Log Rolling in Our Times

Sean Smuda

The 2005 World Log Rolling Championships was one of those events where celebrities and nobodies were Siamese twins; where a sneer, a shrug, a bon mot, or a genuflection all felt like justifiable responses to what was going down.

The two-day affair, staged at Minneapolis's North Mississippi Regional Park, promised to be a beguiling blend of august tradition and pop culture cache. Log rolling competitions date back to the 1880s, and the organization promoting this particular event--the International Log Rolling Association--has been around since the Coolidge administration. By moving the official championships to Minneapolis (the largest host city in its long history) and adding another event at its longtime former site in Hayward, Wisconsin, the World Log Rolling Association has created a virtual Triple Crown. Two weeks earlier, on July 2 and 3, ESPN and ABC broadcast portions of the log rolling at the Great Outdoor Games from Orlando, Florida.

If the timing was fortuitous, the weather was not. With temperatures in the mid-90s and brutal humidity, competitors and spectators alike might have been more comfortable in a Bangkok sweatshop. And, truth be told, the site left plenty to be desired, with its patches of barren dirt and scrub grass and trees too scrawny to provide much shade.

The attendance was sparse, made up mostly of the competitors and their kin. The searing metal bleachers were less than a fifth full. The long row of unused port-a-potties stood as a mockery of the organizers' great expectations. Last, and least, the competition itself took place in an oversized swimming pool three feet deep, teasingly located in a field alongside the Mississippi River.

These two brutal days were ultimately saved by the celebrity-nobodies, a.k.a. the world's greatest log rollers. Damn the heat and the public indifference. To these folks, "making a splash" meant rolling their opponents off 12-foot cylinders of cedar into the pool. The coolest thing about log rolling is not its hipster-cred popularity, but its backwoods intimacy. At times, the competitions felt like clan rivalries.

Take the two finalists in the "elite men's division." The hometown favorite and two-time defending champion was a 24-year-old grad student from Stillwater named Jamie Fischer. Jamie's grandfather, a meatpacker by trade, learned log rolling from the lumberjacks near the St. Croix River and eventually became a 14-time champion. His son, Jamie's father, captured the world championship in 1972. Fact is, nearly everybody in Jamie's extended family--generations of aunts and uncles, siblings and cousins--was born into the sport. A half-dozen competed at the recent championships in Minneapolis.

"Before I could walk, they'd just hold me on top of a log and my feet would go up and down. By the time I was four I knew how to roll," Jamie says. He's just a few courses short of his masters in elementary education at the U, but says right now he can make a living as a competitive log roller.

Jamie's opponent in the finals, 27-year-old Darren Hudson of Barrington, Nova Scotia, likewise comes from five generations of log rollers. His uncle, Phil Scott, was a nine-time champion, and the last Canadian to capture the world championship in 1980. Back home, the family still participates in "timber shows."

"My family used to do the actual log drives down to the sawmill on the Barrington River," Hudson said. "They had to stay on those things, which is not only a dangerous occupation, it is an art form. I give them all the respect in the world for it, because I tried it myself a couple of weeks ago, jumped on a log and rode it down a set of whitewater rapids. I'd say I cheated death at least three times that day."

Shortly before their climactic, three-out-of-five-falls finals, the two men exhibited markedly different behavior. Fischer, whose chiseled form was clad in the garb of his sponsors, Echo and Red Bull, was the picture of nonchalance. He sat with his fiancée, who had accepted his proposal at the Great Outdoor Games two weeks earlier. Hudson, who by bad luck or anti-capitalist design bore no sponsors, was fidgety. His wife was back home, pregnant with their first child, due next month. He stretched his leg by throwing his heel up on the side mirror of his van, which, over a two-week period, he had driven from Nova Scotia to Orlando to Minneapolis.

Hudson had won the Great Outdoor Games before, but never the World Championship. A year ago at this event, he was ahead of Fischer two falls to one in the finals, before Jamie dumped him twice to climax a thrilling five-fall set.

In Minneapolis, Hudson again seized the early lead by spilling Fischer--who favors speed rolling by staying up on his toes and up on the log--with a backward roll maneuver. After Jamie came back to take the second fall, Hudson again sent him tumbling. "You train really intensely for eight months, mostly just for two or three events," Fischer explained just before the finals. "So this part has got to be fun. If you roll well and somebody beats you, congratulations to them."

The third time Fischer went down, his face was the picture of disbelief, his lips pursed as the reality settled in. Meanwhile, Hudson stood atop the log, his legs ramrod straight, his hands thrust out in a Nixonian Y. With a triumphant yell, he held the position for a few moments and then back-flopped into the pool.

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