Sports  An absurd, dignified spectacle

McGill's woodsmen and women fell many a log in lumberjacking meet

Last Sunday McGill’s lumberjacking – for lack of a better word – team hosted their annual meet, welcoming woodsmen and women from some of the country’s top agricultural schools to Macdonald campus. For those who don’t know, the day was not just a gratuitous humanity-vs-forest face-off, but a selection of events that ranged from fire-building, log rolling, and tree climbing, to, of course, log chopping.

What those events consist of might need some elaboration. Firstly, all the events are timed, with no direct competition between different teams – probably not a bad idea, considering that the vast majority of participants are at times clearly pumped up to the max, and in possession of extremely sharp axes. We’re not talking ‘forged in the caves of Middle Earth’ sharp, but they could split a human skull with ease. That said, the day was by no means overly competitive; the atmosphere seemed to encourage self-improvement rather than victory at all costs.

Fire-building, or the water boil, sees competitors start with an axe, a lump of wood, a match or two, and a blackened tin of water. In a matter of minutes, the competitors have spliced the wood into pieces of varying sizes and constructed a miniature inferno. They even strike the match on the axehead. For this downtown cosmopolitan Arts student, who would probably need the best part of an hour and/or a petroleum-based liquid to build such a fire, watching the event was a thoroughly shame-inducing experience.

Another compelling event is the crosscut saw. A team of six has to cut six discs from a 8×8 inch log, with three pairs of cutters working in relay on each end of the saw. Teams almost always complete the event in under a minute. A more gruelling but no less entertaining event is the standing block chop, in which competitors have to chop through a block of wood that is standing up. For every person who make it look easy, there was another who exposed just how difficult the task is; and for every axe blow that sent the top half of the log spinning to the ground, there were 15 that hit the log with a dull thud. All the events are clearly very technical, but the standing block chop saw the greatest variation in times and technique.

On the subject of times: the day’s results left the overall standings unchanged from before the meet. McGill’s men’s first team and women’s first team both remained in third place, and men’s second team was in seventh.

Perhaps the most awe-inspiring event is the pole climb. Decked out with spiked shoes and a tube of what looked like rubber (which they wrap around the trunk and hold on to), competitors shoot up a 28-foot pole to ring a little bell. In case you were wondering, they’re on a rope, so minor mistakes do not necessarily result in death. There were also two events which could be broadly grouped under ‘log manipulation.’ The three pairs who compete in log decking have to roll a largish log down a track and back again. They each do so with the help of a (medieval weapon of war) peavey, which they then have to pass, like a baton of death, to their teammates. The other is pulp throwing, which is not what it sounds like; competitors do not hurl clouds of sawdust around. The pulp is actually a small log, about four feet in length and weighing between 30 and 40 pounds. The team of six take it in turns to throw the four pulp sticks between pegs some 19.5 feet apart. When the team reaches 48 successful throws, the timer stops. Kind of like ten pin bowling, if people threw the pins instead of the ball.

To those reading with a superior smirk on their face, try looking toward Canada’s national sport. Is flicking a lump of rubber across some frozen water really less ridiculous than chopping down a log? The absurdity of sports in general is unquestionable, but that absurdity does not detract from the spectacle. If anything, it adds to the enjoyment, as watching a group of grown men fight each other because of what happened during a game of rubber-lump-on-frozen-water will confirm. The woodsmen and women, in many ways, are amongst the most dignified of athletes.