Head to Hilltop Boilers in Newfield for Maine Maple Sunday next weekend and you’ll be in for a treat. Sure, you’ll find the usual syrup and other maple products, farm tours and barnyard animals.

But on Saturday, you’ll also have a chance to watch the Axe Women Loggers of Maine – possibly the country’s only all-women logging show – demonstrate their rapid-fire precision ax throwing, wood cutting and chainsaw skills.

“People absolutely love the Axe Women,” Hilltop Boilers owner Michael Bryant said. “They’re good at what they do. They’ve got that skill level. It’s not all about them being an all-woman show.”

His assessment might please Alissa Wetherbee, an Ellsworth resident who founded the group in 2010. When she established the then five-women all-Maine team, her goal was to prove that women could do timbersports as well as men. That’s no longer in question.

As more and more women took up the sport over the last decade, she said her objective shifted.

“It’s really taken a turn now,” Wetherbee said. “I remember giving interviews in 2010 and saying there were a million men lumberjacks and we wanted to show that we were good, too. Now the focus is on timbersports as a heritage sport.”

Wetherbee, 39, grew up the daughter of a woodsman who was a caretaker on Mount Desert Island. As a child, she helped her father clear blowdowns on island estates. By the time she was a teenager, she knew how to wield an ax as well as a chainsaw. At 21, Wetherbee thought nothing of joining a lumberjack show on Mount Desert Island, performing for the thousands of visitors coming to Acadia National Park.

For several years, she performed on the side – a female logger in shows made up mostly of men – while earning her living working for her father, waiting tables and bartending. Then, 10 years ago, she began to imagine her own show, an all-women act, different from any other show she knew.

“That first year, it was five of us from Maine, then one girl from New York joined,” Wetherbee said.

“After that, it just took off.”

CONTINUING TO GROW

Today, there are 13 members, including Wetherbee (who also books the shows and schedules the team members with her husband, Mike). They’ve grown from six shows a year to as many as 20, performing across Canada and the United States, as well as on television. The youngest Axe Woman is 18, the older ones in their mid-50s. Name aside, only three members of the current group live in Maine. Others come from Montana, Wisconsin, Washington, British Columbia and elsewhere. The group includes a scientist, a teacher, a fitness instructor and a world-class dog musher. It’s a dynamic and upbeat crew.

Logging competitions – in which two loggers go head-to-head in activities such as wood cutting, ax throwing and log rolling – have drawn crowds at county fairs for generations. But in the past two decades, these tests of arduous outdoor skills have become more mainstream and have drawn more women competitors.

Since 1985, Stihl, a company that makes logging equipment, has held a timbersports series that now spans 62 countries and is aired on ABC, Eurosport and ESPN. Loggers compete in six disciplines, demonstrating their expertise at such skills as the underhand chop, in which they stand on a log and swing at the wood between their legs to cut through it. (Don’t try this at home!)

Stihl started the Timbersports World Championships in 1999, followed by the Timbersports Collegiate Series in 2003; more than 60 schools now participate. Two years ago, a women’s division was added to the world championships. That first year, 35 women competed, almost on par with the 40 in the men’s division. It was, Wetherbee said, a watershed moment for women in timbersports.

McKayla Fowler, a Unity College sophomore, picked up timbersports quickly, then was inspired to join the Axe Women Loggers of Maine while watching them perform at a fair. The nine-year-old group now consists of 13 members. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

GAINING RECOGNITION

This is the second year that the Women Axe Loggers of Maine will perform at Hilltop Boilers throughout the weekend of Maine Maple Sunday. If you haven’t caught them there, you might have seen them at Hadlock Field during a Portland Sea Dogs game last year. Racing onto the field with equipment and logs, they did four charged-up, 90-second acts that were “super fast and fun,” Wetherbee said. Or maybe you discovered the team on the “Queen Latifah Show” or the “Harry Connick Jr.” show.

But it was none of these venues where McKayla Fowler encountered the group. Fowler, a Unity College sophomore, first saw the Axe Women Loggers perform last year at the Hopkinton State Fair in New Hampshire. Fowler grew up in New Hampshire, riding horses, but when she got to college she wanted to try something new. She joined Unity College’s woodsmen team, one of eight women on the 23-person team. Though she knew nothing about chainsaws or throwing axes, as an active, outdoors person, Fowler picked up timbersports quickly.

“It really shows that women can do anything a man can,” she found herself thinking when she watched the Axe Women at the fair. Perhaps she knew of Wetherbee’s reputation as a female ambassador for timbersport. At any rate, Fowler approached Wetherbee with a question: Could she join?

Now, she’s the newest member.

Deirdre Fleming can be reached at 791-6452 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: FlemingPph

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