Arden Cogar Jr., 37, and his wife, Kristi, 38, check and recheck the gleaming steel blade of their crosscut bucksaw. Arden gives it a final buff, then he and Kristi grab opposing handles. Facing off across the white pine log in the searing summer heat, the two lock eyes and smile.
"Go!" yells an official, signaling the start of the Jack and Jill bucking contest at the Lumberjack World Championships in Hayward, Wis. (pop. 2,129), which draws more than 12,000 spectators each July.
The Cogars furiously push and pull the oversized saw through the rough 20-inch-diameter log. Flying sawdust, dripping sweat and screaming spectators are ignored as the couple frantically races the clock. A mere 7.74 seconds later, a slab of wood falls to the ground and the contest is over. Arden and Kristi earn fifth place, with a time one second behind the winners.
For Arden, an attorney in Charleston, W.Va., competing in lumberjack contests is in his blood. "My family has been involved in lumberjack sports for three generations and hopefully, there'll be a fourth," he says, nodding at his daughters, Kiera, 10, and Carmen, 6.
"My father came here to the Lumberjack World Championships and was the first American to win several competitions," Arden adds. "He won the first all-around they ever had in 1962. He also became the first American to win the standing block chopping event. I carried that legacy on (in 2006) when I became the third American to win that event."
A lumbering history
Lumberjack sports originated in the 1880s when the nation's timber industry was booming. With no roads built to haul felled timber, loggers used rivers to transport logs to the nearest sawmill.
"River drivers," armed with spiked boots and poles, drove the logs downstream, herding the cantankerous mass through the water's twists and turns. A river driver's life hinged on his ability to keep his footing as he jumped from one slippery log to the next. When the logs arrived in the sawmill's holding pond, workers controlled the inventory by chaining logs end to end, a configuration known as a "boom." If the booms broke or needed to be opened to release logs, "boom runners" had to sprint across the bobbing string of logs to re-chain or separate them.
When the log drives were over, lumberjacks often kept their skills sharp by holding informal contests in which river drivers, boom runners, sawyers and axmen competed for bragging rights.
These contests eventually gave rise to more formal regional competitions around the country. However, it wasn't until 1960 that the Lumberjack World Championships brought the sport worldwide notoriety. The event, often referred to as the Olympics of the Forest, was the brainchild of Hayward native Tony Wise, a Harvard University-educated business visionary and promoter.
"Tony was our hometown entrepreneur. He really wanted to put Hayward on the map," says Diane McNamer, the event's executive director. "He thought it would bring tourists and awareness to the Hayward area. And for the first time, he brought together, under one umbrella, the best of the best to compete."
Hayward, which is surrounded by a myriad of lakes in the Chequamegon National Forest, is an appropriate home for the championships. The town sprang to life in the 1880s when Anthony "Jud" Hayward built a sawmill to take advantage of the area's large supply of virgin timber. And today, many of the championship events take place at the Lumberjack Bowl, which once was a holding pond for logs driven down the Namekagon River.
"There's still logging going on today in and around our area," McNamer says. "Although certainly we don't roll them down the river anymore."
Now in its 49th year, the Lumberjack World Championships are supported by 200 volunteers and annually attract more than 100 lumberjacks and lumberjills from around the globe. Vying for $50,000 in prize money, the outdoor athletes test their skills, speed and endurance in 20 events, including logrolling, boom running, pole climbing, chopping and sawing, at the premier timber sporting event in the nation.
"This is huge; you get bragging rights from this!" says logrolling competitor Alyse Schroeder, 18, of Hayward. "It's what we train for all year. You get ranked for next year. It's a huge, huge thing." From the spring thaw through August, Schroeder and her 13-year-old sister, Lauryn, practice logrolling at least an hour a day.
Running & rolling
Another "Go!" pierces the air, signaling the start of the women's boom run competition.
During the women's boom runner event, Jenny Atkinson, 34, and Lizzie Hoeschler, 24, sprint across the lake on bobbing, 30-foot strings of wet logs chained end-to-end before dashing back across to the finish line. Atkinson, a third-grade teacher from Stillwater, Minn. (pop. 15,143), wins with a time of 15.33 seconds. Hoeschler, at 15.53 seconds, takes the loss in stride.
"Jenny and I go back and forth. I'm glad it's that way because it makes competition more exciting and makes people train harder," says Hoeschler, of La Crosse, Wis.
Hoeschler also competes in the nerve-racking sport of logrolling. "Logrolling is very different from other sports; there isn't much give," says Hoeschler, who took up the sport at age 4. "The log is little and it spins fast and you have another person on with you. It's tiny movements and total concentration. You can't let the crowd or anything get in your head. If your mind lapses even a little bit, you're going to fall."
To add to the difficulty, competitive logrollers often break an opponent's concentration by wobbling the log or kicking water in a foe's face.
Fortunately, Hoeschler has had some great teachers. Like many competitors, her logging skills were passed down from her family. Her mother, Judy Scheer Hoeschler, is a seven-time world champion logroller; sisters Katie and Abby hold world titles, and brother, Will, 16, moved from the semi-pros to the pros in 2007. In addition, her uncles, aunt and cousins all have been successful in various lumberjack sports.
"When I was a child, it was just something really fun to do with my mom and my siblings," Lizzie says. "In the summer, we'd all go down to the practice center. It's one thing that has brought my sisters and me together because wherever we were, in the summer we'd all come home and train together. If we weren't training together, we'd compete with each other on the weekends."
Of course, not every competitor has a long lumberjacking history. Brothers Shane, 18, and Cole Sabin, 16, are the first rollers in their family. "It was my mom's idea," Cole says. "I was 5 years old when I started and have been competing ever since. It's fun, it's hard, it takes practice, but once you get good at it, it's a skill you'll keep forever."
Those skills are what keep thousands of spectators and athletes returning to the world's premier lumberjack competition. "What I love about it, is that it's action-packed and you marvel at the skill and agility of these athletes," McNamer says. "You almost forget that these are the true skills that built America. And we're really paying homage to that. It's true Americana. This reminds us of the men who cut the forests to build the homes and made America what it is today. These competitors are keeping that spirit alive."
That heritage isn't lost on Arden Cogar Jr. "When we're competing with these axes and saws," he says, "we're not only celebrating our own logging heritage, we're celebrating the heritage of the American tradition."