Axe women loggers: Serious competitors

Axe women loggers: Serious competitors

Alissa Harper, 34

Bar Harbor

Laurette Gregoire, 44

New Gloucester

Michelle Morse, 40

Eastbrook

Axe Women Loggers of Maine

www.axewomen.com

Alissa Harper of Bar Harbor was one of several women competing in lumberjack shows back in 2010 when she got the idea to get a group of women together and form her own troupe.

“The owner of the show didn’t want us to look like women,” said Harper, who had been the first female to be part of that lumberjack show. “I thought I could do a better job of marketing.”

Four years later, the Axe Women Loggers of Maine, a group of between eight and 12 women (only three are currently living in Maine) is “crazy busy,” according to Harper. Three of them, including Harper, appeared on “The Queen Latifah Show” in February (check out the video at queenlatifah.com/ lifestyle/heroes/axe-women-loggers-maine).

Beginning in June, the Axe Women will be on the road almost every weekend, traveling by truck and trailer to shows in Wyoming, Idaho, Washington state, North Dakota, Illinois and Texas. People know they’ve arrived by the distinctive “lumberjill” logo, which transforms the sexist trucker image we’ve all seen on the mud splashers of 18-wheelers into a feminist one with a woman wielding an ax in her upraised hand.

When they aren’t on the road with Harper, all of the Axe Women participate in competitive tournaments and in contests at some of the Maine fairs, such as Windsor and Fryeburg. Eight of the Axe Women have earned “world champion” status in such events as standing block chop, the log roll, crosscut saw, underhand chop and the ax throw.

“I only choose those girls who compete and place in the world championships,” says Harper, who is 34. “They all travel with their own equipment and take it seriously.”

When she’s not competing, Harper can be found promoting the group, tending to the business she shares with her husband in Bar Harbor, or chopping down trees for the 100 or so logs the Axe Women need to take with them when they perform. Harper says she used to buy logs from others, but found they didn’t always meet her standards.

“They need to be green with bark on them and exactly 2 feet in length,” she says.

The logs also can’t have knots where the chopping actually takes place, since that could wreak havoc with a competitor’s equipment.

“It’s just easier to cut them myself,” she says.

This will be Laurette Gregoire’s first summer traveling with the Axe Women. Gregoire, 44, of New Gloucester, has only been with the Axe Women for a year. But she’s been in lumberjack competitions for 10 years. Gregoire, who works at Maine Medical Center as a nursing unit assistant in radiology, says she “fell into” lumberjacking. While competing in archery at a local fair, she watched a men’s lumberjacking demonstration and asked if she could try it.

“I was on the other side of a cross cut saw, and – as I explained to my husband – the heavens opened up and the angels sang,” she recalls. “I knew this was what I was supposed to do.”

On her own from July to October, Gregoire says, she competes in 20-25 events. To keep in shape in the winter, she chops wood, practices the ax throw and does a lot of walking and cardiovascular work. Gregoire says that ax throwing is her favorite event. Competitors use a two-bitted ax that only weighs 2-3 pounds. Standing 20 feet from a target 5 feet off the ground, they hold the ax with two hands and bring it back behind their heads as they aim for the bull’s-eye. Gregoire has come in as high as second in ax throwing at the world championships in Booneville, N.Y., and has placed in the top four all but one year at the Fryeburg Fair.

Like all the Axe Women, Gregoire has a full life beyond being a “lumberjill.” She has a street vendor’s license and sells her distinctive recycled fishing lure jewelry to tourists in Portland.

“It was my husband’s idea,” she says. “I made six sets of earrings in one day to give it a try and sold them all. I’m in a gift shop in New Hampshire, and at Maine Medical Center. I’d say half the women at Maine Med wear my earrings.”

Gregoire and her mother have also been competitive pie bakers, though she hasn’t entered a contest in a couple of years. She’s won for best blueberry pie at the Oxford County Fair and at a local fair in Freeport.

“I’m just very competitive, whatever I do,” she says.

Michelle Morse of Eastbrook is looking forward to school getting out in June. A health and physical education teacher, as well as athletic director at Narraguagus High School in Harrington, she will be traveling with the Axe Women this summer. Morse, 40, has been competing since 2006 and says the standing block chop is her best event (she’s won it three or four times over the past few years).

“It’s similar to felling a tree,” says Morse, who is also an avid hunter and ice fisherman.

Morse’s teammates say she’s also very good at the log roll, a deceptively difficult event, sometimes done with a partner, which requires strength, speed and strategy. Morse says ax throwing is the hardest event because it also seems deceptively easy.

“It’s the most mental event,” says Morse, who competed in soccer, softball and basketball in high school and at the University of Maine in Presque Isle. “It reminds me of shooting a free-throw in basketball. It should be a gimme, but you have to have confidence that you can do it.”

Like the other Maine Axe Women, Morse says she enjoys the camaraderie of being part of the group, the competitive nature of the sport and the reactions of spectators.

“People really enjoy watching the women,” says Morse. “It’s something they can’t wrap their heads around at first – they expect guys to be able to do it. They’re impressed by us.”

Alissa Harper of Bar Harbor founded Axe Women Loggers of Maine four years ago.  Michelle Morse is all business.Laurette Gregoire wields her ax at a previous competition.

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