A shanty man’s life is a wearisome one, Although some say it’s free from care. It’s the swinging of an axe from morning ‘til night In the forest wild and drear. George W. Stace
In June the city is flush with anglers, kayakers, and canoeists, celebrating the Musky Festival.
Later in the year, over two thousand off-road cyclists jam-pack Hayward for the Chequamegon Mountain Bike Festival. The race traverses ski trails and forest roads.
But the one event most true to the city’s roots is held in July. That’s when lumberjacks and lumberjills from around the world flock to Hayward for the Lumberjack World Championships.
The plaid is wall-to-wall.
This year, almost sixty percent of the nearly one hundred competitors were from Wisconsin, including seven from Hayward. The rest came from thirteen states and four countries—Canada, Sweden, Czech Republic, and Japan.
The competition includes seven sawing events, six chopping events, two logrolling events, two boom-running events, two speed-climbing events, and, for good measure, axe throwing. Most of these require dangerous implements.
To succeed in the chopping events, a competitor must have a tool sharper than the typical axes available at Ace Hardware.
An axe specialist told me that racing axes (as competition axes are called) are so sharp they can be used to shave. Based upon the lumberjacks I saw, not many are used for that purpose.
Racing axes are manufactured by a handful of specialists in Australia, New Zealand, Germany, and Sweden.
The heads are hand forged, tempered, and ground to razor sharpness. With a hickory handle and a leather sheath, a racing axe typically costs over seven hundred dollars.
Racing saws cost even more—up to three thousand dollars. Handcrafted saws for the single-buck and double-buck events are approximately 6½ feet in length.
Their ferocious teeth are engineered to eat wood and expel sawdust in both directions with each stroke.
Lumberjacks may examine teeth more thoroughly than dentists do. I watched a lumberjill gently lay her cherished six-foot saw on the dock next to the mill pond, recline next to it, and study every tooth.
Ranches signify ownership of their cattle by branding them.
Similarly, logging companies once marked the logs they cut before launching them downstream to the mills.
At first, company symbols were chopped into the bark, but eventually they were stamped onto the ends of the logs with hammers. The marks were registered and protected by law.
Without the marks, the mills would not have known which company owned the harvested logs.
I was in Hayward at the suggestion of friends Jim and Craig, who were vendors at the Lumberjack World Championships. Their company, Manistee Log Marks, manufactures and sells merchandise featuring the historical marks.
Our mutual friends Bill and Bonnie invited us to stay at their cabin near the city of Hayward during the events.
Not coincidentally, Hayward was founded by a lumberjack. Anthony Judson Hayward moved to Wisconsin from Pennsylvania in 1855 at the age of nineteen.
After a few years of logging, he developed an eye for harvestable pine and began purchasing available stands of trees. Through a series of partnerships, he built mills in Manistee, Michigan; Winona, Minnesota; and Shawano and Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin.
In 1878, he selected a spot for a mill on the Namekagon River and cofounded the North Wisconsin Lumber Company. The mill opened in 1883 and the city of Hayward grew around it.
The city of two thousand hosted the Lumberjack World Championships for the first time in 1960.
The life of a lumberjack was dangerous, the living conditions primitive, and the pay low. The men, many of Scandinavian descent, lived in camps in the woods.
They spent all winter cutting down trees with hand tools, clearing thousands of acres of land. (Life at Bill and Bonnie’s cabin on Lake Nelson was, in comparison, much more comfortable.)
Lumberjacks worked six days a week from sunrise to sunset. For recreation, they danced, sang, played musical instruments, and wagered on feats of strength and agility. The latter diversion is how lumberjack competitions began.
Like cowboys, lumberjacks took pride in their work ethic and spartan lifestyle. A lumberjack culture gradually developed, based on toughness, self-reliance, and competitiveness.
Over the years, the logging industry has modernized. Today’s lumberjacks operate heavy equipment, such as feller bunchers, skidders, loaders, and trucks. Now, only homeowners use hand axes and saws.
Few, if any, of the world-championship competitors are actual lumberjacks, although their great-grandfathers may have been.
Instead, they are athletes, likely with day jobs, who train year-round for the events.
Many of them grew up in rural areas of the northern United States where the lumberjack culture is revered. They have, as they say, “sawdust in their veins.”
The purpose of the Lumberjack World Championships, according to founder Tony Wise, is to “perpetuate and glorify the working skills of the American lumberjack.”
With the exception of the chain-saw event, the contest is a living-history museum. The events honor the outmoded craft of the men who literally built the country in the late 1800s.
The field of competition is called the Lumberjack Bowl, essentially a row of high-school football bleachers facing a pond.
The chopping events are standing block, underhand block, and springboard. The standing-block event replicates the felling of a tree. The athlete chops an upright log in half as quickly as possible.
In order to keep the competition fair, the tournament’s logs are turned on lathes to exact diameters.
At “go,” the competitors swing as fiercely as major-league batters aiming for the cheap seats. Huge chunks of wood fly through the air.
This year’s lumberjack winner split a fourteen-inch log in twenty-seven seconds. For the first time, lumberjills competed in standing block. The winner severed a ten-inch log in twenty-four seconds.
Another event, the underhand-block chop, is intimidating to contemplate.
Competitors stand on felled logs, raise their axes high overhead, and, on command, swing forcefully downward. The axes embed into the logs between their feet—hopefully. A miscalculation could cost a toe.
To reduce the seriousness of injuries in the chopping and sawing events, many lumberjacks and jills wear chain-mail socks.
This year’s lumberjill winner chopped through an eleven-inch log in twenty-five seconds. The lumberjack slashed through a fourteen-inch log in twenty seconds.
Perhaps even more daunting than underhand block is springboard, an event that adds climbing to the equation.
The lumberjack first chops a notch into a standing log. Into the notch he inserts a plank, called a springboard, upon which he climbs.
While standing on the plank, he cuts another notch higher up and inserts another plank. After climbing to the second springboard, the lumberjack attempts to chop through a twelve-inch log.
In Hayward, four lumberjacks at a time went head-to-head in this dangerous competition, all swinging axes while balancing precariously on planks nearly nine feet off of the ground.
Each spring after the thaw, the lumberjacks rolled the winter’s harvest of tree trunks into the swollen river.
Log drivers wrangled the logs downstream toward the mill like a herd of cattle. During the journey, the drivers balanced on top of the moving logs, running from one to another, directing traffic, and breaking up jams.
Once near the mill, the logs were sorted by their marks and directed into holding areas designated for each logging company.
To corral the timber, floating logs were chained together like beads on a string to form fences, called booms.
Log driving was a dangerous occupation. Some drivers fell between the logs and were crushed.
Two lumberjack competitions emerged from within the booms—logrolling and boom running.
Boom running is a timed footrace on a line of floating logs across a pond. At Hayward, runners started by jumping from a dock onto the boom.
After racing across the pond, they leapt onto the far-side dock, circled a barrel, jumped back onto the lurching and spinning logs, sprinted back across the water, and jumped back onto the starting dock.
Running causes the logs to tilt and spin in the water, increasing the difficulty of maintaining balance. During the early rounds of the competition, falls were frequent.
The mens’ event was won in just over thirteen seconds; the women’s in fifteen.
Logrolling is a one-on-one competition. To begin, the opponents step onto a floating log and find their balance. When the referee is satisfied both rollers are in control, the match is on.
Lumberjacks and lumberjills test their opponents’ agility by spinning the log rapidly, stopping suddenly, rocking, and reversing direction. Rollers never take their eyes off of their adversaries’ feet. Some competitors kick water into their opponents’ eyes.
The goal is to “wet” the other roller by causing them to lose balance and fall. If both rollers are upright when the time limit is reached, the match continues on a log of smaller diameter. Smaller logs spin more quickly and sit lower in the water.
Rollers and boomers alike wear athletic shoes with metal spikes, called caulks, that dig into the logs.
To advance through the competition, the athletes must win three out of five “falls” against each opponent.
The traditional sawing events are single buck and double buck. They replicate the sawing into sections of trees that have been felled.
The saws are so sharp and the athletes so skilled, the cutting takes only seconds. With every stroke, sawdust explodes from the logs like fireworks.
The single-buck competition features one sawyer with an aggressively filed six-foot saw slicing a twenty-inch log, as if it were nothing more than summer sausage. The winning time for both of this year’s lumberjack and lumberjill was fourteen seconds.
The double-buck event features two athletes, one on each end of the saw. With two people alternately pushing and pulling, the log is cut at a speed much faster than the single-buck event.
Both winning teams severed twenty-inch logs, the men in six seconds and the women in ten.
Then, in the Jack & Jill division, lumberjacks and jills team up on the double buck. This year’s winning couple conquered the log in just over seven seconds.
For me, the hot-saw event, featuring chain saws, is an anomaly—the only non-traditional event in the championships.
I suspect chain-saw manufacturers may have insinuated their way into the event with sponsorship money.
What’s more, the chain saws used in the competition are not garden-variety, but highly customized monstrosities with modified engines, often borrowed from snowmobiles. They can cost over ten thousand dollars.
At “go,” the sawyers start their engines and make three quick vertical cuts at the ends of twenty-inch logs—one down, one up, and one down. It’s a top-fuel drag race. The whining of multiple saws is deafening.
The log cuts must be precise to create three circular slices of wood. Blink and the competition is over. This year’s hot sawyer won in seven seconds.
Perhaps the most exciting of the competitions are the speed climbs. In these events, contestants race against the clock to the tops of poles.
One is sixty feet high; the other ninety—as tall as a nine-story building.
To aid in the climbing, the athletes wear spurs, which dig into the poles. On the referee’s command they scamper like squirrels up trees. Upon reaching the tops, they slide or, more accurately, free-fall back to earth, where they land on foam cushions as pole vaulters do.
This year, one contestant won both events, the sixty-foot climb in thirteen seconds and the ninety-foot climb in twenty.
Muskys and Moore
Twelve thousand spectators attend the championships over four days. Craig and Jim were kept busy selling their log-marked merchandise.
Nearby, kids practiced logrolling in a tank of shallow water. A woodcarver used a chainsaw to fashion the likeness of a bear. Rangers with Wisconsin’s DNR distributed state-park maps.
In the Swinging Axe Beer Tent, a local band played soft rock. (Alcohol was not permitted in lumberjack camps in the old days.)
Some attendees sampled one of Wisconsin’s delicacies, deep-fried cheese curds. Smokey Bear posed for selfies.
Bill and I took time to visit the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame. Hayward is a popular fishing destination due to the many lakes in the area. The name of its river, Namekagon, is Ojibwe for river at the place abundant with sturgeons.
Inside the hall are displays of over two hundred rods and reels, three hundred outboard motors, and five thousand fishing lures. I believe I spotted one I lost long ago to a submerged log.
The museum keeps track of world-record catches, some of which are mounted on the walls.
Five world-record muskellunge (also known as muskys) have been caught near Hayward.
Bill said every bar in the area claims to have the biggest musky ever caught mounted on its wall. The largest, at over seventy pounds, is displayed in a bar east of Hayward. However, the accuracy of the scale used to weigh it was never verified and so it is considered suspect.
The second largest resides at the hall of fame. However, it is only a replica, as the original sixty-nine pounder was lost in a fire in the 1960s.
The third largest, a sixty-seven pounder, is on display at the Moccasin Bar in Hayward. It’s no match, however, for the 143-foot fiberglas musky in front of the hall of fame.
The giant musky is the world’s largest fiberglas structure, four stories tall and as long as three gray whales swimming end to end. Inside its belly is a museum.
Visitors climb up through the fish’s gullet and emerge from its gaping jaws like modern Jonahs.
The musky’s open mouth can accommodate twenty people. Weddings are sometimes performed inside, where the newlyweds are protected from sun, rain, and, at least temporarily, life’s storms.
Another exhibit of sorts is Lynn’s Custom Meats. Bill and I visited a few times to order sandwiches.
Besides Wisconsin cheese, sausage, and jerky, Lynn’s features thirty-three flavors of bratwurst. Bloody Mary–style, anyone?
On Saturday morning, I joined a few hundred plaid-clad runners in the Lumberjack 5K. Upon finishing, I was awarded a coupon for a can of Dinty Moore beef stew and a Drink Wisconsinably mug.
I'm a lumberjack, and I'm okay. I sleep all night and I work all day. Monty Python