Jason Lentz was about eight years old when he split his first log in two. “It took me, like, three summers after school to complete it,” he recalled.
Jason got faster, though, and at the age of 13, he took his skills beyond the backyard. “My first competition… it was the very first junior division wood chopping in North America. Really, here in America, we don’t cater to the younger generation or the kids that want to come up in the sport. In Australia, there are kids down there that are five years old, swinging axes.”
A sport that allows five-year-old kids to swing axes (or that has participants competitively wield chainsaws) might be a surprise to some people. To others, it’s part of a long-standing tradition: the tradition of lumberjack games.
Lumberjack competitions have their roots in the logging camps of the 1800s. Even at that time, companies within the logging industry carefully honed the image of the professional forester until the image became a legend.
Today, professional timber sports help preserve that legend and the culture around it, despite changes to the very industry that created them.
People like Jason Lentz, a fourth-generation competitive lumberjack, are mindful of the weight of that tradition. “I’m lucky,” he said in an interview. “I’ve got… the sawdust that runs through my veins.”
Logging was integral to the westward expansion of the North American frontier. The first European settlers cleared forests in order to establish farms and gather resources for building and heating homes.
By the mid-1800s, however, trees were being felled for export as well. Companies began shipping timber from North America back to Europe, where the demand for building materials was great.
To keep up with the demand for timber first abroad and then at home, companies marched their operations from the East Coast westward. Their operations included logging camps that provided convenient bunkhouses and dining halls for the men who cleared the forests—the lumber men, or, in common speak, the lumber jacks.
Life as a lumberjack demanded six days of work each week, from sunup to sundown. Distraction and relaxation were limited but necessary. According to records, dancing and playing musical instruments were common forms of entertainment—as was casual betting.
Some records suggest that the first competitions started at camps in the 1890s as friendly bets on feats of strength. One legend holds that they began in 1870 all the way in Tasmania, which was undergoing its own development. There, the legend goes, two loggers wagered on who could fell a tree more quickly.
However they began, timber sports were well entrenched in logging culture by the 1900s. In fact, Jason Lentz has ties to those early competitions.
“Years ago, my great-grandfather used to travel on the West Coast to different logging camps,” Jason explained. “He used to compete doing that.”
Yet for Jason, little has changed about the challenges at the core of lumberjack competitions over four generations. “All the events are pretty much still the same… Everything is basically the same,” he said. “The gear has gotten a little better.”
Just as there were logging camps dotting the North American landscape in the 1800s, today there are several lumberjack competitions across the country and beyond, each of which features similar events:
Jason Lentz places his focus on wood chopping and sawing events, with underhand chop being the event he feels strongest in. When asked to choose a favorite, however, “All of ‘em,” he answered. “They’re all fun to me. I’m out to win every one.”
It’s easy to say he’s been successful. Jason placed second at the Stihl Timbersports U.S. Pro Championship in 2018. At the Lumberjack World Championships in Hayward, Wisconsin, that year, he took first.
To stay in competitive form, Jason maintains a training regimen that doesn’t so much prepare him for individual tournaments as it does incorporate wood chopping and sawing into his everyday life.
“Training is fine-tuning,” he explained, “like riding a bicycle.” Weight training at the gym is part of it, as are chopping and sawing training logs out in his yard to improve specific details. “Body movement, axe placement, tempo.”
Checking that improved gear he mentioned is also part of his routine. “I have $80,000 worth of wood chopping and racing gear out in a shed out here,” he said, including various saws, axes, and safety gear like the chainmail chaps that competitive lumberjacks wear to protect their legs. “I’ve got to go through and see what’s going the best.”
The amount of training Jason does comes down, as he said, to “what I can fit into my schedule.” Competitors select which events they want to participate in, and Jason typically competes in a hefty 20 to 25 tournaments each year.
He also has a day job.
“I run heavy equipment and put in city water,” he said. “I work 40 hours a week away from home, and… no matter what you do—you could sit at a desk for 40 hours a week or be out laboring or do anything—it takes its toll on you, mentally and physically, when it’s time to compete.”
Because of the rough conditions in lumber camps, the danger of the work, and the strength needed to be a logger, the stories of lumberjack life that emerged in the 1800s painted a picture of the lumberjack as a burly, heroic man capable of tasks that should have been impossible—think Paul Bunyan crossing the continent in just a few steps. It’s an image that logging companies were eager to use to promote business.
The middle of the 20th century, however, saw the start of changes that radically transformed the timber industry:
Despite those changes, logging remained a difficult, demanding job. Professional logging and professional timber sports became separate disciplines, yet even today they continue to share some challenges.
Time away from home and family is one of them.
Jason Lentz’s father, Mel Lentz, is a famous lumberjack, a legend in wood chopping championships who has six Stihl Timbersports U.S. titles to his name. Yet as Jason described it, “Growing up, my father was never around much. He was always off competing.”
Even for Jason, who tries to remain mindful of his time, timber sports training can call him away. After college, Jason spent three years in China performing in lumberjack shows and demonstrations, events that he called “crowd pleasers,” to the tune of two performances a day.
More recently, Jason traveled to Sydney, Australia—“the Wimbledon of wood cutting”—four years in a row, spending three to four months at a time there to train, compete, and learn from other masters of timber sports.
Competing hasn’t come without costs. “Last year,” Jason said, “I got fired from my job because I decided to go to the Stihl Timbersports Series World Championships over in Europe.”
Then there are the physical costs. According to Jason, while there is no such thing as being too young to start training for lumberjack competitions, the mid-40s might be too old to start due to the toll they take on the body.
“Stirling Hart from Canada, I think he holds the record in [speed climbing], he’s 26 years old and already retired,” Jason said. “He’s about an inch shorter from when he was, like, 18 years old, and he’s got problems with his hips and lower back.”
Yet Jason believes it’s possible to persevere in spite of the challenges that the life poses. “My dad just turned 60, and he’ll be at the Lumberjack World Championships competing,” he declared. “The weekend before, [for] the Stihl Timbersports Series, he made the top 20 in the United States. He’s 60 years old.”
Attend a competitive professional lumberjack tournament, and you’ll see athletes dash across floating logs and chop 24-inch hunks of wood more quickly than anyone else, almost as loggers did in the 1800s.
Can’t make it to one? You can always find video on social media, which Jason described as being surprisingly useful to modern timber sports.
“There’s YouTube tutorials, videos on what wood chopping should look like,” Jason advised anyone interested in getting into lumberjack competitions. “Maybe video yourself and then compare it to somebody that you know or maybe have heard their name winning some sort of event… and then try to fine-tune your own mistakes.”
The use of social media helps share the competitive lumberjack tradition with those outside of it and bring new interest to the sport. It preserves memories and a heritage that, for Jason, is ultimately what’s important.
“Memories over material,” he said when asked about his life philosophy. “I have lived rough, pretty much, in order to have memories.” He called his trips to Australia and Europe “memories of a lifetime” that he wouldn’t trade for anything.
For him, as for other lumberjacks, it’s simply a matter of making time to hold on to traditions that matter. “Wood chopping is part of my life,” he said. “I can always find another day job.”