A daylong rainstorm has finally passed and Amber Larsen, a 28-year-old ecology major at Flathead Valley Community College, has flung a sturdy length of rope around her waist, strapped into her spiked shoes and attached herself, loosely, to the bottom of a 30-foot-tall wooden pole.
Larsen is the co-captain of FVCC’s distinguished logger sports team, the only athletic program currently sponsored by the school, and has somewhat improbably emerged as one of the top women in her sport. A native of Michigan, Larsen had “never split firewood, never used a chainsaw” before enrolling at FVCC four years ago, and she’d certainly never climbed a 30-foot pole.
But in her first semester in Kalispell the team’s then-captain convinced her to come out to the logger sports arena/shop/training center just north of the main campus. She told Larsen, a high school soccer player, that she would be great at this, and when Larsen showed up she immediately discovered her inner Paul Bunyan.
“Probably because it’s so different,” Larsen posited, in an attempt to explain the attraction.
It took less than a full season for Larsen to earn her first event win and just a little while longer for her to take over the captainship. Her specialties are pole climbing and burling — more on burling later — but she’s pretty handy with an ax, too. At the Association of Western Forestry Club’s annual Conclave earlier this month, Larsen won three events (pole climb, burling and ax throw) and was second in two others (horizontal chop and double buck). She came in second for the title of Belle of the Woods, the award given to the top overall female competitor, and added another second place finish the following week.
Larsen and her teammates have two events under their belts so far this year and even with a team sorely lacking in experience FVCC is nonetheless showing well. They were fourth out of 12 teams at the Conclave, the biggest event of the season, and had their A and B teams come in second and third, respectively, at the University of Idaho’s Lumberjack Classic last weekend. Larsen and Haakon Sande, a co-captain and the Bull of the Woods (top male competitor) in Idaho, give FVCC strength at the top of the lineup, but they are two of only four returners on a team with 11 newcomers.
And it is one of those newcomers, a burly but inexperienced climber, who has hopped onto the pole next to Larsen on this soggy, cold afternoon. The team captain has turned teacher here, calmly and patiently steering her teammate through each belabored step upward, and then carefully back down.
“You have to learn to trust a tiny little spike that’s going to support you,” she would say later, explaining that properly climbing a pole could be done almost arm-free, although her teammate, breathing heavy and bemoaning his sore upper half, was still working on that trust. He is, for now, stuck where Larsen was back when she was beginning, a college student out-of-place but intrigued by an unusual opportunity, figuring out what exactly this oddity of a sport was all about.
Larsen, though, is not stuck, especially not on the pole climb. She has a few more runs she wants to complete, and as he untethers she takes off, scrambling like a squirrel spotted by a pooch on patrol, exploding effortlessly through the 30 feet to the top. At the Conclave, her winning time up was less than nine seconds.
“I’m running,” she says of her technique. “Once you figure out your rhythm it just becomes natural.”
FVCC has been sponsoring logger sports almost continuously since 1972. The program was founded by Hugh Adams and since his untimely death from leukemia in 1986 the team of Annie and Bob Beall has mostly been in charge. Annie is an adjunct professor and lab instructor at the college, where her husband, Bob, also once taught.
Their program has won 14 AWFC Conclave titles, essentially the national championship for logger sports programs in the West, all while competing against almost exclusively four-year schools. Their rivals include the University of Montana, Cal Poly and Northern Arizona, among others. Annie Beall first picked up an ax for the school in the early 1980s when she was a forestry major, and while teams in the early days were made up of primarily forestry students, today’s athletes come from a range of backgrounds and experience levels, many not unlike Larsen when she first joined the team.
One of the team’s many newcomers this year is Jim Vincent, a 25-year-old Army veteran from Arizona who intends to study rangeland management after completing his associate’s degree at FVCC. Vincent, like Larsen, was partly drawn to the logger sports team simply because of its uniqueness.
“It’s a physical activity, it’s the school’s only sports team and it seemed like ‘I don’t know a lot about it so why not learn,’” he said. “Obviously, it’s something that’s physical labor, which isn’t always the most fun thing, and making it a sport that is in turn actually enjoyable and fun. That was a big appeal to me.”
The appeal for Vincent, too, was somewhat practical in nature. He works in the summers for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and being able to operate a chainsaw — something he does while running up the obstacle pole in competition — or use a crosscut saw is what he called a “competency” to add to his resume. Larsen, the ecology major, has done silviculture, basically the execution of a prescribed forest management plan, for the U.S. Forest Service. To that end, she has taken advantage of logger sports’ technical events that include quizzes in dendrology.
“It’s not all chopping and sawing,” Larsen said.
Some competitions include events like traverse — “navigating through the woods,” Larsen said — and timber cruising. A former teammate, she added, has gone on to work in timber cruising since graduation.
In her more than 30 years, there is one particular thing Annie Beall has always loved most about timber sports, and it’s the main reason she says she’s still spending so much time coaching the program.
“The type of people it attracts, they’re good people,” she said.
Beall says most competitors have never been on a sports team, not to mention one that defines sport in the way logger sports does. What she does see, however, are students committed to their teammates and even their competitors. She shares stories of teams helping other teams with equipment during events, eschewing any hyper-competitive notions of rivalry, and says logger sports teams from different schools sometimes camp out together during multi-day competitions.
The students at FVCC spend plenty of time around each other, too. Some of the FVCC team members are enrolled in a physical education course that requires them to practice at least fours hours per week, but on almost any day all year long there are a handful of people practicing at the logger sports center, including in an indoor facility that is one of the only ones of its kind in the country.
The team’s long-distance travel schedule and the long practice hours have an interpersonal benefit, too.
“We live with each other for a few months,” Beall said. “So if you’ve got problems, you learn how to vent and get over it and figure them out … There doesn’t seem to be many problems but it just really attracts a very neat kind of person.”
“As Bob tells them every year they show up,” she continued. “‘You’re warned, there are numerous marriages that come out of this.’ We’ve had about five (marriages) that have come out of team members, let alone other schools.”
There will be no travel for the FVCC team this week, however, as they are hosting school’s annual Stumpjumper Days competition on April 21, with athletes from seven different colleges taking part in the festivities. There will be pole climbing, there will be ax throwing and there will be lots of different displays of wood cutting and chopping. There will not be, unfortunately, burling, Larsen’s other favorite event in which two competitors stand on top of a log in a pond and run back and forth in an attempt to knock the other into the water. For all that FVCC has at its disposal at its sprawling competition and practice facility behind a pair of strip malls in north Kalispell they do not, Larsen noted, have a pond.
There is no charge to attend Stumpjumper Days, which will run from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the FVCC Logger Sports Arena, accessible via the Hutton Ranch Road roundabout just east of U.S. 2. For more information, visit www.fvcc.edu/loggersports.
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