By Evan Rosser in Charlottetown and London, Ont.
By Evan Rosser in Charlottetown and London, Ont.
Charismatic and driven, Canadian lumberjack Stirling Hart is trying to take Timbersports from niche attraction to the mainstream.

Lay hands on Stirling Hart’s phone and you’ll see he’s got a picture of himself set as the background. A choice like that usually says something about a person. In Hart’s case, it says something about a person and a chainsaw. It’s a full-body shot taken from a bit of a distance. Hart fills the right side of the frame. He’s wearing a tight-fitting red-and-black striped shirt covered in sponsor logos, as well as the full catalog of safety equipment his sport requires for its gas-powered events: earmuffs, safety glasses and chainsaw pants. His hot saw is at his feet, and he’s looking down at it with one hand on his hip and the other up by his chin. His face is partly obscured by the time and date on the phone’s display, but his mouth is visible — drawn tight, turned down and pained. It’s the mouth of a man whose disappointment keeps breaking in fresh waves. The picture was taken in Stuttgart, Germany, in November 2016, seconds after a mental error cost Hart the first individual podium finish in Canadian history at the Stihl Timbersports World Championships.

A standard Timbersports competition is comprised of six events — three use an axe, two use some version of a chainsaw, and one uses a crosscut saw. Each one is a race against the clock. Points are handed out by position from fastest to slowest. Dead-last is worth something, but a DQ isn’t. The winner is the one with the most points when all is said and done. In Stuttgart, Hart had been having, in his own estimation, “the best day nearly any athlete could hope for.” He’d set a world record in the Springboard Chop, and national records in everything else. Gold was on the table; he could earn it with a good time in the day’s last event, the Hot Saw. Disqualification was the only thing that could cost him silver.

At the starter’s signal, Hart pulled the cord on his hot saw — nothing. He re-wound the cord and pulled again. The engine fired on the second attempt. He’d already lost first place, but he didn’t slow down for a steadying breath or to take stock of the log in front of him. Instead, he rushed to put chain to wood. “I was still in race mode,” he offers months later by way of explanation. “All I had to do [to lock down second place] was make three cuts — one down, one up, one down — in six inches of wood.” His third cut took him over the six-inch line, an instant disqualification. He dropped from second to fourth place, just off the podium. “So every time I turn my phone on, that’s what I look at,” he says. “And I remember what that felt like, being on stage. Even now it gives me goosebumps and chills and kind of makes me angry.”

Hart uses his phone as much as most people do, meaning he sees the picture at least a few dozen times a day.

Timbersports blend power, precision and speed, with the most points in each event going to the fastest competitor

Stihl launched its Timbersports series in the U.S. around 1985, but the roots of the sport reach back to the logging camps of the 1800s. Scott Read, a competitor and coach and one of the best Single Buck sawyers in Canada, provides the common-sense origin story: “In the lumber camps, you get a bunch of guys together and they’re going to jockey for who’s the best at falling 20 trees a day.”

Despite that long history, most of the top athletes on the Stihl Series — 20 men make the cut for the Canadian pro division each year — are first-generation competitors. They come across the sport in 4H clubs or on college campuses, fall in love with it and, if they’re lucky, find a mentor to show them the ropes. Hart isn’t alone in the ability to trace his lineage in logger sports back to his grandfather, but he is certainly uncommon.

Where he may, in fact, stand alone is in his dedication to the sport: Hart is the only competitor in Canada who can truly be considered a full-time Timbersports athlete. An arborist and certified B.C. tree faller, he’s built a working life with the flexibility to allow him to travel the globe training and competing with the sport’s elite. “He’s been everywhere, chopping different kinds of wood, learning the craft — just honing his own abilities,” says 2015 Canadian Champion, Marcel Dupuis. “Which is what you have to do if you want to be the best.”

Long-time competitor Wayne Paulsen puts it more succinctly. “I think Stirling would embody the ultimate goal of the sport,” he says, which is to be taken seriously as a top-level athletic endeavour rather than shrugged off as a novelty act.

Timbersports recognizes Hart’s value as a promotional tool. There are larger-than-life-size posters of him at every competition; he’s the athlete they tap for TV interviews and media events; there’s a picture of him on Series organizer Gerry Rozo’s business card. Hart is charismatic, great with fans and comfortable on camera. He’s also media savvy enough to know that every photographer wants the side with the four-inch scar and every reporter wants to be told that he got it at a competition in Australia in 2011 when a razor-sharp racing axe slipped free from a tree and hit him in the face.

In short, anyone interested in the growth of Stihl Timbersports should be pulling for Stirling Hart to win a world championship.

Hart's blend of openness, affability, talent and drive make him the perfect spokesperson for his sport — and the Stihl Series knows it

Born and raised in Maple Ridge, B.C., Hart got his first axe as a toddler. “I remember Stirling at four years old at our property hacking through a 14-inch log,” says his grandfather, Gord Hart. “Took him all day; stayed at it all day. We just give him an axe and let him go. He started hacking away and pretty soon he had the idea ’cause he’d seen it happen from the time he was in the cradle — he knew how to proceed with chopping a log in half.”

Gord found logger sports in the early ’70s after he “left working for the man [in the oil and gas industry] … and went back to logging.” Borrowing a crosscut saw for his first competition, he won some prize money and used it to buy a racing axe. Within four months he’d climbed from a novice in the Canadian Logger Sports Association — or CANLOG — rankings to become an “open cutter” competing against the best in the country. He was 36 and apparently making up for lost time.

CANLOG shows, which run to this day, feature a wider range of events than the Stihl Series — everything from log rolling to speed climbing. According to Gord, they’re “based on the family unit” and he and his wife, Judi, took full advantage, bringing all four kids along to competitions. Their only son, Greg, was 12 when his dad took up logger sports. “He was a runner and a good athlete,” Gord says, “and he was fascinated with the tree climbers.” Wearing spurs and holding a rope wrapped around the trunk for grip, climbers sprint vertically to the top of the pole and then freefall back to earth, tapping with their spiked toes every 15 feet or so on the way down to slow the descent. Competitions are run at different heights, like sprint distances in track, and poles range roughly between 60 and 100 feet. By the time Greg’s son, Stirling, was born in June of 1989, Greg was one of the best speed climbers alive. He retired with 10 world titles.

“You know we are lumberjacks, right? We are funny people. Our life is never dull.”

Logger sports aren’t divided by weight class or age, and like his father, Hart started too young to have much of a hope in anything but speed climbing. He says Greg first strapped him into spurs around the time he started walking. He was competing by the age of seven or eight and jokes he spent the next 15 years “getting my butt kicked” by grown men. It wasn’t actually quite that long — he was a top-flight climber by his late teens — but he was beaten often and badly enough to get losing most of the way out of his system. Not even five feet tall as a 15-year-old, at 24 he was his full six-feet, a five-time world champion and the owner of “every record in the sport.”

Even done right, though, pole climbing ages its best in dog years. According to one news outlet, when Hart set the 100-foot world record, he tapped the pole just five times on the way down. There’s a crash pad at the bottom, sure, but jump off a 10-storey building onto your mattress and then act surprised that Stirling Hart, a year shy of 25, had already torn both ankles and the bursa sac in his hip, sprained both knees, and compressed three discs in his back. If he wanted to be able to walk without assistance much past the age of 35, it was probably time to consider a change.

The 2017 Stihl Timbersports Canadian Championships in London, Ont., aren’t scheduled to start until 5:00 p.m., but by noon on a bright, hot-but-not-sweltering Sunday in early August the work of prepping blocks — the pieces of wood competitors cut on stage — is well underway. For the Championships, Stihl has carved out a section of fenced-off real estate in Victoria Park, right in the centre of London’s annual Ribfest. The scent of barbeque can be picked up five blocks in any direction, but behind the Timbersports stage fresh-cut wood mostly overwhelms it.

Canada can only send one competitor to the 2017 world championships and the outcome of today’s event will decide who earns the berth, but those stakes don’t seem to have much of an effect on Hart. He approaches the whole day with an easy, upbeat energy. He swaps stories, cracks jokes and discusses the finer points of equipment and technique; he prepares his blocks with meticulous attention to detail, scouring them for knots that could ding his axe, measuring and marking his lines, and wrapping the wood in wet T-shirts to keep it moist; and he is greeted with joy and enthusiasm wherever he goes. “You know we are lumberjacks, right?” Frenchman Leo Coudrau, Hart’s roommate and fellow competitor, jokes later in the day. “We are funny people. Our life is never dull.”

If there is a single moment of tension for Hart this afternoon, it comes at 3:41 p.m., when he is first allowed to test-fire his hot saw. Hot saws are souped-up chainsaws that look like the crayon drawings of an eight-year-old given a mountain of refined sugar and every Mad Max movie and asked to invent a tool for cutting down office buildings. Nothing on them is stock, but if you imagine a chainsaw with a motorcycle engine grafted into its guts you’ve got the general idea. They are crowd-pleasers, the Timbersports equivalent of drag cars, capable of firing up and making three full cuts through a log 19 inches across in six or seven seconds.

All of Hart's axes are filed by a New Zealander named Fa’avae Sefo. Hart says Sefo's axes are very "free" — meaning they go "in and out of the wood easily without sticking.”

There are two reasons for the tension around the test-fire. First, following the 2016 world championship slip-up, Hart has had to deal with people asking him on a semi-regular basis why he can’t run a hot saw. To be clear: He can, and had to in order to become a two-time Canadian Champion. But the world-championship gaffe was big enough that he hasn’t quite shaken the monkey off his back. Second, he lent his hot saw to Coudrau for last night’s qualifier, something he compares to “a woman giving someone her newborn baby.” When Leo pulled the starter on stage, nothing happened. He tried six more times before giving up and pitching away the starter cord in disgust. And he wasn’t alone. Seven of the 10 athletes in Coudrau’s qualification group DQ’d in the event. “F—kin’ hot saws,” a competitor says with an even mix of love and exasperation in his voice. That captures the mood nicely.

Hart’s saw starts on the third pull, shooting billows of white smoke out the exhaust pipe. If he exhales in relief along with it, he manages it with a lot less drama.

It’s widely acknowledged that any of the eight men who’ve qualified for the finals could win the Canadian title, but there are still four who can safely be called favourites: Hart, the winner in 2014 and 2016; Dupuis, the winner in 2015; Nathan Cumberland, a skilled 21-year-old who won the world rookie championship in 2015 and clocks in at a healthy 260 pounds; and 38-year-old four-time Canadian champion, Mitch Hewitt.

Hart draws Hewitt in the final heat of the evening’s opener, the Springboard Chop. The Springboard sees competitors work their way up the side of a tree by cutting notches in the trunk and slotting boards into those “pockets.” At the top, each man has to chop a block while balancing on their second board, a piece of wood half a foot wide and 10 feet off the stage. The athleticism required to get up the tree quickly plays to Hart’s body type, a rare occurrence on the Stihl Series. He’s listed at 175 pounds on the official Timbersports website, and even with the 10 or 15 pounds of muscle he’s put on since that page was last updated, he’s undersized among the sport’s elite. New Zealand’s Jason Wynyard, who beat Hart in Stuttgart for the 2016 world title, has four inches and more than 100 pounds on him. “To be able to even compete against guys that outweigh him by 100 pounds sometimes in [a chopping event] like the Underhand, he has to be so technically sound,” says fellow competitor Trevor Schofield, who has nearly 20 years’ experience in logger sports. “It’s amazing he can do what he does.”

Just watching the early Springboard heats is enough to give you palpitations as boards sag down to alarming angles and look liable to give at any second. But Hart and Hewitt are two of the best Springboard choppers ever. When Hart set the world record at the 2016 World Championships, it was Hewitt’s record he beat.

Hewitt is first up the tree, cutting each pocket with four quick hits and getting onto his second board in front by at least two slow Mississippis. “Mitch has so much experience he doesn’t even have to think about it,” Hart says later. “He just throws the hits in and they’re perfect every time. Normally I know Mitch is going to beat me up the tree by anywhere from two to five hits.”

Hart takes an extra swing cutting his first pocket, sacrificing a fraction of a second in the name of safety, and has to fight to get his axe free of the block as he sets up on the second board, but once he starts chopping, his blows land with sweet, clear cracks that signal he’s chosen the right axe for the wood, the sound aptly named Timbersports woodmaster Paul Woodland describes as “kind of like taking a hammer and hitting a piece of hardwood on a frosty morning.” He’s drawn a good block — it splinters away in fat golden chunks — but still the time he makes up is phenomenal. Hewitt switches to the back side of the block first and gets in four hits before Hart joins him, but after a first, low haymaker swing it takes Hart just four more overhand chops to drive his block. He tops Hewitt, who continues hacking away at what’s turned out to be a very stubborn piece of wood, by four seconds, finishing first overall at 47.83 and earning himself eight points to start the evening.

“To be able to even compete against guys that outweigh him by 100 pounds sometimes, he has to be so technically sound. It’s amazing he can do what he does.”

The Underhand Chop and Stock Saw follow, and the Aspen Poplar causes problems for Hart in both events. Just as golfers will invariably blame the wind, the grass or the Good Lord for a misplayed ball, it’s rare for a logger sports show to go off without a complaint about the wood. But, brought in last-minute after the Championships’ White Pine supplier fell through, this weekend’s crop has been all over the place — hard then soft, sticky then not, unpredictable even between two blocks in the same heat.

For the Underhand, Hart chooses a heavier axe guessing he’ll be chopping soft wood. He isn’t, and fatigue combines with a few small lapses in judgement to land him in third place behind Hewitt and Dupuis. The Stock Saw goes worse. With the entire field divided evenly, the four who end up on the second stand seem to get a harder block. An event that often sees first and seventh separated by a second instead finishes with more than a second and a half between the winner, Nick Russell (who, to be fair, set the national record a day earlier), and Hart, who comes fifth. “I didn’t make any mistakes,” he says later. “That’s just the way it goes sometimes.”

In the lead-up to a competition, Hart and his fellow competitors spend hours prepping their equipment and wooden blocks with meticulous attention to detail

With three events down and three to go, Hart is third overall. And despite being a full five points back of the leader, Hewitt, he seems totally unfazed. You can often catch him singing to himself at contests, and while prepping his axes for the Standing Block Chop he manages a passable JT as “Can’t Stop the Feeling” plays over the PA system. He carries that same buoyant energy along with his axes right to the lip of the stage, then steps up and destroys his block, delivering his final blow with enough force to send the top half hurtling into the side of Dupuis’s stand. He posts a time of 19.05, winning by almost four seconds, and pulls himself within two points of the lead heading into the Single Buck. When he wins that, too, it puts him back into first with a three-point buffer and only the Hot Saw between him and the 2017 Canadian Championship — his ticket back to worlds. He probably looks at his phone at least once before heading to warm up his saw.

Following their head-to-head matchup in the Springboard, Hewitt has gone in the heat right before Hart all day, and that sequencing has allowed him to apply pressure with a strong showing. Hart is sitting in the on-deck area when Hewitt fires his saw, gets it to the wood and makes three good cuts in an unofficial time of 7.21 — tying Donald Lambert for the fastest run through three heats. (Hewitt’s official time, posted later, is 6.96 seconds.) Hart is stone-faced in the moment but later elaborates on what he was thinking: “It was nearly identical to the situation I was in [at the World Championships] in Europe,” he says. “When I was waiting to go up — after seeing what Mitch had done and everybody else had done — I actually wasn’t sure how fast I had to cut to win. I think it was only around nine seconds, which is pretty slow, but what can happen in the Hot Saw is if you try to be too safe, you make mistakes. You’re almost better to go for it.”

Hart takes the stage with Dupuis, who unbeknownst to the crowd has had to borrow another competitor’s saw and assemble it in 15 minutes after his blew a head gasket right before the event. They’re given a minute to warm up their engines, and before he pulls the starter, Hart leans over and wishes his saw good luck. “Let’s do this together,” he implores. “We’ve just got to make three cuts.”

His engine fires on the first pull. He revs the throttle a few times and then shuts off the saw, sets it down and hand-winds the starter cord back into place. He does a quick pass over the body of the machine, surveying switches and wires with his fingertips like he’s performing the crosscheck on an airplane. When he’s done, he places his hands on the top of the block and waits for the gun.

The sound of the shot rings out over the public address, and Hart and Dupuis lunge for their saws. Their arms whip back in unison. Both engines roar to life. When the chains touch wood, huge rooster tails of sawdust paint the stage. Hart guides his first smooth down-cut. He transitions without shifting or faltering and brings the saw back up. The wood offers the resistance of hot butter. He finishes his final down-cut just behind Dupuis, shuts off his saw and, still holding it, looks at the time displayed in giant red LED numbers above him. It reads 6.89 seconds. He lowers the saw and raises his arms above his head. “Normally I’m the colourful guy on stage,” he says, “full of fist pumps and emotion. And I was a pretty emotionless bag of shit most of the day, so I was like, ‘You might as well give them something for TV.’ So I get my hands up and celebrate and, sure enough, I gave them something for TV.”

“I took my shoe off and, yeah, my two middle toes were, like, dangling.”

The commotion starts around Dupuis’s block. A judge in Footlocker pinstripes kneels to examine his cuts and, moments later, pulls a yellow flag from his back pocket and throws it in a sad arc onto the stage. As Dupuis bends to take a look for himself, a second judge steps forward with one of Hart’s cut discs of wood, known as cookies. “In dramatic fashion, he held it up for all to see,” says Hart. “I was like, ‘Oh. Oh, no!’”

The two most common ways to DQ in the Hot Saw are to cut over the six-inch line, as Hart did at the 2016 world championships, or to “cut out” and miss a portion of the block on one of your passes, leaving an incomplete cookie. As the judge holds up Hart’s second cookie, you can see a piece the size of a fingernail is missing from the bottom edge. “I’m usually fairly conscious of when I cut out, because I can feel the difference in the RPMs of the saw,” Hart says later. “But it was that insignificant, that I didn’t notice it and didn’t think anything of it.”

The disqualifications are announced on-stage by head judge Roger McPhee. With five minutes to appeal, Hart heads off stage and immediately makes his way to the video review team. He explains that he wants them to see if the cookie actually chipped when it hit the ground and jokingly greases the wheels with a bit of flattery — “You look lovely in those shirts, by the way” — but he isn’t confident. “I don’t think they’ll give it to me,” he says on the walk back to the athletes’ tent. “It’s okay. It happens.”

All three judges come to tell him the disqualification stands. They look apologetic bordering on guilty, but he takes the news with grace. “It’s okay,” he tells them. “Thanks for looking it over.” He’s picked up a piece of cantaloupe somewhere along the way and holds it half-eaten while he offers the other hand to each judge in turn. He finishes second. He’ll have to wait another year for his next shot at a World Championship.

Athletes get one wooden block before the competition starts to see which axe will cut it best — hoping the info gathered will pay off when the lights come on

The trophy ceremony has just wrapped on the grounds inside London Ribfest and Hart smells faintly of the Champagne he sprayed all over Mitch Hewitt. The sun is setting, no longer visible over the trees, and the crowd is gone except for the VIPs and stragglers. Hart stands out behind the first few rows of empty seating, near the front fence. He’s looking back toward the stage, and every now and then a fan leans in to ask him to sign a cookie.

He did this to himself, he says, referring to the second-place finish. Even before his first block of the weekend, he just had a feeling he was going to lose. Not because he didn’t think he could be Canadian champion, but because he knows what it takes to have a real shot at the world title and, deep down, he didn’t believe his body could take it this year — he needed a break.

In mid-May, at a training camp in the Czech Republic six days before an international Timbersports event in Hamburg, Hart was talking to another athlete after a session. He’d already taken off his guards — the chainmail socks that protect his shins and feet in chopping events — and he was resting an axe on the top of his foot. “I moved the wrong way and it just put a little nick in the top of my shoe,” he says, his eyes still on the stage. “I thought nothing of it, and then I saw the blood.”

He wasn’t in pain, he says, so he walked over to the camp medic. The medic didn’t speak English, but the blood made it fairly easy for Hart to communicate the fact that he’d cut his foot and they should probably take a look at the damage. “I took my shoe off and, yeah, my two middle toes were, like, dangling.”

The cut was in the top of his foot, above his toes. He told the medic he should probably go to a hospital and, speaking through an interpreter, the medic told Hart that his wife worked in a plastic surgery clinic about an hour and a half away and they could go there. The medic’s connection got Hart in right away and the doctor who examined him spoke some English. He said it looked as if Hart had cut some tendons and 10 minutes later he gave Hart a local anaesthetic and began operating. He opened the cut wider to locate the tendons, which had snapped back like rubber bands, and then reattached them, stitched up the incision and wrapped Hart’s foot in tape. The whole process took about half an hour.

Before he left, Hart showed the doctor some YouTube videos of Timbersports events and asked whether his foot would “stay together” if he competed. “He went, ‘Uhh, it’s like, uhh, 50-50,’” Hart says, adopting a Czech accent. “I’m like, ‘Would you sign off on me to do it?’ He’s like, ‘If you want to, sure. Go for it.’”

Hart turned up for the Hamburg event on crutches and told anyone who asked that he’d twisted his ankle. He thinks he tore the tendons again some time during that event, but he’s been passing the injury off as the same lingering ankle sprain ever since.

Over the past two years, Hart has turned himself into one of the best Single Buck sawyers in the world by seeking expert advice, relentlessly analyzing his form and spending countless hours turning conscious adjustments into unconscious muscle memory

Hart isn’t willing to blame his dangling toes or the blinding pain in his foot for his loss in London, but the injury, like his cellphone background, says a few things: That the margin for error in Timbersports is slim enough to border on non-existence; that it takes luck to be the best in the world; and that, more important than luck, it also takes a single-minded drive that most people, most athletes, just don’t have.

“I get that the Series is made for them to sell chainsaws, right? I get that,” he says a few days after London. “But at the same time, they’ve built this series up from nothing to something that has some prestige and that athletes all around the world want to compete to win it. And it takes a serious amount of dedication, like any other sport, to be a champion in it.

“But I’ve realized that it’s bigger than that, too. We have a chance now to get our sport from being people chopping in paddocks and few people knowing about it, to it being a globalized sport — [with] the entire world knowing about it and knowing the people that do it.

“So my goal is I don’t want to just be the champion; [like Michael Jordan is to basketball or Wayne Gretzky is to hockey] I want to be the Stirling Hart of Timbersports.”

It’s getting dark as Hart walks around the stage, and the floodlights of the athletes’ tent seem to have a new warmth to them. He steps inside and joins a group of fellow competitors, friends, near a folding table strewn with STP, WD40, sharpening stones and other accessories. His introspective mood has already slipped away, replaced by something better suiting the air of relief and joviality in the tent, but that doesn’t stop someone from taking one look at him and loudly joking, “Ah, don’t worry. You’re still the poster boy.”

Photo Credits

Darren Calabrese
Design by Drew Lesiuczok