The Axe Women of Maine, timber sports athletes

Peter Nielsen and Hillary Webb of the Circus Conservatory of America, housed in a 10,000-square-foot former railroad building on Thompson's Point in Portland. Photo by Brian Fitzgerald

The Maine-based contingent of the Axe Women of Maine, an all-female team of timber sports athletes, include (l-r) Michelle Morse, founder Alissa Harper, Laurette Russell and Michele Watkins.   Photo by Brian Fitzgerald



Editor’s Note: Alissa Harper is the founder of the Axe Women of Maine, an all-female group of timber sports athletes hailing from across North America.  She credits her start in the sport to growing up in the woods of Maine and now travels all over the country competing nationally. 

BF: Tell me about the Axe women of Maine.  How did it come about?

AH: I started in timber sports probably sixteen years ago, in a lumberjack show in Trenton, Maine. It was a somewhat touristy kind of a thing.  The lumberjack show went every night all summer long and I was the only girl that worked there for several years.   I worked on that show for  eight to ten years, started competing in [timber sports] and I fell in love with the sport side of it as well as the show side.  I met all kinds of other women in competition and realized that there were a ton of lumberjack shows that travel around.  They put out a show, they make money and they have fun. I thought, if all the guys are doing it, why can’t we get a group of women together to do it and show there’s women doing this?  I had the idea in my head for years to do it and then finally five years ago, I took out a loan, bought all the equipment and talked to all the girls that I wanted to pull into my group.  Everyone was on board and we put together the show.   It’s paid off really well—I have more work than I know what to do with now.

BF: How much of the year are you on the road?

AH: From June 1st until the first part of November, it’s steady—hotel to hotel to hotel around North America.  In the winter it’s definitely slower.  I have time to be home with my family in the winter and I just do one or two shows at a time and then go back home.

BF: How many ladies are involved right now in the group?

AH: I have about twelve girls that I choose from.

BF: And of those how many are from Maine?

AH: There are just four of us.

BF: What kind of following do you have?

AH: I think we have a pretty decent following.  Probably on a monthly basis other women contact me—one or two a month—saying, “I love you guys.   How can I join up?”.  Girls that used to compete in college who have been out of it for a few years contact me to ask how they can come and train or travel with us.

BF: It seems like you’ve kind of struck a chord with women who otherwise might not have thought they could do this sort of thing.

AH: I definitely think we did that.  It’s a pretty small family of female competitors in the sport.  When we go to the world championship, you have to send in an application and a resume of the different places that you’ve competed for the last three years.   They want species [of wood] you’ve chopped and your times. They really try to narrow it down to the top 30 best, so you pretty much know just about everyone in the sport.  These last several years, it’s really been growing in popularity.  We have the Stihl Series on TV, and there’s so many colleges that offer it as a sport. So I’m getting girls that have competed in timber sports, and have competed in college for four years, so they have amazing training by the time they’re 20 or 21 right out of school.

BF: Did you chop wood growing up?

AH: I grew up near Bar Harbor and we didn’t have a furnace until I was five or six.  We grew up with a wood stove. My dad cut all of the wood and it was a whole family thing:  my dad would go out and cut the wood and I remember weeks at a time, my mom and I stacking wood in the woodshed.  So I guess I grew up cutting wood, stacking wood and then I was taught how to run a chainsaw and actually cut wood.  I definitely was working in the woods.  When I was eighteen, I started working with my dad doing a lot of firewood and pulpwood and stuff like that, and clearing properties.  When I was twenty, I saw the (lumberjack) show going on and I was like, “ah, that’s pretty cool!”  I could work all day in the woods and make money and then I could go do the show for fun at night with the skills I already had and make more money.

BF: How would you explain competitive timber sports to a five year old?

AH: It’s chopping, sawing, axe throwing, log rolling…. it’s all of those events that you would see an old-time lumberjack do.  We’re doing them now using more modern tools, but pretty much the same tools that lumberjacks were using a hundred years ago: axes and crosscut saws, Peaveys and cant hooks.  Obviously we use more modern tools as well,  with the chainsaws and the hot saws and stuff like that, but pretty much it’s what you would imagine an old-time lumberjack doing hundreds of years ago.

BF: What’s your favorite event?

AH: I love it all (laughs).  I love underhand chopping, and I love log rolling; birling in the water.  I think those two would be my two top favorites.

BF: What titles do you currently hold?

AH: I’ve won championships at the world open lumberjill contest.   I have won axe throwing twice and I won Peavey log rolling.  Michelle (Morse) and I have won that twice.

BF: How about the rest of your girls?

AH: Most of my girls,  if not all of them, have had some type of presence at (world) championships.  That’s how I choose my girls.  I want to have the best of the best.

BF: What other groups of female timber sports teams are there?

AH: We’re the only group like us out there.  I tend to think that I have the best women out there. My girls compete in the world championships.  Every year probably about six of them will get picked to go.  Several of my girls actually got chosen to go on the USA team over to Australia.

BF:  What’s the best wood to cut?

AH: Usually in a competition,you want a soft wood.  You want it green, so you want it cut just a few days before you’re chopping it, or at least leave the bark on it and peel it just right before you chop it.  In the show we use a lot of poplar, aspen, pine and sometimes cottonwood, which is super soft.

BF: You had this really cool axe when I photographed you.  What’s the deal with that axe?

AH: The throwing axe [laughs].  For years the best place to get all of our equipment, our chopping axes, our crosscut saws and our throwing axes was Australia and New Zealand.  This new company in California called Precision Axes, contacted me and said,   ‘I’d like to see your girls using these axes’, so he gave me a great deal on however many I wanted for my girls. They’re made in the US and they’re really shiny and cool. I had just gotten [my axe] the day that you photographed us. I’m super happy with it. They are our competition throwing axes—you wouldn’t use them to chop wood or anything but for show.

BF: What’s the secret to your success?

AH: I have the best group of girls I could ever wish for.  I’m thankful every day for them.  They know how to put on a good show and they’re the best in the world, in their sport.

BF: What do you do when you’re not throwing an axe?

AH: When I’m back In Maine I work for my dad,  so definitely cutting wood and cutting blown-down trees and stuff like that, plowing and shoveling snow .

BF: The other Maine sports.

AH: Yeah. If I’m not on the road working, I’m at home working and if I’m not doing that I’m usually on my Harley.

BF: How would you describe Maine?

AH: I love Maine, even when I’m not there.  I love to still be able to go home there, where you know everyone and you can’t drive down the road without every truck waving at you.

BF:  What time do you go to sleep and wake up?

AH: I probably go to bed around elevenish and I’m not a morning person, so my dog wakes me up in the morning.   I usually get ready for breakfast around eight.

BF: Do you have any words of advice for other women that might be interested in doing timber sports competitively?

AH: Just try to find a competitor that is going to train you in the correct way.  It’s not a sport that you can just go out in your backyard and pick up an axe and start chopping and think that it’s going to be okay.  You’re not going to be able to train yourself;  you need someone the first few years to be watching you and telling you whether you’re doing the right things that you can’t see and that you’re not going to feel.   Axe throwing is probably something you could figure out in your back yard but I think that’s probably the only event that you wouldn’t need like a good coach.  Having good equipment is a huge help.

BF: What’s next for you and for the girls?  Is there a reality TV show in your future?

AH: Once every few weeks I’ll get a call from a producer.  We send emails and pictures and do Skype interviews,  and it all comes down to the fact that it’s not what reality TV is looking for. Most of my girls are responsible and married.  If anyone is doing something irresponsible and not good on the road, we don’t want that televised anyway. So as soon as I tell the producers that there isn’t going to be any crazy drunken nights, and no stealing of each other’s boyfriends…..

BF: …so not enough drama?

AH: At least not  drama that I would want to air to the world.  So we do definitely get those calls and we’re working  in that direction, but we’ll see what happens.  I’m not opposed to it by any means.



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