What if the Olympics took place in the middle of the woods instead of on a track? What if instead of using javelins, they used chainsaws? How about climbing up redwoods instead of jumping over hurdles? The answer to these questions is tucked away three hours north at the Cal Poly owned Swanton Pacific Ranch.
Last month, all five of California’s school-affiliated logging sports teams congregated at this year’s Cal Conclave in Swanton to compete.
“From a ways away, you hear the chainsaws running,” fruits and crop science senior and logging team Vice President Erin Sheridan said. “As you come in, you can smell fresh wood. We start at the break of dawn. People are running around, getting their events ready, prepping their wood, and making sure the equipment is running correctly. It is this little beehive of loggers.”
When a tree falls in the woods, the logging team is there to hear it. These tasks that are now banal to this select group of loggers are, for most, a sight to behold. As shavings fly off of the logs cascading into perfect sheets of timber, this busy hive of workers has been through this too many times to stop and look around in awe.
“We’re doing these crazy events with chainsaws, axes, saws and all of these sharp objects, pushing the boundaries of human limitations — especially for college girls. The sheer capability of what we can do surprises people.”
The weekend is truly Olympian in its breadth; chainsawing, double bucking (two people on either end of a saw), tree climbing, and axe throwing are all on the docket for the weekend. Usually, log rolling would be too, which has competitors trying to stay afloat on a log out in a lake, but there was none big enough for the competition at Swanton. Sheridan’s specialty event, though, represents the core of timbersports.
“I love chopping, that is my favorite event. Almost every morning I’ll chop a block,” Sheridan said. “I love making big pieces of wood into smaller pieces.”
Though the spirit of the sport may be simple, prepping for the competition is anything but. In order to get the team prepared, Stihl Timbersports Series champions Chrissy Ramsey and Alvie Marcellus put their lives in Washington on pause to help the Cal Poly logging team establish a smoothly running competition.
“Nothing in this sport is ever perfect,” Ramsey said.
Marcellus, her 74-year-old father, was out at the logging unit with the team to help coach their technique before Cal Conclave. His father, Leland Marcellus, and his grandfather, Artell Marcellus, all competed in the sport alongside their brothers. The sport runs in the family.
There is a good reason why timbersports competitors are so involved; the tight-knit community fosters close friendships that pass down through the generations. Rachel Wherman, forestry and natural resources senior and president of the Cal Poly logging team, said logging has become a huge part of her life since joining and moving up the ranks.
“It honestly feels like a good community group, and I just like to be around it,” Werhman said. “I feel like the only friends I have at school are on the logging team, which is perfect for me. I kept wanting to do more stuff with the team. I wanted to train more and get better.”
That camaraderie also drove Sophia Marquez, environment management and protection junior and secretary of the Cal Poly logging team, to push herself in the sport.
After losing the team aspect of high school marching band, she said she needed to find a community on campus. That is where logging sports entered the picture.
“People usually think, ‘Oh, timber sports, that’s cool.’ But, then they see it and think, ‘Holy smokes. That’s insane.’”
After watching a video of herself wielding a chainsaw in the “power saw” competition, she was hooked.
“I saw the video of myself and I thought, ‘This is sick, I’m kind of badass. Maybe I should keep doing this,’” Marquez said.
The spectacle is a sight to behold for onlookers, if they should find themselves out in the groves of Swanton on the right weekend. As Marquez experienced, wielding a chainsaw — or an axe, or a two-man saw — with dexterity is striking.
“People usually think, ‘Oh, timber sports, that’s cool,’” Sheridan said. “But, then they see it and think, ‘Holy smokes. That’s insane.’”
The sport is quite literally unlike anything most students have ever seen before. Most people on the coast of California do not often see the physical labor that goes into splintering wood, let alone at competition speeds.
“We’re doing these crazy events with chainsaws, axes, saws and all of these sharp objects, pushing the boundaries of human limitations — especially for college girls,” Marquez said. “The sheer capability of what we can do surprises people.”
But none of the loggers on the team are surprised by what they can do.
After countless hours of training, the goal is no longer just to split the wood in half. Now, it is all about efficiency. The velocity, the angle, the swing path of the axe are all being calculated in their minds to beat their own personal best times.
“Hitting those lines, keeping that technique — you almost black out while you’re doing it,” Sheridan said.
But, when it comes down to it, the part of logging that brings people like Sheridan and Wehrman out day after day is not just the sport: it is the people.
“A big part of timber sports is being supportive of everybody that is there doing it, even between other schools,” Wehrman said.
Wehrman said the sense of belonging and camaraderie is unparallelled among other sports.
“It is awesome to have the team aspect in college,” Wehrman said. “When you come to college you’re free floating a little bit. It is cool to be part of a team that is supporting you and competing with you.”