'Lumberjills' shine for Penn State Woodsmen Team

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Two women from the Penn State Woodsmen Team placed first in their events at a competition in Syracuse, N.Y., on March 23, defeating their opponents in the women's obstacle course and women's stock saw.

It may come as a surprise to many that Penn State has a Woodsmen Team, comprised of students who compete in collegiate lumberjack competitions throughout this country and Canada. But don't let the "men" in Woodsmen fool you -- the team has a solid group of "lumberjills" competing as well.

They include Kara Knechtel, Jennifer Snyder, Elyse McMahon, Celine Colbert, Lindsay Mitchell and Sara Ashcraft. Knechtel won the stock saw event and Snyder won the obstacle course event in the recent competition.

"Being a female on the team is not at all intimidating," said Colbert, a freshman majoring in both forest science and wood products from Pittsburgh. "We all just do our best and find our strengths."

The Woodsmen Team existed at the University Park campus during the 1970s but was disbanded due to a lack of interest and participation. As the years went by, the club gained major popularity at Penn State Mont Alto. In 2002, students from the Mont Alto team transferred to University Park and brought their love of wood chopping with them.

"They didn't have any equipment or funds to compete," said Knechtel, a senior architecture major from Butler. "They spent their first semester raising funds by splitting and selling firewood."

Mike Powell, an instructor in the Ecosystem Science and Management Department in the College of Agricultural Sciences, became the team's coach when it formed again in 2002. The team was able to gather enough funds to compete in its first competition in Colby, Maine, in the spring of 2003.

Snyder, a junior sociology major from Lancaster, spent her first two years at Mont Alto but did not join the team until she came to University Park.

"Two of my friends told me they needed girls desperately," said Snyder. "So, I tried out and ended up liking it a lot. I love a challenge, and competing against men makes me try that much harder to win."

Like Snyder, Mitchell also transferred to University Park, but not from Mont Alto.

"I was on the Woodsmen team at the University of Vermont," said the senior wildlife and fisheries science major from Warrington, Vt. "When I transferred here, one of the team members at the time was in a class of mine, so I started talking to him and here I am."

Penn State has sent men's teams and combined men's and women's teams to competitions in New York, West Virginia, Ontario and Pennsylvania. For the club to send a women's team to an event, there must be six females willing and ready to compete, which has only happened twice before now.

The women are doing very well in some of the events, according to Powell.

At a competition in West Virginia last fall, Ashcraft, who is a graduate student in the ecosystem science and management program, took first in the underhand chop -- an event she had practiced only twice. Originally from State College, she joined the team as a graduate student.

Junior wildlife and fisheries science major McMahon, from Erie, went in completely blind when she tried out for the team.

"Some of the guys in my forest measurements and tree physiology classes encouraged me to join," she said. "I had no experience with wood cutting, but after they got me cross-cutting and bolt-splitting, I knew this was going to be fun."

The women agree that their practices, which occur three times a week, are a great workout and a perfect way to relieve stress.

"Having grown up in a rural area just north of Pittsburgh, chopping firewood was always part of our chores," Knechtel said. "When I came to Penn State as an architecture major, the heavy workloads and long hours seemed to keep me from enjoying outdoor activities and kept me from finding people who shared similar outdoor interests."

Knechtel joined the team thanks to her boyfriend, who mentioned the team on their first date and brought her to practice on their second date. Her first attempt at an underhand chop took her almost the entire practice. The event, standing on a block of wood and chopping it between her legs, left her with a number of blisters before she was able to break through the log.

"Today, almost two years later, I can do it in a matter of minutes," she said.

Each girl competes in her own individual events at competitions. Some of these events include crosscut, bow saw, stock saw, under chop, log roll, water boil and bolt split. At practices, the women work to improve their own events, but they also are encouraged to try new ones.

Colbert noted that the events are a physical challenge for most of the women. "Girls don't have as much upper body strength as guys do, so it makes the events more difficult for women to complete," she said. "But the guys on our team are extremely helpful and knowledgeable."

"I appreciate what these women are doing," Powell said. "They put so much effort into this team and have been very successful. They deserve just as much of an opportunity as the guys to go out there and compete."

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Last Updated April 29, 2013