BABES IN THE WOODS

Special to Globe and Mail. Published Sept. 1, 2007

 Babes in the Woods. Double-page spread, Focus, Globe and Mail. September 2007

Babes in the Woods. Double-page spread, Focus, Globe and Mail. September 2007

Story and Photos by Suzanne Ahearne

CAMPBELL RIVER, B.C. 
“Mmmm," says Brendan from Spokane, grinning, "you smell like starter fluid— and that's very, very attractive ... The only thing better is diesel fuel."
   Sabine Henne could take offence, but instead erupts in giggles. Although just a rookie, she already knows that this kind of flirtatious razzing comes with the territory. As a competitive "lady logger," Ms. Henne spends her summer weekends visiting the small towns that make up British Columbia's competitive Logger Sports circuit. Like their male counterparts, she and her fellow "lumberjills" practise such once-manly arts as axe-throwing, sawing, chopping and log-rolling.
   And yet, as a group, they can't be stereotyped. True, most of them prefer beer to wine and big pickups to little puddle-jumpers. Some—as young as 20 or as old as 70—grew up in this offbeat sport, others married into it and some just found it on their own. Some are employed in the forest industry, but most are not, working at day jobs that range from paramedic, naval officer and physiotherapist to teacher, student and dog groomer.
   Most years, two or three women join the circuit, but Ms. Henne is one of 14 newcomers in the past two years. Even so, there are now only half as many events in B.C. as there were a decade ago. The Canadian Logger Sports Association (CanLog) blames volunteer burnout as the main reason nine communities have dropped out. But it's hard to ignore the fact that the province is turning away from forestry, once an economic pillar. There are even those who speculate that public perception of logging has sunk so low that many former sponsors no longer want to be associated with it. Which may be why some logger events are now billed as "timber sports."
   Whatever the name, the goals are the same: entertain the crowds, evoke memories of the province's glorious past and, of course, win prizes.
   The season is winding down, but North Island LoggerSports has attracted more than 60 competitors, about a third of them women, to Campbell River on the east coast of Vancouver Island. Held in conjunction with the town's summer festival, the event is one of the best for the lady loggers. There are more events for women than at any other stop on the circuit, and the cash up for grabs is closer to what the men take home.
Carolyn LeBlanc is, like Sabine Henne, a new recruit; in fact, she admits to being taken aback when her neighbour, a Logger Sport veteran, asked if she'd like to "do the Jack and Jill" with him. A naval officer stationed at Canadian Forces Base Comox, she had no idea that he was talking about a mixed event, formally known as the double buck, in which two partners use double-handled, six-foot-long saws made of hand-forged steel to cut through 20-inch blocks of pine in about 15 seconds. It's the same kind of saw that two men needed an entire day to take down one of the West Coast's giant firs and cedars.
   The Jack and Jill and the "Jill and Jill," or ladies double buck, have become the lifeblood of logger sports, bringing married couples, fathers and daughters and even mothers and daughters closer together.
   For example, when Sandy Laughlin met her future husband Bradley, he was working as a "faller" and was active in logger sports. She decided to compete with him (he says she was a natural sawyer) because she loved it —and because of the link with her father, a logger who'd worked the woods in the old ways.
   For more than 25 years, they have spent most summer weekends on the road, in some cases travelling to competitions in eastern Canada and the United States, including world championships held in Idaho and Wisconsin where the sport began more than 100 years ago. (In two weeks, Liverpool, N.S., will be the scene of this year's regional grudge match, called the East versus West Challenge.)
   Now, at 49 with numerous awards as well as 40 stitches and six injury- related surgeries behind her, Mrs. Laughlin can still go through 16 inches of pine with an old-fashioned saw in under a minute. Yet she warns against assuming that makes her less feminine. "Right away, you think 'macho.' You think 'butch.' But we're not. I'm far from being butchy. I like to dress nice, put makeup on. I'm not out there to show my muscles."
In fact, she rarely practices. "I like to come out here and just win," she says, "but now the girls are getting younger and they're bypassing me. I'm usually in the kitchen or working. I should train. But I'm just out there to have fun ... It's more about seeing my friends and talking."
   With the same laissez-faire approach to preparation, Sarah Mooney, a bar manager from Ucluelet on the Island's west coast, still has managed to be Canadian All-Round Lady Logger on many occasions.
She was 13 when she began to compete alongside her father Matt, a logger who lost his job after the outcry over cutting on Clayoquot Sound in the mid-1990s. Now 32, she admits to being "a bit of a redneck," and says environmentalists often slag loggers without knowing one.
   These "hippies in dreadlocks," she says, "thank god, so far have never picketed a show." A sticker on a nearby toolbox advises: "Hug a logger. You'll never go back to trees."
   Jean Boyko of Port Alberni, B.C., wouldn't argue with that sentiment. Her logger husband Alan is retired, but he was known in the woods as "the pint-sized Paul Bunyan," and encouraged his equally petite wife to help him demonstrate that strength and stamina don't depend on size.
   Now, at 68 the oldest woman on the B.C. circuit, she is a three-time world champion axe-thrower and has won All-Round Lady Logger awards more times than she can remember. This year in Ucluelet she threw three bull's eyes - a perfect score— for the second time in her career, winning the $150 first place prize.
   Like the saws, the axes used in competition have a long legacy. The women's models must have heads that weigh at least 2½ pounds and handles at least two feet long. They are also double-headed, like the ones fallers used (with handles twice as long) to make their wedge-like undercuts to determine where trees came down.
   The Boykos have three children who started taking part in the sport as teenagers. For Christmas one year, Mr. Boyko bought what youngest daughter Brenda, then 17, describes as her best present ever: an axe with a handle he'd painted pink and a head he'd had dipped in chrome. The handle has been replaced a few times, but it's still the axe she throws in competition.
   As well, Brenda and her sister Janice have been "birling," or log rolling, since they were kids, wowing spectators by skipping rope and hula-hooping together on top of floating logs.
   As an event, birling is a tribute to skills developed by the "river rats" or "boom men" who broke up log jams on rivers and corralled logs into booms to be towed up and down the coast.
   Mr. Boyko says that, without logger sports, many traditional skills would be lost because there has been so much mechanization in the woods.
   Keeping lumberjack history alive is also part of the thrill for lumberjill Jacqulin McNicol, 29, a timber appraiser from Vancouver. "I've always been in love with logging," she says. "It's a part of our heritage."
And like Sarah Mooney, she says the sport, which she took up four years ago, has the power to break down stereotypes. "People have this negative image of the logger, but they don't know anyone. If they go to a show and actually meet one, they are in awe of what they see."
   She dreams of becoming a faller and enters as many events as she can: chopping, birling, power-saw,  choker race and next year wants to try tree- climbing again. Despite her dedication to the past, she is also drawn to the chainsaw, and has "a little Husquvarna" that can go through a competition log in about 10 seconds.
   Although wracked by nervousness before events, Ms. McNichol admits that "once the season's over, I'm a mess. You just spend all summer building up for it and there's this euphoria every weekend. And then it ends.
"The last show, I'm so sad. I just don't want it to end."
   The B.C. Logger Sport season wraps up withcompetitions in Terrace tomorrow, Williams Lake next Saturday and Port Alberni the following day. To bridge the gap until next year, Ms. McNicol is organizing a Logger Sport club in Squamish, north of Vancouver, and plans to train there all winter.
   "If it's something you love, do it all year long. It gets you better," she says. And besides, "I'll have friends to do it with me. If it snows, then so be it. We'll get on wetsuits for the birling pond, if we have to."

The grain event
Underhand chop
Axe-wielding entrants stand atop an anchored block
of wood and whack their way through, chopping
from both sides.
Axe throw
Standing 20 feet away, contestants try to stick a
double-bladed axe into a 3- foot-wide target. They
get four chances, with the best three throws deciding
their score.
Hand sawing
The goal is to cut through a 20-inch log in the
shortest time possible, and the competition is broken
into solo (single buck), pairs (double buck) and
mixed pairs (Jack and Jill) events. Saws vary in size
but those used in the singles are usually seven feet
long and equipped with teeth shaped like those of
shark. A vital role is played by a coach who is
allowed to use wedges and lubricant to to speed the
process.
Stock saw
Gasoline-powered chainsaws are used to cut through
wood blocks almost two feet in diameter.
Log birling
A big crowd pleaser, birling or log rolling features
two competitors trying to tip each other off a floating
log.
Tree climbing
This exciting and especially strenuous event is
basically a race up and down an 80-foot pole, with
constant adjustments to the climbing rope because the
‘tree’ tapers off near the top.
Choker race
Contestants start by racing across logs secured in the
birling pond while carrying a 34-kilo,
eight-metre-long standard rigging tool. Once clear of
the water, they must jump across two log obstacles
and tie the choker to a dummy pole. Then they are
required to dash back to where they started.
Source: Squamish Logger Sports ( http://squamishdays.org )

Published Sept. 1, 2007