I'm gripping a heavy Husqvarna chainsaw, and I have no idea what I'm doing.
It's mid-afternoon on a recent Monday, and everything is soggy from a passing storm. Leaves glisten with raindrops; the wetness amplifies the sounds of cars rushing by on Route 114. I'm feeling just as sodden, as sweat runs down my neck and pools in the small of my back. I steady my boots in the underbrush. I don't dare look up at the nine burly men standing slightly higher on the slope, staring down at me and my balsam with their arms crossed.
We're playing a game: the Game of Logging. Just before I pull the cord to start up the Husky, I contemplate my chances of winning. Before now, I've never held a chainsaw in my life. I've never even split firewood with an axe. The only time I've ever cut wood, in fact, was a poison oak branch I once whittled into a stick for roasting marshmallows. That taught me a thing or two about messing with what you don't know.
Most of the men around me, on the other hand, have been felling trees for decades. Pitch seems to ooze from their pores. I half expect sawdust to come flying out when they cough. Chances are I won't win. But the stakes are higher than that. If I mess up too severely in the next few minutes, I could end up losing not only the game but a chunk of my own flesh.
The Game of Logging is the brainchild of a Swedish man named Soren Eriksson. Turning chainsaws into a game might not seem like the brightest idea, but Eriksson's invention has actually made the logging industry safer. It's also spiked production, reduced ergonomic injuries and encouraged camaraderie among individuals long accustomed to lonely stints in the woods.
What exactly is the Game of Logging? That's what I'm aiming to find out when I show up for the Level I course at the NorthWoods Stewardship Center, a nonprofit teaching and outdoors facility in East Charleston. We begin by milling about in a woodshed with signs bearing slogans such as "Don't Be a Lamb, Be a Ram." Bright yellow hard hats hang on one wall. Rain drums on the metal roof.
Instructor Dave Birdsall wears a bushy beard and orange-and-blue Husqvarna suspenders clipped to pants as thick as a phonebook. He's 47 and looks like the quintessential lumberjack. Before the day's out, I'll learn that the preferred term is "logger." I'll also find out that yelling "timber!" is as uncool as George W. Bush holding a chainsaw with only a cowboy hat as protective gear, a scene Birdsall points out as one of the most hilarious in Michael Moore's movie Fahrenheit 911.
Birdsall kicks off the course with a brief overview of what we'll be learning: chainsaw safety and controlled directional felling techniques. Level II covers saw maintenance and sharpening, while Levels III and IV address felling difficult trees as well as limbing and woods management.
Next, Birdsall gives us a brief biography of Eriksson. He originally wanted to be a boxer, but found that cutting down trees in Sweden left him too exhausted to train at the end of the day. So in the 1960s he devised a way to conserve his energy. Instead of using the traditional method of two face cuts and a back-cut, he'd plunge his chainsaw straight through the center of the tree in what's called a bore cut. When Eriksson's boss saw that he was pumping out more wood than anybody else, he encouraged him to share his techniques with his colleagues.
In the 1970s, Eriksson sought to spread his gospel among American loggers. When he visited Sterling College, where Birdsall was then teaching, Eriksson was nearly laughed off campus. "The guy shows up wearing this baby-blue outfit, with funny-looking boots on and all this stuff hanging off him," Birdsall recalls. "The loggers were like, 'What the heck is this?'"
But when Eriksson bet money and turned his teaching into a game, the loggers paid attention. The forestry industry also took notice. According to Birdsall, one company found that its loggers were 60 to 80 percent more productive after "playing" the Game of Logging, while accidents decreased 80 percent.
These days, the Game of Logging is all over the place. Big competitions are held, and Game of Logging workshops operate like a franchise, with 12 to 15 licensed instructors in the United States. Many of the participants are middle-aged or retired landowners, such as my classmates at the NorthWoods Stewardship Center. Mike Connor, for example, introduces himself as owning 300 acres of woodlot. "We want to manage it carefully and pay off our mortgages," he says. "I've used a chainsaw since I was 10, but never had any official training."
Bill Coleman of Newark wants to make use of the dead wood on his land; Jeffersonville's Steve Titcomb would like to fell trees with more precision. "Doc" declines to give me his real name because he's afraid it will spoil the surprise he has planned for his girlfriend. During the round of introductions, Doc says, "I want to build my confidence," which I hear as "I want to build my coffin."
The Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration cites logging as the most dangerous job in the country, Birdsall points out during our morning safety review. Hence the necessity to wear a hard hat, earmuffs, chainsaw-resistant chaps and a waterproof neck protector. "Are you focusing on those 30 to 40 razor blades going 60 miles an hour," Birsdall asks, "when you've got ice water running down your butt?"
He also suggests carrying a first-aid kit; his own includes a mirror, which he says is handy for checking a neck wound. "You gotta pinch the pipe that's leaking," he says. "If you don't have a mirror, it's just a warm, wet hole."
By now, I'm pretty creeped out about the chainsaws and thinking I might just want to sit back and watch when we venture to the woods for the hands-on -- or off, as the case may be -- part of the course. It gets even scarier when Birdsall explains reactive forces by drawing a skull and crossbones on a corner of his Husqvarna's bar he calls the "death zone." If we try to make a bore cut with this corner first, the chainsaw will "kick back" and possibly rip through the shoulder or head.
Birdsall demonstrates how to fell a tree using Eriksson's approach. First, figure out the best place for the tree to fall and put a "hit stake" in the ground. Then, conduct the five-point felling plan: look for dead wood around the tree; the lean of the tree; the escape route; the length and angles of the cuts; and the order in which it will all be executed. He tells us to be aware of such factors as butt swell, or expansion, at the lower end of the tree, and which are the good and bad sides of the tree.
When we fell our trees we'll be given points based on how well we've created a plan, left a clean stump, and hit the target. Safety violations, such as forgetting to put on our earmuffs, mean points off.
Then Birdsall picks me as the guinea pig to fell the first tree, which is how I end up at the base of a balsam fir, nearly sweating through my chaps. My hit stake, 25 feet away, seems to mock me, just like the folded arms of my classmates. There's no way I'll land this tree near the marker.
But I start up the chainsaw and, with Birdsall's coaching, manage to slice a nice fin of wood from the trunk, and then make a decent bore cut through the center of the tree. All that's left to do is cut "the trigger," or the part of the trunk that's still holding it together, and scoot out of the way.
I cut the trigger and -- nothing. The tree just stands there like, well, a tree. So I go back, make a wider bore cut, nick the trigger again, and run down the slope. I hear a crack and -- wham -- watch the balsam fall. My classmates clap, and one proudly tells me I've driven the hit stake through the ground.
Birdsall adds up my score: 40 points, but 10 points off for the safety violation of gripping the chainsaw incorrectly. Connor will earn 38 points and take home the prize of new protective gloves and a T-shirt. Show-off.
But I'm not bitter. Walking out of the woods with all of my fingers and toes intact, I figure that in the Game of Logging, the consolation prize is just fine.