Kicking ax: Women compete in lumberjack sports

Alissa Harper, Michel Watkins
In this Saturday, April 25, 2015 photo, Alissa Harper, left, and Michele Watkins chop blocks of wood during the Axe Women of Maine's demonstration in Vernon, Conn. Harper, of Bar Harbor, Maine, started Axe Women in 2010. She said it’s empowering for the women to compete in a male-dominated sport. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

VERNON, Conn. (AP) — Make no mistake, these women kick ax. Their T-shirts even say so.

They fling their throwing axes 20 feet into bull’s-eyes and race to obliterate pieces of wood with cutting axes, long saws and chain saws — all while in lipstick, polished nails and tight-fitting jeans and shirts.

They’re the Axe Women Loggers of Maine, a group of friends with their own pinup calendar who travel across the country showing off their skills at county fairs, music festivals and motorcycle shows.

“I think it’s empowering that we’re women and we’re doing a very male-dominated sport,” said Alissa Harper, a 35-year-old native of Bar Harbor, Maine, who formed Axe Women in 2010. “I like to show that we’re feminine, that we’re girls, but we’re super athletic. That’s one of my selling points: All my girls are serious professional competitors.”

Members of the group have won events and set records at major competitions including the World’s Open Lumberjill Championship in Boonville, New York, where Harper won the ax throwing contest in 2006. Members of Axe Women hold six world titles in various events.

Men’s lumberjack competitions have been around for decades and have been gaining popularity, especially with the Stihl Timbersports series featuring professionals and collegians televised on ESPN and ABC. Women’s competitions have gained a foothold only in recent years, and there’s no tour like the high-profile Stihl series.

Three Axe Women were among more than a dozen “lumberjills” competing recently at the Town of Erin Wood Festival in upstate New York. No dressing pretty on this day — the women were vying for cash prizes based on how quickly they could cut and chop.

“With Axe Women we always have a blast and we’re just kindred spirits basically,” said Chelsey Black of Buffalo. “We like to keep it light-hearted, but we’re also very talented and serious about the sport.”

Black took home about $90 for top seven finishes in a handful of ax and saw events.

When Harper began working in her first lumberjack show in Maine about 15 years ago, she was the only woman and had to compete against men. She was well versed in swinging axes and running chain saws, having worked with her father in his wood-cutting business.

“They said if I could keep up, I could work there for the summer,” she said. “It was definitely scary competing against the men. I was the only girl there and I didn’t want to look silly.”

Harper has turned Axe Women Loggers of Maine, which now includes a dozen lumberjills, into a popular touring show. She says the group is booked solid from June through November at sites around Canada and the U.S. Axe Women’s website offers calendars, tank tops and even underwear with “girls kick axe” printed on the back for sale.

The group kicked off the 2015 season recently in Vernon, Connecticut, where it performed demonstrations at the headquarters of Axe Women sponsor LogRite Tools.

Harper and fellow Axe Woman Laurette Russell of New Gloucester, Maine, took turns throwing axes into a dart board-like target. Harper also took on longtime friend and Axe Woman Tracie Henning in the “underhand chop,” in which competitors stand on thick blocks of wood and race to cut all the way through them, their axes swinging at targets just below their legs.

“You get a cute girl up there whacking away on a piece of wood and it could be alluring to a man,” joked Henning’s husband, Chris, who competes on the Stihl Timbersports circuit. “I’m sure the appeal of a woman competing in a male-dominated sport would be intriguing to anyone, not just men.”

Henning, of Walworth, New York, finished fourth overall last year in the World’s Open Lumberjill Championship, placed third overall the year before and holds the world record with her partner in the two-woman crosscut sawing race. She hopes the women will have a tour like the Stihl Timbersports series one day.

“Men say it’s sexy, it’s attractive, it’s hot seeing women using sharp objects,” she said. “I get to show how strong I really am compared with the rest of the women out there. I get to travel around and do something I love so much.”

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Associated Press writer Michael Hill in Erin, New York, contributed to this report.

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Online: http://www.axewomen.com

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