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West Virginia

October 17, 2013

Lumberjack contests thrill family

CHARLESTON — Chain saws are buzzing, axes are flying and let the wood chips fall where they may.

The chain saw competition at the Mountain State Forest Festival pitted father and son for bragging rights as to which West Virginian could fell more timber in the fastest time. Then as Arden Cogar Jr. struggled to start his machine, his 79-year-old father sliced through three slabs of timber, drawing hoots and hollers from the crowd as the machine’s roar died down.

“He can still whoop my butt any day of the week,” Cogar Jr. said of his father.

Chopping through wood is a family tradition for a West Virginia-based clan that boasts at least 20 members who’ve cut timber in various forms of lumberjack competitions.

Members of the Cogar family stay busy competing about 20 weekends out of the year. And three of them soon will take their skills against competitors from more than 20 other countries at the Stihl Timbersports Series World Championships Oct. 25-26 in Stuttgart, Germany.

Arden Cogar Jr. held the national title for four of the past six years but was unseated in June by cousin Matt, who at 26 became the youngest U.S. overall champion of the Stihl Timbersports circuit.

The two veterans of the global circuit will be joined by Matt’s father, Paul Cogar, whose decades of work in the logging industry finally paid off when he qualified for the five-member U.S. team for the first time.

“It’s going to be a pretty proud moment doing that,” said Paul Cogar, 56.

Local and regional competitions keep the Cogars’ skills sharp. In all, six family members earned prizes at the recent festival in Elkins, although theirs wasn’t the only one with multiple generations competing.

Other fathers and sons threw hatchets at a red bull’s eye on a wood target and worked the long saw in teams as sawdust piled up on the stage.

Logging has long been a way of life in heavily forested West Virginia, where the arrival of the railroads in the late 19th century contributed to the rapid rise of the hardwood logging and coal industries.

The Cogar family’s roots in logging date to the 1930s, starting with Arden Cogar Sr.’s father and brothers.

Eventually, family members began taking part in competitions that included a variety of ax, and cross and chain saw events. Arden Cogar Sr. began competing a half century ago and set dozens of world records in lumberjack sports. His son, Arden Jr., has been at it for more than 25 years.

While some might think lumberjack competitions require the brute strength of Paul Bunyan, Arden Cogar Jr. said it’s more about timing and precision — similar to golf.

“Your technique is the most important thing,” he said. “It’s how you deliver the ax. It’s how you deliver the saw. It’s not the amount of pressure. It’s how you use what you have.”

Arden Cogar Jr. dusts off any injuries he’s accumulated over the years.

“You play with sharp objects, you get cut. That’s a fact of life,” he said. “I have a lot of really neat scars.”

For his part, Paul Cogar has been in the logging industry for 39 years. Matt and Arden Cogar Jr. followed their respective fathers into lumberjack sports but not the logging industry.

The burly Arden Cogar Jr. is a former power weightlifter who approaches his day job as a civil defense attorney the same way he does his role as a competitive lumberjack — with preparation and more preparation.

“It’s a wonderful release after a heck of a work day,” said Cogar, who occasionally hosts practice sessions with his cousins. “For me, there’s nothing more rewarding than finishing off a day by going home and hitting something that can’t hit me back.”

The 6-foot-4 Matt Cogar, who has a biology degree and works as a firearms sales associate for an outdoors retailer, started competing at age 12 and won his first trophy a year later.

His ultimate goal is to earn a world championship, which he’ll have the chance to do this month. He also wants to become one of the few U.S. lumberjacks to win an underhand chopping title against a strong field in Sydney, Australia.

“Prestige comes with winning,” Matt Cogar said.

Paul Cogar said there is a sense of camaraderie with the competition. But Matt Cogar said the required degree of focus skyrockets when the chips start flying.

“Once you step up to the log, it’s time to go,” Matt Cogar said. “There’s one thing I definitely learned a long time ago. It’s not about the person you’re racing against. It’s just a competition between you and the log. You’ve got to chop that log and the next guy has to chop his log. That’s what the competition is all about.”

The Cogar men aren’t the only ones who enjoy the family tradition. Kristy Cogar, Arden Jr.’s wife, won a world women’s title in her fourth year of competing, and the couple’s two daughters, Kiara and Carmen, also are active in the sport.

“My daughters have felt that every woodchopping contest that they go to is a family reunion,” Arden Cogar Jr. said.

Now family members are gearing up for the world championships. Matt, Paul and Arden Cogar Jr. are entered in the team relay event, while Matt Cogar is scheduled for some individual events, although he said he may drop out of that in order to focus on the team race.

New Zealand has been the gold medalist in two of the past three years, but Arden Cogar Jr. says: “We all had very successful seasons and ... we will push them hard.”

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