SCARBOROUGH — Be sure to carve out some time at the 30th annual WinterFest this weekend to catch an act that is sure to “ax-ceed” expectations.
For the first time in eight years of touring, Axe Women Loggers of Maine will perform at the town’s two-day festival.
WinterFest runs from 3:30-8:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 2, and 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 3, at the Wentworth School, with skating events, refreshments, fireworks, a fundraiser lunch hosted by the popular Gym Dandies, and – for the first time – an indoor bounce zone with assorted inflatable amusements.
Also new this year is the Axe Women Loggers of Maine, made up of champion timber choppers, sawyers, log-rollers and ax-throwers of all ages – women sometimes referred to as “lumberjills,” many of whom hold world records and titles for the competition.
Their demonstrations consist of hot saw, which is carving with what founder Alissa Wetherbee called “souped-up modified chainsaws;” two different types of chopping events; ax-throwing, and cutting with a cross-cut saw.
There are two types of logrolling: birling, when two people try to keep their balance on a floating log while spinning it with their feet, and logrolling on the ground using a peavey, which is a tool with a hinged hook used to maneuver logs.
“All the girls compete professionally on their own,” Alissa said. “That makes our show a little different from other shows. … For the most part, all of our girls compete in the world championships every year.”
In its first year, Axe Women Loggers of Maine included only four athletes – three from Maine and one from New York. Now in its eighth year, the show includes 13 women from across the U.S.
Most shows star four to six women, while upwards of 10 or 11 will compete in the largest shows, held across the U.S. and in Canada. The smallest show the group offers will be the one they put on at WinterFest.
Alissa will be demonstrating ax-throwing and chopping for crowds on Saturday during WinterFest at an undetermined time, while her husband, Michael Wetherbee, who co-owns the show, will do announcing.
The quickest show they put on was at a Portland Sea Dogs game last year, when the team had a total of 90 seconds to get on the field, set up, do a demonstration, break their equipment down and get off the field. They did this between each inning.
Shows that involve at least two women are set up as competitions, where they’re trying to chop the fastest, get the blade of their ax closest to the target, or knock one another off a rolling log.
“It’s cool because it’s a show for entertainment, but they’re all either world champions, world record-holders, or collegiate champs … (so) they’re super competitive,” Michael said. “Even though it’s a show, none of them want to lose, so it’s a full-on competition between the best of them.”
Michael, a former state police officer in New Hampshire and environmental specialist in Florida, said prior to meeting Alissa, he had “no background in timber sports.”
That is, until he volunteered to help some of his friends at an agriculture fair and was instructed to help set up a show for some female lumberjacks.
“It was pouring rain and cold,” Michael recalled. “I didn’t want to do it at all. But I walked around the corner and someone turned around and smiled and I was done. That was it.”
The couple has been together ever since and the show has become their primary business. Michael, who now competes in timber sports himself, said Alissa taught him everything he knows.
“I have the best instructor in the world,” he said.
Alissa said she grew up cutting wood with her father in Bar Harbor.
“I knew the basic skills at a young age and then in my early 20s I got into the competition side of it, and I met all these other women that were doing it,” she said.
She also noticed there’s a huge population of female timber sport athletes who are often overlooked in the male-dominated world of competitive wood chopping.
“There’s this whole world of lumberjack shows that travel around and have fun and make money, and it’s really good training for competitions, but there’s not much out there that’s equivalent for women,” Michael said. “There was a whole different side that wasn’t really being shown, which was really athletic women doing the same thing.”
The Wetherbees said Axe Women Loggers of Maine has been growing exponentially in size and popularity since the group was formed.
“I think the show is getting well known enough that we have girls contacting us now,” Alissa said.
“Each year gets busier and busier,” Michael added, noting they’re already booking shows through 2020. “Last year was our busiest year and we’ve already matched that this year and then some. We filled this year back in October.”
Alissa said big shows, like the Los Angeles County Fair in California, are exhilarating, but she’s happy to come back to her home state.
“I’m really excited to have local shows,” Alissa said. “It was a long time before we ever had anything in Maine.”
Ellsworth residents Alissa and Michael Wetherbee, who own and manage Axe Women Loggers of Maine, will host ax-throwing, cutting and carving demonstrations throughout the day at Scarborough’s WinterFest on Saturday, Feb. 2.
Alissa Wetherbee, a Bar Harbor native, founded Axe Women Loggers of Maine eight years ago to foster a sense of community for female timber-sport athletes who she said often go unnoticed.