DIXFIELD — Bruce Young drew a deep breath, fixed his eyes on his target 25 feet distant, cocked the long-handled ax behind his head and with one fluid swing sent his ax hurtling end over end.
Young and 58 other high school forestry students from throughout the state came to town Thursday for the 35th Annual High School Woodsmen's Competition. The meet comprised friendly yet fierce competition in 16 logging-related events involving logging practices and tools from Maine's colorful and storied logging past to today's advanced logging technology.
Four Maine high schools, including Oxford Hills Technical School of South Paris (last year's champ), Foster Regional Applied Technology Center of Farmington, Region 2 School of Applied Technology of Houlton and the meet's host school, Region 9 School of Applied Technology of Mexico, are participating in the two-day competition.
The four teams clustered under the gray sky on the sweeping green fields of the Mountain View Campground awaiting the competition's first event — the ax throw.
Thursday's competition involved events that tested skills used by loggers of yesteryear such as the log roll, the pulp throw for distance and the pulp throw for accuracy. Judging the events were three experienced foresters: Bryan Milligan, Randy Canwell and Daryl Biden.
"I like these old-style events," said Dean Merrill, a forestry instructor at the Foster Technology Center in Farmington. "Students gain an appreciation of the old methods of logging. In addition, this competition provides an excellent opportunity for students to demonstrate their skills."
The River Valley area log roll team of Kenny Haas, Derek Poland, Ryan Glover and Colby Smith met with boisterous cheers from their Region 9 teammates as they pushed and guided an 8-foot birch log, with curved hand hooks known as peaveys, along two skids to victory.
"These kids were pretty cool a few days ago," said David Mason, who along with fellow coach Marc Dupuis, runs the forestry program at Region 9. "But yesterday, the day before the event, they became really fired up."
"It's lots of fun," said Colby Smith, 18, of Canton, a second-year student in Region 9's two-year Certified Professional Logger program. "I love the teamwork and competition."
"These forestry programs and competition are so much more than just skill training for the logging industry," said Jill Orcutt, Foster Technology Center co-forestry instructor. "The kids benefit from the program with increased self-esteem, character-building and life skills that are important in any career these students choose."
Elizabeth "Beth" Abbott, 18, of Farmington is not planning to go into the logging industry but instead intends to major in culinary arts at the University of Maine at Farmington after graduating from Mt. Blue High School next fall.
Abbott donned a safety helmet, grabbed a chain saw and helped lead her team to first place in the cookie-cut event, which entails four straight cuts — two up and two down — through a thick pine post.
"I love the fun, the excitement and the adrenaline rush of this logging competition," said Abbott, who is a cheerleader on the Mt. Blue squad. "The saw went through that log like a hot knife through butter. I love the smell of fresh-cut wood."
Abbott and other competitors found a rapt audience of nearly 20 seventh-graders from Craig Coulthard's industrial arts class from adjacent Dirigo Middle School.
"Probably the two most popular events among these competitors," Mason said, "are the tree-felling and the two-person cross saw." The two events closed out the competition Thursday.
Friday's competitive events — the bore station, spring pole and felling — are part of a program developed in Scandinavia in the 1990s that facilitates both modern forestry skills and all-important safety practices.
"Maine cuts 6.5 million cords of wood each year," said Al Schaeffer, forestry instructor and meet coach at Oxford Hills. "We presently do not have enough training programs to fulfill the needs of today's forestry industry. The average age of a Maine logger is 57 years old. We need to be able to provide more highly qualified young foresters with the skills the industry is demanding. The gap between what the industry needs for foresters and what we are providing is growing all the time."
The woodsmen's meet will close late Friday morning with a tug-of-war competition and a final awards ceremony.