Despite the decline of the state’s timber industry, plenty of Mainers are good at wielding an ax. One lumberjack skill, however, is pretty much lost to history, except at the Great Maine Lumberjack Show: logrolling.
Most lumberjacks who perform at the show in Trenton readily admit that logrolling took them the longest time to master. And even the best still fail; some just fail more theatrically than others.
I was determined to nail the strange skill in a few hours. (To spotlight the vital but often little-noticed seasonal work that revs up the midcoast in summertime, my colleague Nick McCrea and I are taking turns at trying our hands at mucky, sweaty or simply odd jobs for a day.)
Only when I lost my balance on my fifth attempt at logrolling and ungracefully fell backward off the large spinning log, the momentum launching me into an unintentional backward somersault into the water, did I understand what the regulars meant by theatrical.
The lumberjack show is a seasonal, live-action competition on the Bar Harbor Road between Ellsworth and Mount Desert Island. “Timber” Tina Scheer owns and emcees the nightly show while her lumberjacks and lumberjills, all in their 20s, compete in cross-cut sawing, chopping, ax-throwing, pole-climbing and logrolling, the last of which is the least dangerous because it doesn’t involve an ax.
Timber Tina employs about 10 part-time employees, personally training all of them. At 63, she is a charismatic riot, her booming voice still tinged with a Wisconsin accent. She often can be heard shouting across her property to her workers.
She started the show more than 22 years ago on Route 3, determined to snare tourists on their way to Acadia National Park. She remembers first coming to the area on a childhood camping trip from Hayward, Wisconsin, home of the Lumberjack World Championships.
Like a woodsmen Von Trapp family, Timber Tina and her siblings started logrolling competitively as kids. Today, one of her brothers owns and operates a lumberjack show in Tennessee. Another does the same in Alaska.
“This is Tina’s world. We just live in it,” said first-year lumberjack Mason Sohns, 20, repeating the staff’s mantra.
Simply stay on the log
Timber Tina agreed to teach me the basics of logrolling a few hours before the 7 p.m. show. The setup is pretty simple: a thick western red cedar tree with patches of carpet nailed to either end of it to discourage slipping floats in three feet of water in a square tank. The goal? Stay on the log as long as possible. Your best chance is by moving your feet only slightly forward or backward, but mostly more up and down with precision—sorta like quiet marching.
In competitive logrolling, there are two rules, according to lumberjack Ethan Blake, 26: “You can’t cross the centerline, and you can’t touch your opponent.”
Interfering with your opponent in other ways is allowed. Kicking water, for example, might blind a foe for a split second and trigger a fall. Timber Tina is known for being especially good at this.
This is Blake’s second summer as a lumberjack in the show. During the day, he’s a camp counselor in Somesville.
“That’s just tourism season in Maine. Everybody’s got two jobs,” he said.
Blake clearly enjoys working for Timber Tina. “I spend more time with Tina than I do my own mom,” he said. “She’ll watch us, and she’ll critique us. But she emphasizes wanting us to be our best.”
Logrolling is especially difficult because it’s not a skill likely to be picked up elsewhere, he said.
“You can come off the street and know how to cross-cut saw. It doesn’t take a lot of skill.” Patting a wet log, he added, “This takes a lot of skill and a lot of time to perfect.”
My time on the log was nearing, so I changed into athletic shorts and an old T-shirt, pulled my hair into a topknot and took off my shoes.
“You seem nervous,” Bangor Daily News photographer, Ashley Conti, remarked. I had been staring at the log spinning under Kate Perry and Dylan Kelley, who were playfully competing.
“I’m not,” I said, looking away. I was.
Perry, in her early 20s, started logrolling at the age of 3. As I watched, she lost her balance and fell on her tailbone with a thud. I winced.
It was my turn.
Proper logrolling, I was taught, involves doing so with one arm extended in front and the other stretching backward, for balance. My left arm and leg are dominant, so while my hips faced the front, I turned to my right side and watched the log roll. Had I been competing, I would have been told to keep my eyes on my opponent’s feet.
The point isn’t to try to control the log, but to “let the log do it’s thing,” Perry told me while she stood waist-deep in the water, her arms wrapped around the large timber to hold it steady.
With trepidation, I stepped, knees wobbling, onto the log.
For approximately three seconds I maintained my balance as the log slowly started to roll. Then I fell into the water. I hopped out of the tank and readied myself again.
I tried again and again. Each time, I’d set my stance on the log, roll with it as long as I could, lose control, plunge in the water either face first or back first.
Sometimes I wouldn’t even get two steps in before losing my balance. I tried to employ the helpful hints I was being given: pitter patter my feet, bend my knees, straighten my back.
My thighs began to tighten and burn, and my arms got heavier each time I had to pull myself out of the water.
Breathing heavily, I took a break.
That’s when a woman Timber Tina used to compete with 30 years ago in Wisconsin, Heather Dalmage, just happened to stop by to say hello. She and her husband were visiting from Chicago and drove by the Great Maine Lumberjack sign.
“I knew this had to be Tina Scheer’s place,” she said, grinning.
Dalmage hadn’t been on a log in decades, but it didn’t show. At all. She and Timber Tina jumped on the log and reminisced about past competitions.
I stood on the side catching my breath, wet, shivering and embarrassed that, despite not facing an opponent, I couldn’t stay on the log for more than a couple of seconds after an hour of trying.
“It’s like riding a bicycle,” Dalmage said, as she demonstrated that her legs had never forgotten how logroll.
Eventually, my elders fell off, and it was my turn again.
I stepped out on the log, and then it happened. It rolled back and forth underneath me, but I didn’t fall off. Seconds passed. Time slowed. The log was shifting, but so was I. It felt like the log and I were in sync.
Just then, time sped up, and I lost my balance and fell backward. When I came up from the water, there were a few cheers. I felt accomplished.
How long had my triumph lasted? Probably no more than six seconds. But every time my muscles ached over the next two days, I felt proud.