Cutting class: Students learning lumberjack skills in Adirondacks throw axes, climb poles, saw

PAUL SMITHS, N.Y. – Axe throwing is encouraged in lumberjack class. It’s also OK to dump your classmate in the lake — as long as you’re both frantically trying to stay upright on a floating log.

The annual Adirondack Woodsmen’s School is being held this summer amid the tall pines and placid waters of Paul Smith’s College. Despite the course’s name, there are no bushy beards here, no flannel shirts, no suspenders, no oxen.

Instead, 18 young students in matching grey sports shirts took part recently in a weeklong crash course on old-school lumberjack skills such as sawing, chopping, axe throwing, log boom running and pole climbing. While the course is for college credit, many participants echo Tommy Grunow, who said he wanted to learn the “lost art of lumberjacking.”

“I looked at the list of what we’d be doing … and I got to axe throwing and I lost it. I had to come,” said the incoming Paul Smith’s freshman from Riverside, Connecticut.

Paul Smith’s focuses on environmental studies, and the woodsmen’s summer curriculum includes the “history of axes” and the “art and science of hand-hewing logs,” but there’s also a lot of fun stuff with axes and saws.

On a recent afternoon at a lakeside clearing on campus, students strapped spikes around their boots to scramble up a 45-foot pole and raised long-handled axes over their heads, executioner style, to send the tools tumbling into a bull’s-eye painted on a log end. They sawed solo with a bow saw and in pairs with a 6-foot crosscut saw. They practiced their underhand chop, which required them to stand on the log they were axing (with metal booties to protect against errant swings).

“It’s like a brave new world out here,” Liam Gilbert, of Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, said with a smile. “I had not thrown an axe, and on my first throw I managed to break a handle. So I have not thrown one since.”

Later on at the lake, the students, in their late teens and 20s, took turns trying to dash across a log boom stretching from the shore and climbed on a floating log two at a time to see whose fast footwork could keep him or her vertical on the spinning lumber the longest.

Instructor Brett McLeod oversaw all of it, offering occasional tips on fluid axe swings or crosscut techniques. McLeod is a former logger who chopped and sawed in woodsmen competitions, as do some of these students. Late in the afternoon, he divvied up the students into relay teams involving cutting, climbing and throwing, which looked sort of like the Hunger Games as imagined by Paul Bunyan. The races hone students’ timber sports skills, though McLeod sees a larger value in the course.

Students, he said, will need these skills if they go on to work as park rangers in wilderness areas that don’t allow mechanized equipment. Others could use their newfound skills to build their own log cabins. And all of them will get a (calloused) hands-on experience about natural-resources management and the history of the Adirondacks, where loggers have been swinging axes for centuries.

“The idea was basically to get students to think about things besides video games and really sort of bring them back to nature,” McLeod said.

The first one-week course is for beginners, with more advanced training this week. Many students will attend both weeks. The first week’s group included three female students. One, Madison Lemoine, of Chepachet, Rhode Island, said she’s used to competing with males in lumberjack competitions.

“It’s tough, actually. You have big guys, and I’m like, ‘OK, give me an axe, and I’ll do my best.’ But you just try as hard as you can,” she said. “It’s like God’s fury raining down with that axe. You put in everything you have.”