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WVU’s 'lumberjill' wields a mighty ax

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? Well, if that woodchuck follows Erin Vorholt's lead, it will be a substantial stack.

As Vorholt settles in at West Virginia University for her senior year, she will certainly look back to the day she became a "lumberjill."

"There was a barbecue at the beginning of the school year for students in the Davis College of Agriculture and Natural Resources," she explained. The WVU Forestry Club and Woodsmen Team had a booth there, and then-freshman Vorholt walked past.

"They needed a girl. And I've been in it now for four years," she said.

The petite brunette has been the only consistent female presence in the club for four years, but that's not the case at other schools. She competes against women from Virginia Tech and other colleges at meets throughout the year.

Woodsmen is a competitive, coed intercollegiate sport in the United States, Canada and elsewhere based on various skills traditionally part of forestry educational and technical training programs. In North America, the sport organized into five regional divisions: northeastern, mid-Atlantic, southern, midwestern and western.

Woodsmen/lumberjack competitions have their roots in competitions that took place in logging camps among loggers. As loggers were paid for piece work, the ability to perform specific tasks more quickly or with a degree of showmanship was something to be admired.

Vorholt, the daughter of Steve and Kim Vorholt, of Poca, said her events include:

  • "Jack and Jill" crosscut saw -- Vorholt and a male teammate cut two "cookies" (the pieces cut from the log) using a long saw;
  • "Jill and Jill" -- same as above but with a female teammate;
  • Underhand chop -- standing on a log, she cuts it in half between her feet;
  • Ax throw -- she throws a double-bit ax toward a target eight feet away;
  • Single buck -- using a two-man saw with one handle taken off to cut cookies from logs;
  • Bow saw -- a 36-inch bow saw is used to cut a series of cookies from a log; and
  • Log roll -- "It's not the one on water!" Vorholt explains. "You have one on the ground, and you push it."
  • When talking about the underhand chop, she admits it's a bit daunting.

    "It's scary when you get to the end -- I don't want to hit myself with the ax. But it's really fun. And she said following the July derecho, she and her father spent a lot of time cutting wood and searching for downed trees that she could use for target practice.

    "My dad has really gotten into it. He helped me buy an ax at a flea market," she said. A good ax can cost $300 or more, and the saws cost in the thousands -- and sharpening them costs even more.

    The coach of the WVU team is Arden Cogar Jr., known as "Jamie" in the timber-sport community, a West Virginia lawyer and decorated professional woodsman competitor.

    "There are around 15 people on the team," Vorholt said. "Jamie has a cousin at Virginia Tech, so that's why we often compete against them. Jamie has helped us all so much with technique."

    Vorholt is in the agriculture sorority, Sigma Alpha, and the WVU chapter has 38 active sisters. She's made friends in the Virginia Tech group as well.

    "My mom teases me and says that with this as a hobby, I scare off all the boys," she said. "But this club has given me a big group of big brothers."

    The Charleston Catholic High School graduate is a horticulture major considering attending graduate school in recreational or horticultural therapy. She hopes all of her practicing pays off when she enters an annual meet in early October at Twin Falls State Park. In the meantime, the team is often asked to give demonstrations at festivals across the state as well as at the Future Farmers of America state convention.

    So, when she throws the ax, what goes through her mind?

    "It's fun -- and a good stress relief. I do picture someone on that target," Vorholt said with a chuckle. But she's not telling who would "get the ax."

    Reach Sara Busse at sara.busse@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1249.


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