Photo by Jessica Collier
Billy Adams, left and Matt Clum practice log rolling.
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PAUL SMITHS — It’s a steamy late July morning in the woods at the beginning of the summer’s first serious heat wave. Flies are swarming and biting incessantly, and it’s work to even stand up.

Despite all that, about 15 men between the ages of 17 and 19, plus several supervisors, are traipsing around the woods in full gear — hardhats, T-shirts, heavy canvas pants and boots — wielding axes and saws. They are hard at work cutting down trees and hauling them the way Adirondack lumberjacks would have done in the old days, before chainsaws and skidders sped up the process and made it far easier.

And it’s fun. It’s summer camp.

It’s the “horses and hand tools” unit that’s part of the Paul Smith’s College Woodsmen School, a summer camp designed to give young people the full experience of what it’s like to be an Adirondack woodsman.

Brett McLeod, an assistant professor at Paul Smith’s, dreamt up the camp a few years ago as a way to utilize the college campus during the summer and to give incoming students some exposure to the school before they are thrown head first into classes.

He developed the idea throughout 2009, and by the summer of 2010, he had created a full-blown, two-week summer camp. McLeod says it is the first and only lumberjack sports camp in the country.

“It was kind of a trial last year that went really well, and now we’re keeping it going this year,” said Joe Orefice, another assistant professor at the college who jumped on board last spring to help McLeod with the camp.

There are three main components to the camp, Orefice explains. First, instructors try to teach what it’s like to be a historical Adirondack woodsman. That’s what “horses and hand tools” is all about. They do things like bushwacking and canoe trips in the vein of the famed Adirondack guides.

Camp instructors also teach the students about ecology, talking about wood science while on hikes and telling them what types of wood are good for which uses.

“Because part of being in the woods is being knowledgeable about the woods,” Orefice said.

The third, and possibly most popular, part of the camp is the timbersport instruction. McLeod and Orefice teach not only the techniques involved in things like double buck and pole climbing, but also how timbersport games are run, how people get into them and how people make a living doing it.

This year, the camp added a third week. Each week is a separate college course, and students can earn two college credits per week.

The first week is a beginner session, in which McLeod and Orefice cover basic skills like chopping, ax throwing, cross cut, bow sawing, climbing and log rolling.

The second week is the intermediate session during which campers learn bushwhacking, ax sharpening and how to build a canoe from scratch. In the advanced session the third week, campers learn to operate the college’s sawmill, try out chainsaw carving and earn state hunting safety certification through rifle and shotgun workshops.

Anyone can do the first week, but students must have gone through that before participating in the second or third weeks of camp.

About 22 people attended the first week. Sixteen were there the second week and about the same number was registered for the last week.

Some people are planning to do one week of the school each year, starting this year with session one and coming back next year and the year after for sessions two and three, Orefice said.

As part of the academic component of the camp, all the students have to write a two-page journal entry each night about what they have learned throughout the day.

“It’s very laid back, which is nice,” said Mike Sharp, a Paul Smith’s senior from Fort Ann who’s planning to graduate in December.

Sharp was on the college’s woodsmen team for three-and-a-half years, but has stopped that now to focus on school. Sharp is one of several current students helping out with the camp. He’s getting credit for it, like the campers, but has to get more in depth with his journals. He’s also acting as a resident advisor to the campers in their dorm.

Since the camp just started last year, Sharp didn’t get the chance to do it when he was an incoming freshman, but said he wishes he had the opportunity.

The camp is sponsored by Stihl, Carhart and Redwing, so students get boots, work pants, hardhats and other work gear through those companies as part of the camp.

They also benefit from the Stihl connection because the outdoor power tool company also runs the Timbersport Series, a circuit for people who compete in lumberjack games. Stihl sends some of its top athletes to the camp to teach their art to the camp’s attendees.

Early in the week, David Jewett, who holds a number of world records in lumberjack sports, came to Paul Smith’s to work with each camper individually on their chopping and sawing skills.

Orefice said that when you compare that to other sports, “it’s like having the students train with the World Cup soccer team.”

Another Timbersport pro was scheduled to teach campers how to do the springboard chop. That’s where competitors work their way up a pole by chopping pockets and shoving a board into those pockets until they reach the top.

A day at the camp can vary widely, but on this day, the students started off in the morning with the “horses and hand tools” lesson, then devoured a large lunch in the college’s dining room (teenage boys can build up quite an appetite working in the woods all morning). After that, they had an hour of open practice before everyone piled into canoes and set off for a camping trip on Black Pond.

It’s not all work, though. McLeod said they planned to get together with the music camp Thursday evening. The musicians would teach the woodsmen traditional lumberjack songs, and the woodsmen would teach the musicians birling and ax throwing.

Corey Bulson, a 17-year-old from north of Syracuse, is planning to start at Paul Smith’s in the fall and wants to double major in ecological forestry and surveying.

He said he decided to come to Woodsmen School so he could get the six credits available for people who complete all three weeks, giving him a jump on the start of his college career.

“And I like being outside,” Bulson said.

Since his dad is a logger, Bulson has done some work in the woods, but he’s mainly only used chainsaws before. He’s never had to cut anything down with axes and saws.

Bulson said the work has been hard, and especially tough on his hands.

He has found some of the chopping activities difficult, the standing block chop in particular. The bigger guys have a lot of weight behind them to throw into the ax, but it’s not as easy for a smaller person like Bulson.

Bulson likes the pole climb, ascending a 35-foot pole with a rope and spurs on his boots. He said he likes it because it’s more about stamina than strength.

No matter what he’s doing, the camp is a lot of work.

“It’s physically exhausting, and then you wake up and do it again the next day,” Bulson said.

Bulson played football, lifted weights and ran track in high school, but he gave it all up his senior year to spend most of his time out fishing. He plans to try out for the Paul Smith’s woodsmen team when he starts in the fall, and hopes to have a leg up on those who didn’t come to Woodsmen School.

That was one of the things that drew Eric Malchiodi to the Woodsmen School as well. Malchiodi, an 18-year-old from Wallingford, Conn., said he wants to practice the form and techniques of the timbersports in order to be ready for tryouts in the fall.

Malchiodi, who wants to major in a forestry discipline, grew up on a farm and is used to cutting down trees and spending time outside.

As he helped cut down a tree with saws and axes, Malchiodi said he’s excited that he’s getting to do those types of things as part of the course.

“You take this massive tree that’s 10 or 15 times bigger than you and just cut it down with these primitive tools,” Malchiodi said.

The school is open to students entering their senior year of high school or current college students. It is open to students from colleges other than Paul Smith’s, but the majority of this year’s attendees were incoming freshmen to Paul Smith’s.

It’s not only students who are trying out the course this year. Mark Youndt, a professor at Skidmore College, is participating in the Woodsmen School while on sabbatical.

Youndt teaches a class called Human Dilemmas, which in part deals with human interaction with the natural world. He also teaches a class in business and the natural environment.

Youndt thought it would be interesting to learn the ecology and natural history components of the course, understanding how the Adirondacks have been a place of interactions between people and wilderness for most of its history.

Getting to throw around axes and play with saws is fun, though.

“These things are just a bonus,” Youndt said while taking a break from an ax-throwing session.

He also said he likes getting a chance to hang out with the teens without having to be responsible for them.

McLeod’s enthusiasm for the camp is palpable. He even insisted that reporters visiting the camp try out timbersports, like the single buck saw cut and ax throwing.

He said the camp’s curriculum is basically everything he’d like to do on a typical Sunday afternoon, with a little bit of academic stuff thrown in to make sure it’s worth the college credits.