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Logging Teams Take Skills to Cutting Edge

Times Staff Writer

When Gina Lopez told her pals in UC Berkeley’s “global-environment” residence hall that she had joined the school’s logging team, they were aghast.

“Gina, I can’t believe you’d do that,” one of her housemates said. “It’s logging!”

But here she was at this weekend’s California Conclave intercollegiate logging competition, gripping a double-bladed ax with both hands, rearing back and letting it fly at a bull’s-eye painted on a round slab of Douglas fir.

A few dozen competitors from California’s only university logging teams -- Berkeley, Humboldt State and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo -- had spent a chilly night on this rugged 3,200-acre ranch north of Santa Cruz. Mostly forestry students, they emerged from their yurts in the morning to vie against one another in about a dozen events, including wood-chopping, ax-throwing and heaving a 10-foot log called a caber.

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Big, friendly dogs were sniffing around, Johnny Cash tunes were wafting out of a boombox, chain saws were being unloaded from mud-splattered pickups, and burgers -- both beef and tofu -- were sizzling on an open grill.

“It’s a new era in forestry,” said Lopez, who, unlike Paul Bunyan, is short, female, Latina and vegetarian. Taking in the scene, the sophomore from Gardena was looking forward to a full day Saturday of obstacle-course-running and race-like-a-bear-is-after-you tree-climbing.

Such diversions have been part of the logger’s leisure hours since men who ate meals the size of small ecosystems felled trees for the first ancient subdivisions. But today’s up-and-coming foresters can find it disheartening to hone the same skills on campuses where ax-flinging and competitive chain saw events are seen as so not right.

“Even saying I’m a forestry major, I get attacked,” said Mike O’Brien, an avid logging competitor and president of Berkeley’s forestry club. “But you have to take the time with people and be patient with them.”

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O’Brien and his seven teammates have persevered. Cal’s logging squad went dormant in the early 1990s and was revived only in the last few years. It receives no money from the school but raises funds selling Christmas trees. Members also peddle specially designed T-shirts at Berkeley’s annual football showdown with arch rival Stanford, whose symbol is a goofy-looking, bug-eyed redwood.

This year’s T-shirt pictures Stanford’s beloved tree as a stump, with the ominous caption: “Not every tree deserves a hug.”

Over the weekend, competitors prepared by using axes to peel logs at the Swanton Pacific Ranch, a hilly swath of redwoods and oaks owned by Cal Poly San Luis Obispo near the tiny coastal town of Davenport. Although Humboldt State walked off with bragging rights, these were friendly exhibition matches done largely as practice for the annual Western-states college tournament next spring.

Until then, some, like Berkeley’s Sophak Peou, will make videotapes of professional logging competitions on ESPN, scouring them for tips on stance, swing and the elusive power source called “snap.”

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“If you can snap, you can out-chop anybody,” said the Cambodia-born forestry senior. “It’s kind of like a whip at the end of your swing.”

With that, he stood astride a chunk of red alder about a foot thick, hoisted his ax and, aiming at the sweet spot between his feet, dismembered the log in 63 seconds. Sweating, he allowed that it was a decent time but a flawed performance.

“I took three or four blows that were completely needless,” he said, kissing the blade of his trusty “Ax-calibur” nonetheless.

A handful of parents sat in beach chairs set up beside a field thick with wood chips and sawdust. As they watched, Humboldt’s Eric Burke and Damien Galford took their places on each end of a long bucksaw.

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In crouched slow motion, one pushed and the other pulled, one stretched his arms out and the other drew his arms back. Then a judge yelled “Go!” and teammates shouted “Pull, loggers, pull! Lower, lower!” With someone squirting lubricant into the widening notch so the saw wouldn’t bind, the two tore through a 14-inch log in 10.82 seconds.

As in other sports, technique is everything.

At just 5 feet and 130 pounds, Humboldt senior Stacy Hardy competes in a “Jack-and-Jill” event with a male teammate on the other end of a century-old Forest Service bucksaw.

“Women move a saw the way it was meant to be moved, using the full length of it to take advantage of all the teeth,” she said. “Men sometimes just get in there and go for it. They don’t care what it looks like.”

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At the ranch, competitors would pause after grueling spurts of sawing to scrutinize tree rings, cambium layers and massive knots. After a while, they’d gather up the energy to heave a caber, stride across open pits on teeter-totter logs while hauling a 35-pound steel cable or dash up an inclined pole with a chain saw, rev it up, slice off a chunk of wood and run back down.

When they weren’t straining, grunting or cheering on anyone at the business end of an ax, they were engaging in the more cerebral events -- leaf identification and compass skills.

“What people miss is that we’re not talking about guys whose goal in life is to go out and clear-cut a forest,” said Roger Phelps, a spokesman for Stihl Inc., the world’s biggest manufacturer of chain saws. “These are intelligent individuals studying sustainable forestry, wildlife ecology and resource management.”

Stihl has produced professional logging competitions on ESPN for 19 years, garnering as many as 6.9 million viewers per show, Phelps said. On the lookout for a new generation of competitors, Stihl executives started attending collegiate con- tests.

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“It was unbelievable,” Phelps said, recalling his first, in upstate New York. “These kids were camping out and there was almost this surreal Halloween-type thing, with fog on the field and campfires and these creatures crawling out of tents.”

More than 50 colleges across the United States have logging teams. While California’s teams keep a low profile, stars emerge in areas where timber is or recently has been a way of life. In Kalispell, Mont., Flathead Valley Community College draws several hundred local fans to its events and offers 24 annual logger sports scholarships.

“This way they don’t need part-time jobs and can focus on the team,” said Annie Beall, who, with her husband Bob, has coached Flathead Valley to 12 Western championships in 17 years. “It’s pretty unique,” she said, pointing out that her school’s logging team has outlasted its basketball team. “With all the cutbacks, they’ve never touched our scholarships. They think logging adds something to college life.”


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