What began as a love of cutting firewood with her family has turned into a lifelong passion for Alissa Wetherbee, founder of the Ax Women Loggers of Maine.
“I loved axes, running chainsaws, splitting wood and heating with a woodstove,” Wetherbee said. “That was how I grew up.”
As she got older, Wetherbee began attending logging events and competitions, which at the time were mostly dominated by males.
“Probably when I was about 20 years old, so around the year 2000, I started going to those and met more and more ladies competing,” said Wetherbee, who lives in Ellsworth. “And back then there weren’t really many competitions just for women.”
About a decade later, in 2011, Wetherbee established the Ax Women Loggers of Maine, a group with membership throughout North America.
Members of the team will demonstrate their skills this weekend – and informally compete against one another – at the Little Maine Market Festival at the Litchfield Fairgrounds, before traveling south to Sanford and then to other states.
Wetherbee said the group serves as an “ambassador” for timber sports by demonstrating various events at venues across the country.
Members compete at fairs and tournaments – including the Fryeburg, Oxford and Windsor fairs in Maine and the Lumberjack World Championships in Wisconsin – as individuals, not members of an organized team. The group, however, fosters camaraderie between women who share an interest in the sport.
“After meeting more and more ladies competing, I kind of just wanted to show the world that women do this, too,” Wetherbee said. “You don’t have to be a giant guy with a beard to chop a log.”
Many of the 28 women on the team have won collegiate, regional or even worldwide awards in the field. Six of the women are based in Maine.
“Most of them do have some type of connection to Maine,” Wetherbee said. “A lot of the ladies went to college in Maine, or they were on a woodsmen team while they were in college in Maine.”
Hanna Severy of Wales, who joined the team earlier this year, is the only team member from central Maine. She said Wetherbee invited her after seeing her at a few competitions in the state.
Severy said she first got involved with timber sports last May when her father needed a crosscut partner at the Monmouth Fair. From there, she began learning new skills and competed with her dad di lei across New England. She met Wetherbee at a Windsor event and saw her again at the Freyburg Fair. Wetherbee eventually contacted Severy earlier this year and said she would be great for the team.
Severy had not participated in timber sports prior to last May, but spent four years participating in co-ed wrestling and a few years with the United States Girls Wrestling Association.
“I’ve always been a sports-driven person,” she said.
Severy said she was particularly drawn to the competitive nature of timber sports and also enjoyed having an opportunity to spend more time with her father and uncle.
For anyone on the fence about getting into timber sports, Severy said they are worth trying.
“It’s fun, and you get to push yourself out of your comfort zone,” she said. “And there’s safety gear and equipment to protect you. I still have all my fingers and toes. If they’re up for the challenge and they want to try something new, then give it a shot. “
Since the team began more than a decade ago, Wetherbee said she has seen far more women show interest in participating.
“(They) see that it’s a safe sport and that it’s really fun,” she said. “There’s a lot of great camaraderie that comes with it.”
She said more women are more likely to try out, especially if they are on a college team, if they see other women involved.
Wetherbee said timber sports, unlike basketball or other team sports, are more based on individual feats, similar to swimming or track and field.
“It’s very individual, but when you do go to a competition, if there are eight ladies out on the track and they’re chopping along, the first one to break through their logs is going to stand there and cheer on the other ladies on the track, ”Wetherbee said. “So it’s a friendly sport. We’re all super competitive, but we’re also very helpful to the other ladies who are up and comers in the sport. “
And while more women have been participating over the years, Wetherbee said it is still a “small world.”
“Most competitions you go to, they’re going to take the top 30 best in the country, or sometimes in the world,” she said. “So for the most part, you know the other ladies there. It’s a pretty small family for us. “
Wetherbee said recruitment comes from years of watching women compete and then asking if they would like to join the Ax Women Loggers of Maine.
The Ax Women also have a “Pathfinder” program, in which up and coming participants can learn the ropes and also work as advocates and role models who promote women in the sport.
“The ladies of the Pathfinder program don’t necessarily have world championships under their belt yet, but they’ll still get to travel with the team,” she said. “They’re going to be learning from the best of the best, and then when the time is ready, they’ll be ready and confident to enter a competition and hopefully get a title for themselves.”
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ax Women were making about two appearances a month. This dipped significantly after 2020, but this year they are averaging about one appearance a month.
“Last year was slower than usual, but we’re getting back up there,” Wetherbee said. “More places are doing full-size events now.”
Aside from Maine, this year’s schedule includes appearances in Pennsylvania, Colorado, Vermont, Idaho and Florida.
At the Litchfield event, the women are expected to hold demonstrations Friday, from 4:30 to 5 pm and 6 to 6:30 pm; Saturday, from 9:30 to 10 am, 11:45 am to 12:15 pm, 2:15 to 2:45 pm and 5 to 5:30 pm; and Sunday from 9:30 to 10 am, 12:30 to 1 pm and 2 to 2:30 pm
Wetherbee said there will be a “lot of demonstrating,” but the women will also split up into two teams to compete, but not for any titles.
Severy said the event should have something for everyone.
“I hope people come check it out,” she said. “Litchfield’s a great little town, and it’s a great team. It’s fun, interactive and family-friendly, so I think everyone will enjoy it. “
Added Wetherbee: “Even though we’re all on the Ax Women team, no one wants to lose. We’re all super competitive, so every time we demonstrate an event, it’s a competition. “
Wetherbee’s husband, Mike, is an announcer for the show, and will explain the history of timber sports and how each competition, such as log rolling or felling a tree, originated from an act of labor.
“He’ll explain the history behind why we do each event, and the tools that we’re using, whether it’s (an) ax, a crosscut saw or a chainsaw,” Wetherbee said.
Individual events include ax throwing for accuracy at a target 20 feet away, an underhand chop that has participants standing on top of a log and chopping it in half below their feet and old-fashioned crosscuts.
“Every show is a little different,” Wetherbee said, “and we’ll throw in different events here and there just to try to mix it up for the audience.”
She and her husband still cut and haul trees and split and stack wood, and it is primarily how they heat their home.
“It keeps us in shape year-round,” she said, “and it’s pretty nice to have a month or two off in the winter just to sit by the woodstove and know that we did that.”
Overall, Wetherbee said her time and experiences with the team have been meaningful.
“We love what we do,” she said. “We love the sport, we love promoting it and we love promoting women in sports in general.”
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