For the McGill Woodsmen, the preparations began weeks ago. A tremendous amount of wood has been chopped, stripped, and measured—every piece conforming to its event’s particular specifications. Equipment has been meticulously inspected, ensuring that the saws’ teeth are perfectly straight and the axes are sharp enough to shave with. When the morning of Jan. 25 finally arrives, everything is in order. Two U-Haul trucks packed with wood are unloaded onto Watson Field at McGill’s Macdonald campus. Visiting teams spill out of buses, and spectators begin to pull into the parking lot. At 8:45 a.m., the ceremonial first cut is made and with that, the 54th Annual Macdonald Campus Woodsmen Competition officially begins.
The Woodsmen are McGill’s least heralded varsity team, yet historically its most successful. The only McGill squad based on Macdonald campus, they compete in the Canadian Intercollegiate Lumberjacking Association (CILA), and have collected over 100 titles in various meets and competitions since their inception in 1959. In 1961, Macdonald campus held its first Woodsmen Competition, a tradition that has been upheld ever since. Today, McGill fields two men’s teams and one women’s team, all of which are extremely competitive within CILA.
However, it is with slightly less confidence than usual that all three host teams begin the competition. The past week has seen frigid weather in Montreal, often remaining below -30°C when the Woodsmen hold their 6:00 a.m. outdoor practices. At such temperatures, practice is impossible.
“[The cold]’s not good because [the equipment] shatters, and it’s very expensive,” explains Jessica Logan, a bioresources engineering student and member of the McGill women’s team. “It’s more dangerous for us because we don’t feel our extremities, and a lot more accidents happen when it’s really cold.”
Fortunately, the weather is more forgiving today, and with temperatures hovering around -9°C amidst a light snowfall, athletes are ready to begin their events. The Macdonald tournament is unique in that, due to a shortage of equipment, only one team can compete at a time in each event. There is no real schedule—teams may take on events when and in the order that they please so long as all is finished by 3:00 p.m. This results in a fairly relaxed atmosphere; spectators move from area to area as teams take their turn at different events.
“I like it this way; you’re not so stressed,” comments Jesse Rogantini-Gamble, captain of the Men’s 2 team. “[Although] it’s [also] nice the other way with the racing, because it’s more competitive—you can kind of tell if you’ve won or not. If you’re the first one cheering you know you’ve won.”
Competitive lumberjacking has its roots in logging camps, where lumberjacks would hold challenges to see who was the best at any given aspect of their trade: chopping, sawing, climbing, log rolling, and more. As with all sports, what started out as recreation eventually evolved into formal competition. Lumberjacking meets today—aside from the addition of a chainsaw event—have hardly deviated from their origins. There are events using axes and various sorts of saws in which the objective is to cut all the way through a log; the pulp throw involves accurately tossing logs back and forth; log decking is a relay in which two team members at a time roll a log down and back up a slope to a platform 45 inches high.
Some of the most compelling, however, are the singles events. The axe throw is much what it sounds like, with a target about half the size of those used for archery. The pole climb, in which a competitor fitted with foot spurs must ring a bell 28 feet up a telephone pole, often takes as few as five seconds to complete. In the water boil, one must bring to a boil a tin of water, using only three matches, a hatchet, and a block of cedar.
Logan is tasked with the latter of these for the McGill women’s team’s final event of the day. As she has done so many times in training, she chops her cedar into several smaller pieces, and with the blade of her hatchet begins to scrape the inside of one of these. Collecting these shavings into a pile, she strikes first one match, and then a second, to no avail—the wind is working against her today. Huddling a little closer, she finally ignites the shavings with her third and final match and turns her attention back to the wood, chopping it into smaller pieces and arranging them into a surface over her fire upon which she rests the can. As the fire begins to grow, she buttresses her can with what remains of the wood, and lies down on her side to blow on the fire.
With her lungs acting as a bellows, the fire soon reaches a healthy roar. Logan continues to blow at it, urging it to burn a little hotter. With each gasp for air, she turns her head away to avoid inhaling smoke from the blaze. As this continues, the excitement in the crowd grows until finally the soapy water boils over dramatically. She scrambles to her feet, her breath ragged, and releases an adrenaline-fueled shout. The fire has melted twin holes in her pants, right above the knees, but she just beams as her teammates surround her.
It is easy to dismiss the Woodsmen as a mere oddity—a welcome glimpse into a bygone era of Canadiana. For those who spent the day watching them pour themselves into their sport, however, the Woodsmen are clearly much more than that. In their mental and physical strength, the level of technical skill they bring to each event, and the commitment that they show to their team, they are athletes through and through.
As the competition draws to a close, it is clear to the McGill teams that their interrupted practice schedule has impacted their results today. Although the offset format of the Macdonald competition makes it almost impossible to properly track one’s progress throughout the day, the Woodsmen still have a sense of their performance.
“Average day,” Rogantini-Gamble predicts. “I don’t think that we’re first for too many events, but we’re definitely not last.”
Logan is slightly less optimistic.
“We had a rough day today,” she says. “A lot of things went wrong; we have a lot of pressure right now. We don’t know who wins right now—and it probably won’t be as bad as we think—but it was a rough day today.”
In the end both the men’s 1 and women’s teams finish fourth in their respective divisions—not an ideal result, but certainly not a catastrophe. All they can do now is look to their next competition, to be held at Dalhousie in Nova Scotia in only two weeks time. Colin Murphy, captain of the Men’s 1 team, is already contemplating improvements they can make.
“The biggest thing for a team is communication,” Murphy says. “On a lot of team events, you have to know how your team works.”
Before returning to life, school, and 6:00 a.m. practices, however, there is one final lumberjacking tradition to be upheld. The post-competition celebrations, to be held in the Macdonald campus’ Ceilidh bar, are just as much a part of the sport as the axes and saws. For the victors, it is a chance to celebrate; for the rest, an opportunity to put a day of frustrations behind them. As she walks off the field, Logan is ready to do the latter.
“We’re done now—time to party,” she laughs.
— With additional reporting from Mayaz Alam and Remi Lu