A Journey To The Lumberjack Festival

Travel Diary


Day 1: NYC to Binghamton, NY

My bus doesn't leave until 11:30am but I'm up at 6 to get everything done. And by 'get everything done' I mean pack, reshave my head, put up informative post-its for cat sitter and travel from the northwest Bronx to east midtown Manhattan to pick up the 3 dozen everything bagels my mother requires for entry. Ok, she has let me get away with not bringing them a handful of times but she's clearly not happy when it happens and also she made a very formal request for said bagels when I told her I would be coming her way this weekend so... 

This weekend is both my official 6-year anniversary clean from drugs and alcohol AND the 42nd annual Deposit Lumberjack Festival. You may be wondering why the hell I would be attending such a thing and the answer is twofold: 1) it's exciting [cough, arousing] to watch burly men throw around axes and use power saws and 2) I grew up in Deposit NY (the location of the festival) and I enjoy revisiting the area and being able to appreciate all the upstate things I had a stick up my ass about while I lived there.

Anyway I miraculously get everything done in my allotted timeframe and get to Port Authority with time to spare. I use said time to buy a magazine as per my travel tradition, and to use the bathroom multiple times before getting on board. I'm so early I wind up reading every single page of the magazine before the bus leaves the station. The ride is uneventful; I have a pair of seats to myself and the air conditioner is only medium-horrible freezing. I wear a scarf wrapped around my bare head and a sweatshirt. Apparently I am not the only cold one because after our rest stop multiple people ask the driver to turn the AC down. I stuff my face with my usual rest stop meal: a microwaveable container of Campbell's beef chili and a small bag of Fritos.

My mother picks me up once I arrive 40 minutes late, which is pretty good by Greyhound standards. We head straight to her place in Harpursville and I promptly lay down for a nap since I only got about 2 hours of sleep. I wake up just in time for dinner which was chicken parmigiana — a welcome surprise since I've been practicing what I've come to learn is a "pegan", or vegan/paleo diet. Yes it is the stupidest term I've ever heard too. Whatever the cheese is fucking delicious and I concede for tonight it is worth whatever diarrhea and breakouts come from my dairy indulgence. I go to sleep not long after dinner.

Day 2: Lumberjack Festival Begins!

The lumberjacking competitions start tonight with an axe throw kickoff and a Jack/Jill series of chopping and sawing events. The axe throw thing is between a guy I went to high school with who now chairs the festival, and the 52nd district senator who looks like he's younger than me. Looking at the guy I went to high school with (he was a year behind me), I realize that I've been thinking of all the other people I went to high school with as being in their mid-20s and oh, isn't it funny to see them doing adult things like chairing the entire festival? Then I realize we are all very close to 40 and I feel like I'm going to throw up in my mouth.

I invited my mom to come with me to watch all the things; the schedule says it will last 2 hours, it lasts almost 4. We share sunscreen as we bake in the late afternoon sun, sitting in bleacher seats alongside a field setup for all the upcoming events. All of the male contestants are wearing heavy boots and long pants, the female counterparts in wiser, shorter pants [they don heavy chaps when using chainsaws]. The first events alternate between heats of the men's 'springboarding' and the lady's 'speedcut'. The ladies compete with really small chainsaws. First I think it's a sexist statement on what size machine they can handle but it turns out it may be more to amp up the difficulty of the challenge since it makes the simple series of cuts way more difficult. The springboarding event is bonkers and blows my mind. Basically the guys have an axe and 4-foot long flat board and they have to use these two items to scale a 12-foot vertical log and then chop in half the 2-foot high stump bolted to the top. They must chop notches in the main log which they wedge the edge of the board into and then jump on top of said board to do the same thing again until they're close enough to hack away at the stump. I dare say it's the best event ever.

Next up the guys and girls (who are each teamed up in co-ed pairs) compete together in their own axe throwing event. It is what it is, honestly not very exciting. Then there's a vertical stump chop off; the guys start, using axes to hack away the front half of the wood and then the ladies jump in to finish it off. Same handoff setup comes into play on another chopping event, but this time they stand on a horizontal stump while hacking away at the wood between their feet. That was a good one! My mother and I both marvel at how nobody chopped their own feet off. Then come two handsaw events using very long saws about 6 feet long. The first involves both members of the team holding either side to make one cut while sawing in unison. Later the same saw is used minus one of the handles; the ladies must make one cut by themselves. The men have another solo event called the 'hotsaw', which appears to me to be exactly the same as the lady's speedcut but with chainsaws that have been souped up with motorcycle engines. It is very loud. The final event is another dual axe chop but this time to fell a 20-foot log to hit a Mountain Dew can placed strategically on the ground. Nearly everyone succeeds in hitting the cans and it is very satisfying to watch them explode. 

I was intermittent fasting earlier in the day and before we leave I have my first meal at a BBQ stand. I order something called a 'walkin' taco' which turns out to be Dorito pie with pulled pork. It's not terrible. The rest of the night pales in comparison, just a simple dinner of meatballs and cauliflower and another early bedtime for me because tomorrow's event starts in the morning.

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Day 3: The Game of Logging, ie., The Lumberjacking continues!

Today's events begin at 10am and I anticipate they will run for 5 hours given how yesterday went. I arrive by 10:15 and things finally get going around 10:40. The audience is bigger, the field is bigger, the challenges are bigger. The men are roughly the same size as yesterday with the exception of a blond guy who looks like a Viking and another guy with a very large belly though not especially tall. The spectators are informed that what we are about to see is known as "the game of logging" and it is an official sequence that is used worldwide in lumber sports. There are no women participating but I don't know if it's a rule or not. All of the competitors with the exception of the belly man, are professional loggers; maybe there are no local female loggers? I choose to let go of the mystery and reapply sunscreen because it is hot as fuck and the sun is out full blast.

Right off the bat, shit is way more formal than yesterday. There is a large scoreboard clearly labeled with the participant names and each event with areas to mark safety violations and subtotals and everything. Everyone involved is dressed in the same red Makita shirts (the big sponsor), heavy cutting pants, big ol' boots and safety headgear and earmuffs. The emcee and judge are wearing suspenders and it is adorable. 

All of the logging challenges are demonstrations of practices used in the field and all involve using a chainsaw. While each event is fascinating in its own way, a lot of them are a little dull; more about precision than brute strength or speed. Everyone uses the same chainsaw but with their own chains which they each sharpened by hand prior to the start. The first event is a single speedcut with 100 points awarded to the winner and reduced by 10 with every slower time. Next are 4 events in a row which focus on accurate notch cuts, or 'boring', in a variety of stumps already marked with lines and squares. Meh. The event which follows is something called a 'springpole'. After yesterday's superfantastic springboarding event, I got really excited about this one but it turns out it involves making two tiny cuts on 'springy' skinny sapling piece bent over — talk about a letdown! After that the guys move onto some more interesting stuff: an exciting challenge called 'limbing' which involves speed and accuracy of maneuvering the chainsaw down the length of a giant log spiked with dowels, cutting each extension off to less than an inch. Then the most wackadoo event of the day, which I would like to refer to as "cut a slice of this log off while not cutting any of the tiny wood sticks attached to it" but it's actually called 'bucking'. 

The final event is the most exciting of the day and involves tree felling just like yesterday's finale. But this time, the logs are twice as tall and each have a giant board nailed to the top with a big painted target. Today the competitors have to fell the log so the bullseye of the target hits a spike which they place at a specific distance away from the base. While the logs are all very tall, they vary considerably. Some are obviously 40, 50 feet while others are maybe 25, 30. Some lean back or forward, left or right. Contestants have to first accurately measure, by sight only, how tall the log is and then make a cutting plan to correctly aim the giant beast to fall right upon the placed spikes. When the first log started falling everyone gasped and then exclaimed "OH!" when it landed. That first competitor hit the target, but only at the fourth ring which decreased the amount of possible points awarded. Some have their aim right but fall entirely short of the spike. Everyone does much better than I expect. The contestant with the best score on this event iss the one guy from Deposit; he comes in second place overall. The blond Viking takes the top prize and a sweet gold belt like those used in wrestling matches. The debris of the day's events is scattered all over the field but everything will be put to use and nothing will be wasted. The contestants gather for the presentation of awards and to pose for pictures. They look exhausted.

I am exhausted too, but from sitting in the sun. I feel satisfied and entertained and I leave the field with everyone else. There was a great turnout today which is awesome; some years the attendance and funding for the festival ha been so low they've had to eliminate events. Hopefully this bodes well for next year because I've already decided to come back and do this all over again. I'm proud to have grown up in this beautiful, wacky place that affords me such unique adventure.

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