UNH Woodsman Team puts on a Show for Family Weekend

Stefanie Kistler, Staff Writer

DURHAM, NH- The whir of a chainsaw. The scent of freshly cut wood. The glint of light off a shiny axe head. This is what composed the Fishbowl on University of New Hampshire’s (UNH) campus as the UNH Woodsmen Team’s talents were put on display this past Saturday for Family Weekend.

Drawing nearly 100 onlookers at some points, the team threw axes, sliced wood with chainsaws and split logs that were over two hands wide, showing off the different events they compete in across New England.

According to Woodsmen Head Coach Liz Godin, the sport was started at Dartmouth College in the 1940s to keep the lumberjack traditions alive and maintain the history for future generations. The many events at each competition all link to traditional jobs that lumberjacks did, as well as fun games they made up while camping in the woods.

There are about 15 events held in a standard competition, and eight were shown off at the Fishbowl on Saturday. The uniqueness (and noise) of their displays drew people in and left the crowd in awe, cheering the team on.

The Axe Throw was perhaps the most visually dramatic display. Standing 20 feet away from the target, the Woodsmen team members lined up and slammed the large axes into it, aiming for the bullseye. The axes hitting home drew gasps from the audience, and it was obvious how physically demanding it was from the panting team members.

The loudest events were, of course, the ones using a chainsaw. One of these chainsaw events, called the Disk Stack, focused on precision and a delicate hand much more than speed. In this event, the competitor had to cut ‘cookies’, or thin disks of wood, off a rectangular vertical log, all while keeping the previously cut disk on top, jenga style.

One of the more visibly exhausting events was the Standing Block Chop. In this event, competitors stood on top of a thick horizontal log and took an axe to each side, slicing down in an effort to break the log in half. For those worried about possible axe-to-the-leg injuries, no worries! The Woodsmen were proud to show off their very chic chainmail socks to the crowd.

One that surprisingly drew a lot of excitement was the Fire Build, where the competitors, in teams of two, aimed to make a can of soapy water boil over before the other team did. They do this by chopping and shredding logs up to create small enough pieces to build a structure to light on fire, and hopefully generate enough heat to boil the water. While this might not sound extremely exciting on paper, the slowly building anticipation and fun mixture of skills made the crowd loudly cheer the teams on.

Gina Gizzi, a Family Weekend visitor whose son attends UNH, said that she had never heard of the Woodsmen before seeing them in the Fishbowl and she was pretty sure her son didn’t know about them either.

“It’s all new to me, and it’s really interesting watching the different things they do with wood,” said Gizzi. “It’s nice to see such a unique sport.”

Doug Lewendowski, another Family Weekend visitor, also said that he had never heard of the UNH lumberjack team and did not know that ‘lumberjacking’ was a sport.

“It’s funky as heck,” he said with a grin. “If I was in college, I would want to do something like that. It must be great for your arms.”

Godin says that people’s lack of knowledge around the sport is telling that its popularity has diminished over the years. Only a few colleges in the US and Canada have woodsmen teams anymore, Godin says, and since the COVID-19 pandemic, those numbers are dwindling

“It’s a dying sport,” Godin said. “There are some professional series and sometimes we compete at fairs but other than that there is not much going on.”

Godin says that she and the rest of the Woodsmen coaches just hope to foster an appreciation for the sport. They aim to teach this new wave of team members well, and hopefully keep the traditions alive at UNH.

Fifth year student, Matt Lewis has been on the team for five years now.         “I joined the team because I saw them demoing some events and thought, ‘well geez, my mom is gonna be real upset if I just sit in my room all day,’ and if I was gonna join a club, this one looked cool,” he said, smiling.

Lewis said that beyond the ‘coolness’, it was the uniqueness of the sport that drew him in and kept him on the team.

“It’s quirky, I love being outside, and I love the athleticism. On top of that, it has a great sense of community,” he said. “UNH and schools like UMaine (University of Maine) have rivalries, but every time we see them, they’re nothing but buddies.”

Third year student Melissa Demetri said that she had been competing in lumberjack sports since high school, and practicing since she was 10. Her older brother was the one who first started competing, which drew her to it and jump started one of her favorite pastimes.  

The demo events held for Family Weekend were the first public competitions that many of the new members performed at, according to Demetri. She said that the team was invited to hold their demo after the success of last year’s one, and they were pleasantly surprised by the crowd they drew on Saturday.

“We had a lot of people come today which is great,” Demetri said. “It’s a good way for the new people to get a feeling for what it’s like to compete in front of other people.”

Demetri said that the last two years have been a bit of a rebuilding time for the team, due to the loss of members during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We didn’t really have a team at first because people graduated and clubs were kind of canceled for a while,” said Demetri. “This is our first real team in about two years, which is extremely exciting.”

Demetri encourages any students who want to join the woodsmen to reach out on their page or contact any current team members to help get started. They are always eager to have new members, even if they have never competed before.

“Basically all our members started off in college, so there is no need to worry about lack of experience. Just show up to practice and be ready to learn,” Demetri said.