They're our lumberjacks (and Jills), and they're OK

Sonia Meganck of the lumberjack team practices the Axe Toss in preparation for this Saturday’s 50th annual McGill Intercollegiate Woodsmen Competition at Macdonald Campus. / Photo: Owen Egan

Early-rising woodsmen aren’t fazed by hard work, or 6 a.m. practices

By Jim Hynes

The members of the McGill lumberjacks team are sharpening their skills this week, not to mention their axes and saws, in anticipation of a milestone event this coming weekend.

The Jacks and Jills of the McGill woodsmen team hope to add another title to the 150 or so they have collected over the years when they host the 50th annual McGill Intercollegiate Woodsmen Competition at Macdonald Campus this Saturday. The event is one of four annual competitions held by the Canadian Intercollegiate Lumberjack Association.

The first woodsmen competition at Mac took place in 1961. It was scheduled to be held at the Morgan Arboretum as part of the Macdonald Winter Carnival but was moved to lower campus due to a snowstorm. This year, more than 175 competitors from 26 teams from Quebec, Ontario, the Maritimes, and northeastern U.S. will battle for supremacy in 14 singles, doubles and team events. The colourful competition is always popular with the public and media alike, with spectators and TV camera crews crowding in for a closer look at events like the axe throw, Swede saw, quarter split, pole climb, water boil, and snowshoe race, among many others.

“People really seem to like it,” said team member Ben Nichols, a third-year Farm Management and Technology student from Compton, Quebec.  “It’s something new to a lot of people. It looks like something from the past, people using saws and axes instead of chainsaws.”

Since 1979, the McGill team has been coached by Morgan Arboretum Forest Operations Manager John Watson. He took over from his father, R.J. Watson, who coached the team for the previous 18 years. Watson’s current squad of 11 Jacks and nine Jills is coming off two solid performances in competitions held last fall. At season’s end, the results from all four 2009-2010 contests will be combined to crown overall champions.

Like the lumberjacks of old, the modern day woodsmen are made of strong stuff. For weeks, now, they’ve been getting up at the crack of dawn to practice and prepare the wood needed for the event. But the team’s 6 a.m. practices are no big deal for Nichols and his teammates, a number of whom will return to work on their family farms after they graduate.

“If I was working at home this would be like sleeping in,” said Nichols, who planned to play rugby when he came to McGill – until he discovered the woodsmen.  “In the summer I get up at a quarter to five. So waking up for a six o’clock practice isn’t that bad.”

Indeed, being a part of the  woodsmen team serves as a tonic for Nichols and the numerous teammates he shares a farming background with.

“Once it’s over for the year and we stop practicing, we don’t know what to with ourselves,” said Sonia Meganck, a second-year Farm Management and Technology student from Dundee, Quebec. “We really miss it.”

“It’s fun and it’s challenging,” said Nichols. “When you are used to working on a farm and then you come here and sit down in class, you miss being outside and working sometimes.  This gives us a chance to come out and exercise and get some fresh air.”

Come cheer on the McGill lumberjacks at the 50th annual McGill Intercollegiate Woodsmen Competition, Saturday, Jan. 30, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Macdonald Campus’ Watson Field.  For more information contact Silvia Cristofaro at 514-398-7789 or