MJC team melds metal with mettle at logging competition

March 15, 2010 

The trick, when using those old two-person saws, is to pull rather than push.

That keeps the saw from getting stuck in the log, said Susan Baker and Michael Copeland, members of the Modesto Junior College logging team.

Yes, MJC has a logging team. The college is a good 60 miles from the nearest conifer forest, but that hasn't stopped it from competing with hand and power tools used in the woods.

"I wanted to learn how to chop wood and use saws," Copeland said after practice Friday. "It was fun, so I stuck with it."

This school year six students have taken part in the team, which was revived last year after a long hiatus. It gives the students a chance to mix some sawdust and sweat into their studies in forestry and other natural-resource fields.

"The idea of logging sports is to keep alive an old tradition," said coach Katherine Kellogg-Campbell, who teaches natural resources at MJC. "It's something that has been going on since the beginning of our country."

The team has entered only three competitions this year, fewer than many of its rivals at community colleges and four-year schools.

The first was in Santa Cruz in November. The second was last month in Redding, where the revived MJC program scored its first team title.

Busy in Colorado

Its final competition will be this week at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Baker, Copeland, Eric Hermosillo and team captain Maxwell Ottersbach are going. Allison Adair and Jeremiah Osgood also have competed for Modesto.

The team can use a vehicle and logging tools owned by the college, but members have to pay for fuel and other costs. Donations help.

The team practices at the west campus and on private timberland near Twain Harte owned by Bob Kinsinger. He has turned his 430 acres into a laboratory for MJC forestry students, who learn about logging, fire prevention, wildlife, recreation and other issues.

Speed, balance required

Logging sports demand strength, speed, endurance and accuracy.

Ottersbach, for example, won the underhand chopping event in Redding by splitting a 12-inch-diameter log in 46 seconds.

Team members slice through 20-plus-inch logs with old bucksaws and modern chain saws. They race to see how fast they can set a choker, the cable that pulls a downed log across the ground.

They toss axes at targets. And they compete at log-rolling, standing on a plastic pipe wrapped in artificial turf and trying not to fall into the very real water underneath.

Students also take part in the "nerd" events, which include estimating how much lumber is in a tree and using a compass to find their way.

They get safety training and are required to wear protective gear that varies with the event.

They also are learning about the history of logging, which dominated the Tuolumne County economy in the 20th century but is much reduced today.

Assistant coach Mef Fisher, who is the caretaker on Kinsinger's land, displayed a 6-foot-long bucksaw to visitors Friday. This type of tool took down mighty trees until the emergence of the chain saw in the 1940s.

Hand saws still used

They are not just relics, Fisher said. Wilderness trail crews use them to clear downed trees because power tools are not allowed.

Ottersbach, 20, of Ceres, has done trail maintenance in Yosemite National Park and aims for a career in this work.

Baker, 38, of Modesto is part American Indian and hopes to get into forest management on a reservation.

Copeland, 23, of Turlock is working toward a career in range management.

Hermosillo, 20, of Denair favors marine or fresh- water biology.

Whether or not they end up in forestry, the team is getting a sense of what it took to build the timber industry. Not to mention a good bit of exercise, as Copeland attested after he and Baker demonstrated the two-person saw.

"It's quite a workout," he said, "but once you get the skill of it down, it's not so hard."

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or 578-2385.

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