The "Little Guy’s" Approach to Lumberjack Sports
By Devin Merkley - March 2012
My name is Devin Merkley. Nickname Merk. I live, work, and play in Central New York. I graduated from SUNY Cobleskill in the Spring of 2011. My occupation is in the field of horticulture. I just turned twenty three in January and have been involved with the sport of lumberjacking for 6 years. With this article I hope to shed some light on the triumphs, struggles, and victories of “the little guy.”
In America, the word lumberjack is synonymous with giant. Paul Bunyan was never mistaken for a horse jockey. Denny’s Restaurants does not market their Lumberjack breakfast special to small children. When we think lumberjack we think of the big beard, big chest, big belly and of course, big axe! In the sport of lumberjacking we can see these real life mythical looking men and women (lumberjills) at every competition. They are admired by the crowd for their might and their power. Spectators want to see these mythical beings in their element and they get what they wish for. In many cases these are the competitors that we see top the leader board at shows, but not always!
The spectrum, however, is a full one. At every show you will see a complete range of body styles, sizes, ages, and physiques. Although the crowd may oooh and ahhh over the giants, there will be no lack of respect for the group of competitors known as “the little guys.” “Little guys” are not wimps or weak by any means and at times they even look a bit tougher than the giants. The little guy can be seen struggling to carry his 14 inch round Aspen block to a cradle but would never ask for help. He might be heard saying, “I’m just looking forward to the obstacle pole and springboard.” He or she may be a “ringer” in one event which they are known for such as springboard, axe throw, hot saw etc. He or she will not enjoy being referred to as “a little guy.”
In my teens I was an avid soccer player, freeride mountain biker, and freeskier. I chose my battles based on my size. I never crested 140 lbs or 5’6” in high school. In soccer I was quick with the ball, solid with the pass, and sure with the shot. I never had interest in football because I knew I would only get run over. I never had to worry about size on the soccer pitch. If you get to the ball first in soccer, you won’t get hurt. My size also suited my passion for skiing and mountain biking. I never tired after hours of either. My squatty, core sense of balance allowed me to place on the podium at a number of “best trick” and “rail jam, slopestyle” competitions around New York State. My skiing career died unfortunately as I went to college. I could no longer afford it monetarily and realized in my line of work I would not be able to afford a broken wrist, leg, neck, etc. As wicked fate would have it, I was recruited by the college lumberjack team in my first week at school merely because I was wearing a STIHL chainsaws hat at the club fair. Thanks Bubba Baker! I would soon find myself falling in love with lumberjack sports and would see it replace my need for adrenaline that I got from skiing and mountain biking.
My early lumberjack sports career was full of rough starts and broken hearts. I was maybe 145 pounds by then, but by 40 pounds the smallest guy on our team. For three years I could not beat anyone in a chop, so I split. For three years I could never beat anyone in the single buck, so I climbed. For 3 years I dragged my team down in the pulp toss leaving 3 or 4 sticks “to pull” for the guy across from me. I did well with team events and was always a top notch 2 man sawyer but the rest, well, pretty damn depressing. The fact was I did not know how to cut and nobody could teach me. So the “big guys” always won.
Before my Senior year Nathan Waterfield approached me and asked if I would be interested in working for his arborist firm Timberworks Tree and Stone in Cherry Valley, New York. I took the job and it was the best move I had ever made for a lumberjack sports career. With only a few weeks before the Webster County wood chop festival, Nathan made me into a chopper. He explained to me that size and power is not everything in lumberjacking, but, technique is. He explained that he himself was a “little guy” and that it was his technique and precision that got him to where he is now, not strength. We opened up my standing block swing enough to make my shoulder and chin bleed. We straightened up my arms in the underhand enough to poke holes in the clouds. I trained nearly every day, probably hogging most of wood now that I think of it. I lived on a dirt road in a one room cabin by myself with no cellular service or tv. This meant I could chop or swim until dark because there was nothing else to do. I managed to not drink too much. I found out just how bad everyone in college actually cuts. I realized you don’t have to be gigantic to hang in there at the top of the leader board. The day I stopped using my weight and height as an excuse but rather to my advantage and as an inspiration was the day I stepped into a timbersports career.
I came back to the college with a new-found confidence. I had nearly burned out on the sport before the Summer but now it was my time to prove what could be done with technique. I did well with the standing block and underhand throughout the season for an absolute rookie. I began to pack on some muscle and held my own in the “strong man” events like pulp toss. I didn’t qualify for the STIHL Timbersports Series Collegiate challenge which was a nice rude awakening that I still needed to improve on my swing, flexibility and strength.
Some more training with Nathan and Mike Sullivan extended my swings even more. Sullivan also taught me how to single saw efficiently instead of as a brute force “ramrod.” Arden Cogar Jr. pestered me until I engaged my hips in the standing block and single buck. Sullivan, Arden, and Nathan all in their own way, told me to focus on each hit, don’t rush it, develop your technique for a whole season and the speed will come with time. A close friend of mine, RJ Rooney finally convinced me to hit the gym. Matt Marks also made enough fun of me to get to the gym. I found out who and what styles I needed to imitate and whose to ignore.
The Summer 2011 professional circuit was another eye opener for me. I gave every cut everything I had and did okay in places like Webster Springs, Bath, and Lyster, Quebec where I set my personal record in the spring board chop - 1:33. Although not placing well in many instances, I was being congratulated for my efforts. I earned a ton of respect from seasoned competitors for “chopping big with a smaller frame.” I got handshakes and “I wish I could swing like that’s” from competitors twice my size. Those are always confidence boosters. That’s when the crowd starts to have some respect for the “little guys.” Everyone likes an underdog story. I think after awhile, the crowd begins to understand the balance between the “big guy’s” struggles and the “little guy’s” struggles.
Just like I had in high school I am beginning to choose my battles. I have confidence in the spring board chop because that traditionally suits “the little guy” because of the precision, balance and agility that it requires. I have confidence in the standing block mostly because it is my favorite event and can cut them well when I remember to dot my “i’s” and cross my “t’s.” I prefer a show with many events that are tiring because I know I have the cardio and stamina to make it through them without gasping for air. The Johnny Appleseed Festival really proves who the best all around athletes are with its marathon of head-to-head chopping events. Right now I am stronger than I ever been in my 23 years and I am continuing to develop my technique. I am very excited for this upcoming season!
What I have learned in my short career is that every competitor has his own battles. It doesn’t come easy for anyone whether you’re 6’4” and 275 pounds or 5’8” and 174 pounds like myself. It all comes down to how much time and hard work you put into it. There are no freebies in this sport. I strive for absolute perfection with my swing, slope, and timing because I feel I simply do not have a choice. It all takes time and patience and plenty of mistakes. My advice to any “little guys” out there getting into the sport would be to make friends with and learn from another “little guy” that has been involved with the sport for at least 8 years. If they have managed to make it that far, they must be doing something right! I will now leave with some quotes:
“It’s all about believing in yourself, that’s all it really is.”
“Weight doesn’t make you a better axeman. It gives you better stability. Some of the bigger fellas, if they had our technique, they’d blow this wood apart even more.”
“This world is rough and if a man’s gonna make it he’s gotta be tough.”
“Pay attention to little guys that have been around for awhile, they’re going to know something you don’t!”
“Oh yeahh, mark one down for the little guys!”
“Don’t be stupid.”