On the cutting edge: Lumberjack Festival

You’d think that my buddy Ian Frenkel, who at nearly 7 feet tall and built like Paul Bunyan, would have been able to cut through a slender birch bough with a hand saw in about 4.2 seconds, but there he was, sweating and cursing while the frustratingly flexible blade veered off at a crazy angle and jammed as if it had been riveted to the wood.

“Come on, Ian! Put your back into it!” I urged from the sidelines, but my exhortation did little more than provoke another explosion of expletives.

The occasion was the Lumberjack Festival I organized in my backyard last week, in part to celebrate all things firewood, and also to have some good-natured fun at my friends’ expense.

Ian was among more than a dozen pals who showed up to compete in one- and two-person sawing contests, a log-splitting competition, and the highlight, throwing a two-headed axe at a stump target.

The event was – and I can’t stress this in strong enough terms – very loosely based on a logging festival my family and I attended for years while vacationing in western Maine, which included a lumberjack competition.

One year on a whim, my then-teenage son Tom and I decided to enter. While we weren’t exactly babes in the woods – he and I had for years been cutting all our firewood with a two-man saw and also knew our way around a splitting maul and wedges, we certainly were no match for the professional loggers who showed up to compete with their own axes and souped-up chain saws. This point was reinforced by the profusion of checked shirts, red suspenders, steel-toed boots and Caterpiller hats in the field, while Tom and I were outfitted in shorts, T-shirts and kayak sandals.

While the pros mercilessly dispatched Tom and me during log toss and chain saw rounds, he and I surprisingly held our own in wood splitting (for accuracy, not power – I made it to the finals before settling for fourth place), and most astonishingly in axe throwing, where Tom nailed his very first toss and went on to cop third place for a prize of 10 bucks).

Anyway, the contest I organized did not include chain sawing, caber tossing or even, as my pal Tim Lambert suggested, log-rolling in the lake, but featured events that rewarded technique and style over brute strength. Thus, Ian, who in addition to being a competitive kayaker and bicyclist (as well as an amazing pianist who once accompanied B.B. King at the White House) didn’t excel at first on the one-man saw, though he later redeemed himself on the two-man saw.

The festival was spirited with an edge, literally, involving jagged, razor-sharp tools – the perfect leitmotif for any pre-holiday social gathering, as you can see from Peter Huoppi’s excellent video, now posted on The Day’s website

Competitors, who had varying degrees of experience in the lumberjack arts, ranged from teenagers to septuagenarians.

Spectators delighted in hooting miss-strikes and errant tosses, and shouting approval for bravura performances. Phil Warner showed championship form – especially while wearing his Viking hat – in the axe-throwing competition; Scott Alexander employed a distinctive bottom-cut technique in the one-man saw contest; Sheri Lambert was coaxed from the sidelines to join her husband, Tim, in success with the two-person saw; and Cristina Negron demonstrated hip-swiveling dexterity lining up for the axe toss, causing her husband, Amby Burfoot, to wince as the malevolent-looking blade swung perilously close to her back.

“Ohhh, Cristina,” he groaned, shutting his eyes.

Fortunately, Cristina flung the axe a nanosecond before it snagged her jacket, or worse. Unfortunately the axe sailed to the ground with a thud about 3 feet short of the target. No matter, we all applauded heartily.

One of the loudest cheers came in response to ferocious efforts in the wood-splitting contest by Amby’s and Cristina’s 15-year-old granddaughter, Eliza Brown.

The hefty log proved impervious to Eliza’s first few attempts to cleave it with a maul, but finally she unleashed a mighty swing.

Whack! The 8-pound, cast iron head slammed down and the log split neatly in two.

You would have thought she knocked a grand slam to win the World Series, threw a touchdown pass for a Super Bowl victory, or sank a 30-foot birdie putt on the 18th to earn a green jacket at The Masters.

Eliza’s grin, braces and all, was nearly as broad as the blade of the two-person saw.

With the success of this first festival I’m already looking forward to next year’s competition. Friends have plenty of time to sharpen their skills, as well as saws and axes.

Time for the New Year's Day Run-Swim

A week from Monday is Jan. 1, one of my favorite holidays – not because we flip the calendar and start planning all the great adventures for the next 12 months – but because it’s time, once again for the annual New Year’s Day Run-Swim.

The event, which has no official name, entry fee or purpose other than to proclaim shared celebratory craziness, traces its roots to Jan. 1, 1969, when three friends decided more or less spontaneously to go for a swim.

Since then the starting line and location of the plunge have shifted a few times, and the costume-clad field of participants, has swelled nearly 100-fold.

If you want to join the fun, show up at noon at the Johnny Kelley statue near Bank Square in downtown Mystic. The 3.5-mile course ends at Esker Point Beach on Groton Long Point Road with a dash and dip into the frigid waters of Fishers Island Sound’s Palmer Cove.

Cold weather cancels the event (Just kidding: It goes off snow or shine).







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