$300 Travel: Competitive Wood-Chopping In W.Va.

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NPR's summer travel series, 300 Government Bucks, profiles short getaways that you can finance with your tax rebate check.

Two women compete in the Webster County Woodchopping Festival i

About 20 women competed this year in the Webster County Woodchopping Festival. Poon Watchara-Amphaiwan for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Poon Watchara-Amphaiwan for NPR
Two women compete in the Webster County Woodchopping Festival

About 20 women competed this year in the Webster County Woodchopping Festival.

Poon Watchara-Amphaiwan for NPR

You've probably never heard of Webster Springs, W.Va. — unless you're a timber sports fanatic. In which case, the mountain roads, with the treacherous switchbacks and the speeding 4x4s, won't be enough to keep you away.

That's because Webster Springs, a tiny brick village nestled in the lush green heart of the Allegheny mountains, plays host to a first-class annual wood-chopping festival.

The event draws about 100 competitors from a dozen states — and several countries — every year, all of them competing for the title of Southeastern World Championship Woodchopper.

Events include the Axe Throw, Hot Saw and Springboard — in which lumberjacks chop their way up a massive vertical log and chop off the top in less time than it takes most of us to eat a cheeseburger.

"Everybody in West Virginia chops wood," says West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin — who nonetheless admits that he doesn't compete himself. He never had "the knack of sharpening an axe," he confesses.

Wood-chopping got its start as a sport in lumber camps around the turn of the last century — it was how bored men amused themselves without women around.

Now, women aren't just around; they're chopping, too. Nearly 20 women competed in the Webster County Woodchopping Festival this year.

Stock-saw champion Kristy Cogar says women have an advantage in some sawing events.

"Our weight is more in our hips and legs," Cogar says. "So we're more grounded, and we can saw longer." Men, it turns out, do better in chopping events, which emphasize shoulder and upper body strength.

Cogar's husband, Arden Cogar Jr., is something of a wood-chopping celebrity. He's a fourth-generation competitive wood-chopper who works as a civil-rights trial attorney when he's not chopping his way to titles on ESPN and in international lumberjack expositions.

"It's a sport that keeps me from weighing 300 pounds, because otherwise I would just be a complete lard-o," Cogar says.

In addition to being a great workout in 95-degree heat, wood-chopping is a surprisingly graceful sport. It's all about efficiency and economy of motion. Many of the young wood-choppers at the festival in Webster Springs fell in love with the sport in college, where they majored in environment or conservation studies.

"[There's] nothing more exhilarating," Arden Cogar says, "[than] to be out in the forest and standing on top of a large log, and the only thing I can hear is the wind in the trees and the pounding of my own heart."

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