Pete Sinns squares his shoulders, two-hands a double-bladed axe and raises it over his head. He sizes up a stump some 20 feet away, eyes determined under the brim of his hat. And then he pitches forward, swinging his arms and releasing the handle, sending the axe into a quick revolution, sun glinting off the blade before it lodges into the soft wood of a practice target set up at the Squamish Days gaming grounds on Loggers Lane.
“You know what it is?” he chuckles. “It’s the wind, eh?”
Wind is to Squamish what axes are to logging, and logging is to Squamish what water is to Howe Sound: One sort of defines the other. Sinns is a Pemberton-born helilogger working on the Sunshine Coast. He’s feeling ambitious these days, seeing himself competing in the 51 st Annual Squamish Days Loggers Sports Festival, which goes off throughout August long weekend and includes everything from axe throwing to tree climbing.
The target is five feet off the ground. Each contestant gets four throws, one of which is a warm-up shot. The target zone is 36 inches, with the bull’s eye worth five points, and each subsequent ring worth one point less.
“Axe throwing is one of the events everyone does,” says longtime organizer Bryan Couture. “It’s not physical and it doesn’t take it out of you.”
Sinns is training under Couture’s seasoned tutelage. The latter came to Squamish from Ontario 35 years ago, and logger athletes were a crucial part of the draw. At the time of Couture’s migration, there were 15 top competitors living in town. Since then, Couture has developed his own standing, especially when it comes to hurling axes.
According to Couture, axe throwing got its start in Squamish during the ’60s. Fallers would wander from tree to tree, carrying their gear, which was usually comprised of an axe, saw and saw oil. Rather than shoulder the whole load every time, guys started throwing their axes to the next position.
And so a sport was born.
“Every axe thrower will have a target in the backyard,” says Couture. “It’s something to do at night. Then the wives get into it, and then their kids.”
The proliferation of axe throwing is testament to the good nature of the sport. No matter what culture you call home, seldom does the idea of hanging out with friends and meeting new people ruffle your national feathers. Couture has his axes designed in Sweden, a practice that saw the Swedes spellbound — there are now some 10,000 clubs in the country. These days, New Zealanders are considered the best of the best, though that distinction once belonged to Australians.
Back in Squamish, Sinns is getting closer and closer to consistency and accuracy. His handle spins out only one revolution, and seldom are both points of the blade sticking in the wood, a fact that keeps him from disqualification. In between tips and encouragement, Couture remembers his own introduction to logger sports.
“My woods foreman, when I worked in a camp in Port Alberni, each night we would go to his place and throw axes. Then one thing lead to another, so we got into hand bucking. From there, I decided to take up the sport.”
He went to Australia, then the seat of axe throwing talent, and learned to chop. Along the way, he would place toothpicks and pine combs into the stump with the intent of splitting them, an exercise that hones aim and precision.
These days, he makes axes for people, trains them as he is Sinns and encourages anyone who shows an interest, male or female, to come down to the sprawling gaming grounds and join the fun.
“I’m starting to feel it,” Sinns says, screwing his face up with concentration and letting fly with the blade. He sinks two in a row.
Sinns hopes to pass Saturday morning’s eliminations and enter the competitive arena that afternoon. He’ll be joined by athletes from around the world, each with a different discipline of expertise, be it tree topping, speed bucking, log rolling or any of the other sub-events.
The Loggers Sports Festival is a monument to volunteerism, with some 250 people needed to pull it off. The steering committee is composed of service organizations, groups like the Rotary Club. At the end of the day, they split the proceeds, with the service clubs collectively raking in 50 per cent, money they use for community initiatives. Squamish Days keeps the other half, funds they need to get going next year.
“It all starts with axe throwing,” says Couture.