Cody Zuk relies more on technique than strength when sending an ax into a log. He swings down and then up at a 45-degree angle, aiming to cut a perfect “V” into the vertical section of log.
When he approaches from the other side, he takes a similar stance, this time cutting a “V” notch a little lower.
“It’s like what they say in baseball,” he said. “If you swing in flat, you can’t ever get anywhere. You have to angle the ax in. So while a lot of people are bigger and stronger, they don’t necessarily have the technique to make perfect notches that will cut through the log in short order.”
These are not your grizzled lumberjacks of yore, but college students keeping a bygone era of ax skills, crosscut saws and fire building alive.
Zuk is one of them. As president of the SUNY Cobleskill Woodsmen’s Club, he was in charge of organizing the Regional Woodsman Club Lumberjack Competition Saturday, where students threw axes, tossed wood, rolled logs and built fires.
The competitive intercollegiate sport is organized into five regional divisions. And it was Cobleskill’s turn to host for the Northeast this year, drawing country girls and boys from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Finger Lakes Community College, Paul Smith’s College, University of Connecticut and Alfred State College to the ice and snow-covered Cobleskill Fairgrounds.
“Basically, everything we do simulates something from the olden days,” said Zuk, who had just lost a vertical chop race by a fraction of a second. “So we simulate chopping down a tree with a crosscut saw or a two-man saw.”
Not every event is from the old days. The woodsmen use matches and chainsaws, Zuk admits.
Nearby, two young men lay flat on their stomachs on the cold, hard ground, wriggling like snakes as they blow feverishly into a pile of kindling. A smattering of students in bulky sweaters and camouflage jackets cheered them on.
“That’s the fire build,” said Zuk, who noted that the older members of the club have become mentors, with alumni even visiting club practices years later to help out.
The men on the ground Saturday were competing to see whose can of soapy water would boil first. It wasn’t easy to get here, though. They each started with a block of wood and a hatchet, splitting the wood into long strips and then into smaller strips and then into kindling. With a keen eye, they arranged the kindling one on top of another, building a square and then filling it in just a bit.
One of the men struck a match against some wood. A flame burst forth and flickered for a moment before the wind blew it out. He struck his second match (they only get three). It caught, and he raced to lower it carefully into the kindling, creating a faint smolder. His third match was the winner, catching a tall flame that quickly spread throughout the kindling.
In the middle of the spread is the can of soapy water. The soap causes the water to boil faster.
While most woodsmen prefer to show off their ax or saw skills, Sarah Teed is one of the few who enjoys the fire build. She also is keen on the pulp toss, a timed event that requires team members to toss pulpwood back and forth between two sets of stakes, set 15 to 20 feet apart.
“Throwing it underhand is better than throwing it overhand, in my opinion,” said Teed, a junior culinary arts major whose fellow woodsmen playfully tease her about dressing like an agricultural engineering major. “At least for me it is, because you can go faster throwing it underhand than having to get it up to throw overhand.”
She joined the Cobleskill woodsmen about a year and a half ago, after witnessing the feats of lumberjack strength at Paul Smith’s College in the Adirondacks. She vowed that once she transferred to Cobleskill, she would join the club.
“I just like doing it,” said Teed. “I’m a country girl, so to speak.”
In addition to a lifetime of hunting and fishing, her skill set now includes a vertical chop and using a bow saw really fast.