In 24 seconds flat, Daniel Jones can chop through a 13-inch white pine log, perched atop it and swinging his sharpened ax in a downward arc into the braced timber.
That, at least, is the kind of time he’s going for.
Today, he’s standing on a much harder poplar round behind his coach Jimmy Lawrence’s house. There’s a whole setup of timber-cutting apparatus out there, training grounds for Jones’ upcoming run in the collegiate championship of the Stihl Timbersports Series.
Jones just graduated from Haywood Community College, where he was a member of the timbersports team. His competition record this year was good enough to advance him to the national final in Oregon this week.
Timbersports isn’t exactly a household word, but woodsmen hacking away at logs or frantically sawing cookies from felled trees might seem a little more familiar, thanks to ESPN.
Getting ready for practice, where he’ll run through his four events — underhand chop, standing block chop, cross-cut saw and chainsaw — Jones suits up in chain mail to protect his legs and steel-toed tennis shoes.
Is the chain mail really necessary?
“Well, one of the professionals, he actually almost cut his calf off,” replies Jones.
So that would be a ‘yes.’
But, say Lawrence and Jones, injuries like that are pretty rare.
Part of that must be because the dangerous work is over so quickly. In the upcoming competition, Jones will be going against five other competitors and what counts is time and time alone.
In the chainsaw event, for example, he must saw two platter-sized cookies from a four-inch section of log. And it’s done so quickly that if you turn your head, you’ll miss it.
That’s not to underestimate the physical ferocity Jones has to bring to the practice. He’s no small guy, and after leaping back and forth astride that block, he’s well out of breath, and it’s clear that he’s using every stroke as efficiently as possible.
“That’s the first thing you’ve got to break everyone of,” says Lawrence, who coaches the HCC team. “Everybody tries to swing as hard as they can.” And that might be how you split firewood, but it’s not how you win.
Some of his team members, says Lawrence, have been chopping wood since childhood. Some have never touched an ax. And since it’s the only team the college has, it’s pretty popular. But everybody essentially starts on equal footing; no one comes in as a high school star.
Part of what Jones likes about it is the heritage behind it. Timbersports were born in logging camps, and they have a working history that few other sports share. Although Jones wasn’t an avid chopper before he joined the team, there was some foreshadowing that he might end up here.
“When I was little, me and my brother would go out in the woods and chop trees down and pick the biggest one we could, see how we could get them to fall,” says Jones.
Asked if he’ll continue on into professional competition circuit after this, he says he’d like to, thought it’s a bit of a financial hurdle.
A good ax can cost hundreds of dollars. A good cross-cut saw, with its long, wobbling blade, can run into the thousands.
There are only a few firms in the world that produce them, and each tooth is hand-filed.
But if he wins this week, he’s got an automatic spot in the pro tournament. It’s not something he could make a career of, but he hopes it’ll still be a part of his life.
“Even in the professionals, you don’t make a lot of money,” says Jones. “You just do it for the love.”