Ever since I read the tall tales of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, I’ve wanted to visit a lumberjack camp. I watched Charlie the Lonesome Cougar and saw lumberjacks riding down the river on a pile of floating logs and thought that was about the coolest thing I’d ever seen when I was a kid. I’ve seen shows on how the Norwegians came to America, chopped down trees, and built log houses with only an ax. That’s a skilled artisan.
There’s just something romantic about the thought of walking out into the wilderness and carving out an empire or a home with just an ax. I wouldn’t necessarily want to do it, but I like dreaming about it. Especially the floating down the river on logs part.
However, the History Channel has put together a brand-new thirteen episode series called Ax Men that looks like it’s going to be fantastic. I’ve seen the first episode so far, “Man Versus Mountain,” and was surprised at how dangerous the whole business appears to be. It isn’t just felling the trees or handling the saws that presents danger. The ride to and from the work site, jostling for position on mountains on a twisty dirt trail only wide enough for one vehicle, poses more threats. And most of the logging crews don’t have up-to-date equipment. When you throw in the elements and a lot of time spent working on mountainsides too steep to climb up without gear, the job looks almost impossible.
Still, crews get out there every day the weather’s good enough and pull out enough timber to make just enough profit to keep going. The guys who do it love the work, love being outside, or simply don’t have anything else they can do in that part of the world and refuse to leave.
The series is going to focus primarily on four logging outfits. Melvin Lardy’s Stump Branch Logging crew operates on a shoestring and has to take some of the dirtiest and riskiest jobs available to just stay afloat. Most of his crew appears to be relatively young and inexperienced.
J. M. Browning Logging, owned and operated by Jay Browning, is a high-tech, high profit company. However, Browning didn’t get to the top of his particular field without some sacrifices. He lost his left hand in a logging accident and now wears a prosthesis to use a chainsaw. Although he ramrods the crew, he gets down with them and gets just as dirty as they do. He uses top equipment and manages to get the best men in the field to work for him.
Pihl Logging and Gustafson Logging are the two other crews we were introduced to.
I didn’t think that much of the danger, but after watching the crews set up their various heavy equipment, I was blown away by how much risk was there every day. Working on a mountaintop, the big machines root and pull at tons of trees every day. At any given moment, the ground can tear loose and send them plunging down the mountainside.
They operate with skylines, massive cables stretched hundreds of feet to carry felled trees back up the mountain. A snapped cable can tear off a man’s arm or leg, or even cut him in two. Trees often weigh a ton apiece, and one loose timber can kill a man in a heartbeat.
The guys working the crews are the same kind of rough and ready men that I grew up with in southern Oklahoma back in the wildcat oil field days. They’re a breed you don’t find in many places. They’re often cowboys and fishermen, long haul truckers and longshoremen — guys who get the job done.
I’m going to settle in for the season and root these guys on. Even from the first episode, I know they’re going to have a rough go of it. If you haven’t seen Ax Men, check it out. As I watch them use this heavy equipment, I try to think of how it was done a hundred years ago, back when these same rawboned men used horses and oxen to pull the “green gold” from the tall forests. You’re watching the present, but you’re constantly reminded of the past. This is going to be a great show.