What Does It Take to Become the No. 1 Lumberjack?
The Lumberjack World Championships take place every July at the Lumberjack Bowl, a 5,000-person-capacity outdoor stadium in Hayward, Wis. Hayward is in the cutover, an area in northern Wisconsin not far from Lake Superior that was cleared by commercial loggers in the early 20th century. Logging is still an ongoing concern here, but Hayward, a lakeside town of some 2,500 people, has morphed into a year-round tourist destination. The Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame is home to a 500-ton, 143-foot fiberglass muskie, which is said to be the world’s largest fiberglass sculpture. The Moccasin Bar doubles as a wildlife museum with dioramas of taxidermied animals: One shows a boxing match between raccoons, with a groundhog as referee; another shows chipmunks drinking, gambling, fishing and yodeling. During the championships, you can buy kangaroo-leather hats and hear the Pinery Boys singing the same tunes that shanty boys, river drivers and sawmill hands sang a century ago in the Upper Midwest.
One appeal of competitive lumberjacking is that the sport derives from a necessary activity — the work of felling trees and turning them into logs — instead of a contrived activity, like putting a ball into a net. It is man versus nature, both primal and practical: the smell of sawdust and chain-saw fumes and oil, the smack of ax against log, the roar of a chain saw that cuts off conversations midsentence. “The more we get disconnected from the things we use, since we’re part of this giant global system, there’s this real appeal to seeing that a dude can still cut the [expletive] out of a piece of wood,” says Willa Hammitt Brown, a historian at Harvard who is writing a history of lumberjacks. “It’s doing a thing!” Or, as Erin LaVoie puts it: “We’re just a bunch of good ole boys who like to get dirty and drink beer.”
On the first morning of this summer’s competition, Lentz was annoyed with his dad. The night before, he had dinner under the frozen gazes of a bear and a 14-point elk mounted on the wall at the Steakhouse & Lodge on T Bone Lane, then returned to his hotel room. Mel’s hot saw was leaking, so he disassembled it in the room they were sharing and fiddled with it for an hour and a half. Once Mel finally fell asleep, he started snoring. Jason had to turn up the air-conditioning full blast to drown out the noise. “Can’t live with it, can’t live without it,” Jason told me the next day.
He was in no mood for small talk. He is generally a pleasant person but not when he’s focused on a competition. His mind is stuck on wood. He’ll talk about his hopes for how his wood’s grain will look, or about his technique on the standing block chop, or about his mistake the weekend before, but little else.
The weekend before, Lentz did not do well at the 2022 Stihl Timbersports U.S. Championships in Little Rock, Ark. In 2021, he established himself as the best lumberjack in the world, winning pretty much every big event, including his first Stihl world title (which his dad won six times). And he started 2022 well, winning in the spring the Stihl U.S. Trophy, a relay-style event, then finishing second in the Stihl World Trophy event in Austria. But in Little Rock, a mistake on the single buck, when his saw got stuck in the log for a couple of seconds, led to a seventh-place finish overall. In Hayward, he was still dwelling on that loss.
‘We’re just a bunch of good ole boys who like to get dirty and drink beer.’
It did not help that his dad sat next to him at every event, his voice cutting through the din with encouragement and criticism. “I can hear him out of 10 million people, just screaming,” Jason told me, as he sat on the tailgate of his Toyota Tundra, whose bed was filled with some $40,000 in lumberjack equipment. “His voice — I hear it, and it takes focus off what you’re doing.”