Fast and furious: Vernonia's lumber show is a hit
Welcome to a little slice of Americana.
Since 1957, the city of Vernonia's Friendship Jamboree & Logging Show has been a way for current community members to celebrate, past friends and families to reunite, and outsiders to enjoy what the town of just over 2,000 people has to offer for three days over the first weekend in August.
The event annually hosts more than 7,000 people over the three days of activities. Those activities include (but aren't limited to) a parade, car show, lawnmower races and equestrian events — not to mention a wide array of food booths, music, beer gardens, vendors.
Then, of course, there's the Logging Show.
Logging competitions are not for the faint of heart. They can be loud, and even dangerous if you aren't careful. And on Sunday, Aug. 5, this one was a scorcher, with temperatures nearing 90 degrees as the competition wound down.
But while aptly suited for its target demographic — Vernonia is, after all, an old logging town, and its high school competes to this day in the 2A Northwest League as the Loggers — the event offers something for everyone from the young to old, men to women, and experienced axemen to novice wood-splitters.
Held in Hawkins Park, centrally located in the heart of Vernonia and on the banks of Rock Creek, the natural arena sits amongst tall pines that mercifully offer shade from the intense afternoon heat. Bleachers sit on one side of the grounds and patrons have their choice of an assortment of concessions, including grilled sandwiches, hot dogs, sno-cones, nachos and other finger-fabulous delights that traditionally make the rounds at fairs and festivals abound. The production began with a charming rendition of the National Anthem, competitors were introduced, and the festivities commenced with an Axe Throw competition that included adults and kids alike.
For more than 60 years, Vernonia has been celebrating its town's heritage this way, but after last year's logging event was canceled, this year's rendition meant a little more to co-coordinators Lindsay Baska and Jenn Rau.
"The show didn't go on last year, and my dad wanted it back," Baska said. "I had run it before, but this year feels a little more special."
Baska, the daughter of Vernonia icon and past star of the History Channel's "Axe Men" Mike Pihl, spoke glowingly of what the show means to the town. She was noticeably relieved by the overflow of people present to celebrate the logging tradition in Vernonia.
"The show is definitely back to what it was in the past," she said. "This is a logging community and it really embraces this and can't wait for Sunday."
Strangely enough, Rau was experiencing her first Vernonia Logging Show on Sunday. Despite working with Baska behind the scenes to make this year's show go, the office assistant at Mike Pihl Logging Inc. was getting her first taste, and she liked what she saw.
"I've never been to a logger show in my life, but it's fun and cool to see people from so many places watching and participating," Rau said.
As part of the process, contestants don't sign up until the morning of the show, so until then, the two coordinators were in the dark regarding who would and wouldn't compete.
"We were nervous that no one would come," said Rau with a chuckle. "We didn't know if we'd have contestants. There's no pre-registering, so it's not until the day of that we see how many people we have competing."
In addition to the Axe Throw, events included the Pole Walk, Steeple Chase, Gate Opening, Pole Fall, where contestants had to fall 40-foot poles onto a beverage can, Pole Walk Snip, Cross Cut, Limited Bucking, Hard Hat Toss, Choker Setting, 4-5 Working Saw, 5-6 Working Saw, and Boring. Kids also competed in three of their own events, including the Axe Throw, Choker Setting and Hard Hat Toss.
However, not to be lost amongst the plethora of old-age logging events is the Hot Saw, a race between high-powered muscle machines seemingly better suited for a drag strip.
John Babbitt, of the serendipitously named Woodinville, Wash., put on a power saw exhibition throughout the day's festivities, effortlessly sawing through three-foot-diameter logs in just over a second. His V8 500-horsepower saw shaked, rattled and rolled through logs like a hot knife through butter, thrilling the crowd and exhilarating Babbitt, who is all in when it comes to competing in and promoting hot saw racing and logger shows.
"I love it," Babbitt said. "It's been my life, and I want to help it grow and get better."
The 46-year-old grew up logging and has made a nice living in the business, coupled with his construction company, TTI Construction. In addition, he started a nonprofit organization called Rage Cutting, which he's using to bring more excitement to events like the one in Vernonia, and in turn, more money to competitors who invest time and money for the love of the sport.
"I used to ride bulls professionally and there was no money in it until later on," Babbitt said. "Now I'm older, my house is paid for, my kids are grown, I'm blessed with success in my business and I can spend money on a silly saw, but my idea is to give back to the kids that are doing what I did years ago."
He continued, "Most of these youngsters are working for peanuts, living together and traveling in cars on next to nothing. I'm hoping to make their time worth more and keep people competing and working in logging."
Silly as they may be, per Babbitt, his saws are no joke. He's invested roughly $30,000 into his saw, it takes two men to lift and execute, and it packs so much punch, the blades last only three to four cuts before they either break or have to be retired. The best way to describe the noise is "deafening" — but to Babbitt's delight, the excitement generated from the exorbitant power resulted in "oohs" and "aahs" from the thousands in attendance.
"People enjoy it, and that's what I want," he said. "If you race, I want you to keep racing and be successful. I'm not a fan of a racer, I'm a fan of racing, and want to see it thrive."
And, at least for a day, logging thrived in Vernonia. Kids of all ages watched in amazement as professionals, young and old, showed off many of the skills directly responsible for Vernonia's modern-day existence: cutting, chopping, climbing and felling trees, and doing so with a sense of pride in not just how they did it, but also simply in what they were doing.
"We have people here from Idaho, Washington, and up and down the Oregon coast," Baska said. "This is what Vernonia's about, and hopefully will continue to be."