Dancing With Danger: A Look Inside The Penn State Woodsmen Team
When most of us come to college, our first instinct is to join a few clubs and make some friends. Some of us move toward Greek life, others get involved in THON, and others still choose to spend our free time in more unconventional ways, like throwing logs and climbing trees.
That’s what members of the Penn State Woodsmen team have decided to do. The team, a registered student organization on campus, is made up of 14 members. And while they all come from a variety of backgrounds and majors, they all have one thing in common: They like working with their hands and getting dirty.
The history of the team dates back to when the first Penn State Woodsmen team developed in the 1970s. To date, not much is known about those first few formative years, because the team disbanded due to lack of involvement in the mid-1980s. While those original founding teams set the groundwork for today’s Penn State Woodsmen team, the group would, sadly, not be seen again until nearly 20 years later.
Program advisor Mike Powell finally re-founded the team in 2003 with the encouragement of a few timber sports enthusiasts who wanted to start a Woodsmen team of their own.
“It was a shame [they disbanded] because they were a pretty good team before and we started off with absolutely nothing. Zilch,” Powell said. “We had to borrow equipment for our first competition.”
Powell has coached the team and organized various competitions for them to participate throughout the past 15 years. Members travel wherever a van and their monetary allowance will allow, whether that’s to some small town in northern Pennsylvania or to Toronto, Canada.
Since they’re only a club and not an official team, the Woodsmen receive very little outside funding. Some of the money they use to buy their equipment comes from UPAC funding, but the rest comes from their own fundraising efforts.
Their main way of fundraising revolves around making use of a skill they all already have: cutting wood. Any spare wood they have gets cut up and sold as firewood to people in and around State College. It helps them pay for hundreds to thousands of dollars in equipment each year.
“It’s not a cheap hobby and we get a little bit here,” Powell said. “We do what we can to get funding.”
The team usually participates in at least one competition every semester. Sometimes members miss out on competitions they don’t hear about until too late because they’re required to register events in advance with the university.
Competitions are split into three main categories: men, women, and Jack & Jill (read: co-ed). After deciding which categories to compete in, teams are created, made up of six competitors and usually one or two substitutes in case someone can’t compete.
Every event the teams compete in is split up into categories. There are singles, doubles, and team events that everyone must compete in. Usually each member will compete in one singles, one doubles, and four to six team events.
There are well over a dozen events for those participating to compete in. They have everything from fire building, which involves starting a fire and making a tin of water boil over it, to axe throwing, which is a lot like darts, except much more dangerous since you use a double-bladed axe.
Despite the dangerous conditions, the Woodsmen team takes precautions to ensure that no one is injured during their practices. Those who are new to the team wear tin or chainmail to protect them from accidentally chopping a hole through their leg. They also always have someone at practices who’s first aid and CPR certified.
“We’ve had the occasional small injury, but that hasn’t happened in a long time and we’re hoping to keep it that way,” co-captain Ian Hemann said. “We try to be real careful.”
For Hemann, the best part about being on the team is the sense of community it provides. He loves the feeling of being surrounded by people who share the same passions and values as him.
“I grew up making firewood and stuff like that, and not a whole lot of people can say that,” Hemann said. “So people who like to come out, do the hard work, aren’t afraid, and want to come and pull together as a team, that’s what we’re about.”
For those who are thinking that competing in all of these outdoor activities might be more of a “guy” thing, you’d be sorely mistaken.
Club Vice President Maddie Bentz has been competing since she was in high school. Bentz comes from New Hampshire — a state where Woodsmen teams are fairly common. She decided to try out the club one day on a whim in high school and has been hooked ever since.
For Bentz, it’s one of the most rewarding things she’s ever been a part of. It helps fulfill a part of her explorative side that would otherwise lie dormant.
“One of the biggest confidence boosts for me is when I do better than some of these big guys who are twice the size of me,” Bentz said. “It’s super empowering. It just makes me feel great.”
While the Woodsmen team may be one of the more unconventional clubs Penn State has to offer, that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s absolutely one of the most spirited. Its members are passionate about what they do — passionate enough to put in several hours of work a week to develop their skills. They like what they do and they know how to do it.
“I like being with people who are interested in the same things that I am,” Hemann said. “I know that sounds generic, but it can be hard to find.”
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Penn State reported 1,304 of University Park’s cumulative 2,123 student cases to date are no longer active.
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