TALL, red-haired Don Dolliver squints, raises the double-edged ax directly back over his head, gripping the handle with thumbs aligned on the top, then slings it forward. Another direct hit in the four-inch bull's-eye, from 20 feet away. Mr. Dolliver's virtuosity took first prize in the ax throw, one of a half-dozen chopping, sawing, and whacking contests at the recent New England Lumberjack Championships in this out-of-the-way Connecticut hamlet. For a solid six hours, 21 burly woodsmen plied their skills with saw and ax. There was puffing and grunting aplenty, red faces and dripping foreheads -- despite the overcast skies and nippy temperatures.
There was also plenty of good fellowship and swapping of tales inside the fenced-off area where saw teeth flashed. These men, many but not all of them behemoths who fit the Paul Bunyan image, are clearly good friends as well as fierce competitors.
Most travel the region, and some the country, to attend similar backwoods meets. Take Mike Sullivan, a relative newcomer to this cross between sport and work, with three years of competition under his belt. He works part time as ``tree climber'' for a nursery in nearby Winsted, Conn., scaling trees to top them before they are felled. Earlier, he put in a stint playing professional baseball with the Cincinnati Reds organization. `An edge that'll shave you'
Mr. Sullivan is a favorite in many of the contests he enters, and he enters some 20 a year. He has been to Wisconsin, to Oregon, and even to Australia -- the ``mecca of chopping,'' he says. The sport developed in that country's wild and woolly outback, where fun-loving lumbermen decided to convert on-the-job talents to off-the-job recreation.
Australia is also the origin of some of the best lumberjacking equipment. Almost all of the competitors here carry a chest full of gleaming axes made in that country.
With these tools, you can ``get an edge that will shave you,'' says massive Don Quigley, from Dover, N.H., with a grin. Rudy Dettner, the farthest-flung competitor, from Youngstown, Ohio, confirms this for a gawking crowd of some 2,000 by slicing off strips of paper.
The way these fellows attack wood would bring gasps of unbelief from even the most ardent backyard hewer and chopper. Mr. Quigley mauls his way through a foot or so of tulip poplar to take first prize in the ``underhand chop,'' where the ax wielder stands on top of a well-secured log and whacks through it. Sullivan needs only a few well-aimed blows to sever a slightly thinner log in the ``standing block chop'' to take the honors.
Then there's the chain-sawing contest for those who like their woodsmanship louder and even quicker. Five-time world champion Ron Johnson zings through a 16-inch log three times in 5.13 seconds. How's he do that? Simple. Just convert a 250-cubic-centimeter Suzuki motorcycle engine to chain-saw use.
Actually, there's nothing simple about it. Apart from the mechanical know-how, there's the strength factor -- each souped-up saw weighs about 50 pounds. And the danger. When one of these throws a chain, it could batter down the castle gate, so to speak. Wooden guards are accordingly set up in strategic places.
When it comes to danger -- the kind that brings a cold sweat to onlookers -- nothing beats the ``springboard chop.'' A block of wood is fixed atop a nine-foot pole. Contestants, racing against each other and the stopwatch, chop notches into the pole, thrust in a metal-tipped board, hoist themselves up onto the board, and repeat the process with a second notch and board. Then, standing high up on that giddily elevated, frightfully springy little platform, they whack through the crowning block. The good ones do all this in a little over a minute. Mr. Dettner's winning time this day was one minute flat. Piecing together an arsenal
There's plenty of brawn and daring here, but there's also some patient craftsmanship behind the scenes. One of the competitors, Dick Slingerland, a bearded, weathered-looking man from Broadalbin, N.Y., is known as ``the saw doctor.'' He's one of two men in the United States who make the six-foot-long, one- and two-man bucksaws used in these contests. Each saw takes about 80 hours of work, says Mr. Slingerland, a diesel mechanic when he's not laboring on saws. They cost about $1,000 apiece.
The men who thrive on competitive lumberjacking gradually piece together an arsenal of such gear. For many -- whose livelihoods range from computer programmer to bread salesman to teacher -- this is a somewhat expensive, and certainly time-consuming, avocation. But for all, judging from the laughter and good humor that attend the competition, it's time and money well spent.