Hipsters Be Damned
Here's how real lumberjacks roll.
By Kristi Kates | May 27, 2017
At its most basic definition, a lumberjack is “a person who fells trees, cuts them into logs, and/or transports them to a sawmill.”
Not only were lumberjacks a critical important part of America’s growth from the 1600s onward, they were the backbone of northern Michigan’s own logging industry in the mid to late 1800s. These brave men were required to call upon a unique and often risky set of skills, wielding sharp saws and axes among tumbling timber of all sizes and weights.
Dan McDonough grew up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where he said the lumberjack culture was just “natural history” for him.
McDonough owns and runs Mackinaw City’s Jack Pine Lumberjack Shows (named after the eastern North American pine tree of the same name), a business venture that, for him, is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
ROLLING, ROLLING, ROLLING …
“I started log rolling when I was 9 years old,” McDonough said. “A man started log rolling in our town, and he needed a place to store his logs. We lived on Little Bay de Noc in Escanaba, and our neighbors said, Well, sure, you can store your logs here — but the one condition is that you have to teach the neighborhood kids how to logroll!”
Soon, logrolling in McDonough’s neighborhood became a summertime tradition, just like jumping rope or skateboarding in other parts of the country. “There’d be a dozen or so of us down at the water rolling every summer,” he said. “After a while, we started going en masse up to Hayward, Wisconsin, to enter logrolling competitions.”
Logrolling most often involves two competitors, each taking opposite ends of a single log floating in water. The pair battle to see who can stay on the log the longest, with each trying to maintain their own balance while spinning and kicking the log to knock off their opponent.
“I’ve won nine world championships in logrolling,” McDonough said. “And I still get out there and do it today.”
Bolstered by his logrolling achievements, McDonough began performing in as a lumberjack at county fairs, sport shows, and other special events.
“It’s the only long-term job I’ve ever really had,” he said. “But it got tiring being on the road year after year. I always wanted a permanent home for a lumberjack show.”
As he aged, he looked around for the perfect spot to launch his own lumberjack extravaganza. He soon narrowed his choices to Wisconsin Dells, Door County (also in Wisconsin), and Mackinaw City.
“In the end, I’m a Michigan boy, so I wanted to be here,” he said.
Now, he lives in Milwaukee in the winter, where he runs a home improvement business, but in the summer months, it’s all about Mackinaw City, where the Jack Pine Lumberjack Shows are a popular tourist attraction.
The shows take place in an enclosed arena with a grandstand that seats 400 people.
“We have an in-ground pool for logrolling and boom running [running across a string of floating logs], which gets really exciting in the spring when the water’s really cold,” McDonough said. “I tell the guys all about how, when I was training in the U.P., I used to have to actually break the ice to train!”
The lumberjack arena also features climbing poles, chopping stands — everything needed to present the eight different events that showcase lumberjack skills.
“Our lumberjacks compete in the different events, and we then do a final relay to determine that show’s champion,” McDonough said. “Four lumberjacks work here, and all live here in the summer. The four I have right now are all in forestry programs in college. If a college has a forestry program, there’s a good chance you’ll also find a competing lumberjacks program.”
The guys form a quick camaraderie over their unusual skill set, McDonough said.
“Each guy usually comes up every summer for three or four summers until they’re done with college, then they move on,” he said, “although some stay on longer, as they love doing the shows so much.”
COMPETITION AND CONNECTIONS
With axes swinging, logs rolling, and high climbing, there’s certainly an element of danger at the shows.
“But these guys are truly “iron jacks” — that’s the term for a lumberjack who’s good at all of the skills,” McDonough said. “I’m more of a specialist/ I’m best at the logrolling, although I can do the other stuff. But those guys — it’s impressive to watch them.”
At each show, the audience is divided into two sides, each representing a “rival” logging camp: the Mill Creek camp versus the Mackinaw City camp. McDonough, the show’s master of ceremonies, explains some history and then hypes up the crowd, taunting each side.
“The winning champion is then crowned Bull of the Woods — that’s what the best guy in a logging camp was called,” McDonough said. “Afterward, the audience is invited down to talk to the lumberjacks and ask questions, and the kids can take the wood chips as souvenirs … those kids pick the place clean!”
But most of all, he said, he likes being part of keeping the U.P.’s logging history alive through the Jack Pine Lumberjack Shows.
“There are so many connections. So often people come up to us and say, “My uncle logged,” or “My grandfather logged,’” McDonough said. “It really is Americana — we needed wood to build this country. So lumberjacks are an important, accomplished part of our history.”
Jackpine Lumberjack Shows run at 7:30pm daily, with 2pm matinees every Wednesday and Saturday June 21–Aug. 12. Tickets are $17 adult, $11 students/seniors. jackpinelumberjackshows.com, (231) 436-5225.