I was crazy enough to do what I’m doing, how can I also have a normal life?”
Show promotions call Browning, founder of J.M. Browning Logging Co., “no-nonsense” and “all business.” The tattooed motorcycle buff started his company 28 years ago and lost his left hand in a logging accident in 1983. He bought a new Harley Davidson over the phone while he was laid up in the hospital from the injury. Now, he has a special prosthetic just for riding.
Unlike others on the show who followed family logging traditions, Browning was the rebel in a family of mostly doctors.
“My dad said I was more destined to be a Hell’s Angel than a doctor … so I decided I’d go to work in the woods,” he said.
The company he built now employs more than 100 people, lands the region’s biggest and trickiest jobs, and pays top dollar for highly skilled workers. His two sons, Jesse and Jared, both work for the company.
“We’re a colorful bunch,” he said. “I’m a little off the wall myself, and we definitely march to a different drummer. But we’re pretty serious about this logging business, and that’s the thing they saw.”
The skill required to be a logger isn’t much different today than it was a century ago, said Thom Beers, an executive producer of “Ax Men.”
“The only thing that’s changed, to be honest, is the size of the logs,” he said.
Beers said he watched in awe as Browning felled five trees at once on a tree farm in Clatsop County.
“He kind of looks at the trees and says, ‘I’ll cut this one, this one and this one,’ ” said Beers. “And he cuts, like, four trees and none of them fall and then cuts the fifth and it knocks all five down, and you’re like, ‘This is awesome! These guys are artists.’ ”
In many ways, the producers didn’t have to stretch the truth to capture the high stakes loggers face in the Pacific Northwest. Broken saw blades, snapping limbs and crashing trees can seriously injure or kill timber fallers.
Rolling logs can crush choker setters, who run along the mountainsides over piles of downed wood and brush, hooking cables to felled timber before it’s hauled up.
The risks even extend to workers manning the yarders and processing machines that pull the logs in and de-limb them. The heavy equipment is often perched near treacherous slopes.
Beers, who crafted the similar reality TV shows “Deadliest Catch” and “Ice Road Truckers,” said he expects “Ax Men” viewers will be educated and entertained by the new series, and amazed by the life stories tucked away in the trees.
“My God,” he said. “The land, the work, just the morning, the mist coming up … these guys all look like they just came out of a great old tale. You’re waiting for Paul Bunyan to step out next to them. It’s timeless.”
Jay Browning and Gustafson Logging owner Mark Gustafson said they didn’t sign onto the “Ax Men” show to become famous, though they’ve been assured that’s part of the deal.
“The loggers didn’t go to Hollywood. Hollywood came to the loggers,” Gustafson said. “The only reason we agreed is because there’s been so much negative information about logging over my 40-year career in the woods. We saw this as an opportunity to show – basically the country – what we actually do for the environment.”
Mark’s father, Duane Gustafson, started his company in 1974 with help from his three sons, Mark, Clay and Wade.
“It was just the four of us for 10 years,” Mark said. Now, the family employs between 40 and 50 people.
The Gustafsons and Browning made sure to draw the show’s attention to the regulations their companies follow to protect streams and soils and to replant the forests they’ve cleared.
“The media has beat us up pretty badly, and I don’t think a lot of people are really educated on how the woods are regulated,” Jay Browning said.
Beers said “Ax Men” producers understood the environmental concerns about logging and sought out companies with sustainable harvesting practices.
“We were looking for responsible forestry habits, and we think we found it,” he said. “There’s dignity to this kind of work.”