At Paul Smiths College, a summer school program is keeping the skills and ethos of the Adirondack woodsman alive. David Sommerstein reports.
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The Adirondack Woodsman School’s a product of two cultural phenomena. One is the circuit of lumberjack competitions that’s become so popular on ESPN.
During the three week summer school program on the Paul Smiths campus, students do train up for the sport side of logging. The axe throw.
The single buck saw aka cutting cookies.
And of course, log rolling aka burling.
But there’s something deeper that’s being taught here, too, rooted in the storied history of the Adirondack logger.
These men were the toughest of the tough. The work it took to get a tree to become a log and ultimately, lumber at a sawmill was incredible.
Brett McLeod is a Paul Smiths forestry and natural resources professor. And he founded the Adirondack Woodsman School last summer. McLeod’s part-coach, part-mentor, part-taskmaster for the mostly high school and college age students.
If they curse, they’re doing pushups, or if they give instructors any flack, they have to split a quart of wood for each violation, so we run it a little bit like a woodsman’s boot camp.
Today, the students are learning first-hand how those tough loggers of yore plied their trade, felling trees with hand tools and pulling the logs out of the woods with horses.
The deer flies are hitting hard as students follow two majestic French Canadian draught horses into the woods.
The students are all male. Most grew up on some kind of farm. Jordan Bradish of Orwell, Vermont went to a technical high school for forestry. He’ll start at Paul Smiths this fall. He’s a football offensive lineman and looks it.
I like to be outside. That’s the one big thing. I like doin’ this stuff since I’ve been to the tech school and it really got me excited and that’s what I want to do. “swingin’ an axe…been doin’ that a lot?” No, just since I’ve been here. I really haven’t used axes in the past. Mostly chainsaws.
19 year-old Dalton St. John’s transferring to Paul Smiths this fall from the University of Massachusetts. He says he’s psyched to learn the old ways of logging.
It’s just a skill you can say you need to have to be able to say, oh I can run a cross-cut saw. I can chop a tree down with an axe. Something that a lot of people can’t do or say they can do these days.
[axe and saw]
There’s no shortage of bravado as the young men cut down saplings around a red pine. Everyone has an opinion on where the tree’s going to fall.
The crown’s gonna go that way… No…
But when it comes to sawing through the thick tree trunk…
[sound of laboring saw]
…it’s not as easy as it looks on TV. Instructor Joe Orifice coaxes the students as they sweat and labor.
C’mon, guys. Keep goin! It’s hard work. You gotta do it, though.
One student has to switch out he’s so exhausted. But finally…
It’s going! It’s going! Go! Go! TIMBER! [tree falls] OK, give it a second to rest! Let any hangers in the trees fall down. Then we’ll go step up towards it. Nice cut, guys. Nice job.
School director Brett McLeod coaches students sawing the tree into logs. He chuckles and says some students brag about how much faster they could work with a chainsaw.
There’s a lot of machismo that these guys carry with them into the woods and it slowly dissipates throughout the day as they get more and more worn down.
McLeod’s quick to point out today’s logging crews rely on heavy equipment, not bow saws. There are modern applications for these skills, though – in wilderness areas, in parcelized suburban lots.
But he says the students come to terms with what the Woodsman school’s really about at night, around the camp fire, in mandatory journals, when students write about independence and working with your hands.
They grew up in an age of cell phones and video games and there’s something really appealing to them about taking out an axe, felling a tree, a lot of the image of the Adirondacks and of Adirondackers and guides is that of self-reliance. That’s the thing that you’ll find that many of them, regardless of their background, that’s the thing they’re chasing here.
The chainsaw does come out to get the job done before lunch. High school senior Matt Clum of Pennsylvania says he has a new appreciation, not just of lumberjacks, but of anyone who’s done physical labor without power tools.
We have old wagon wheels on our farm, and I don’t think anything of it. Someone worked that wheel for days and days and days and their sweat was on that wheel. I just know that I’m going to appreciate that stuff a little bit more.
Clum says he’s newcomer to forestry. But he says the Adirondack Woodsman School opened a door, and he really likes what he sees on the other side.
David Sommerstein, North Country Public Radio, Paul Smiths.