As spectators approached the grandstand at the Crawford County Fair, they were greeted by the unmistakable — and inescapable — high-pitched buzz of a chain saw biting into wood.
The message needed no interpretation: "Don't try this at home," the whine of the Makita 5600 seemed to scream.
Immediately in front of the grandstand, a line of 10 limbless trees rose more than 20 feet into the sky. Black diamond-shaped targets topped the trees like enormous spearheads. The makeshift palisade contributed to an almost medieval atmosphere despite the song of the two-cycle engine that reverberated off the metal stands.
Wearing fluorescent orange helmets with screens that covered their faces and attachments protecting their ears as well, 10 competitors stood on the soggy track like modern-day knights preparing for a tournament. Replacing the lances of old, however, were what master of ceremonies Kevin Snyder of Pleasantville described as "the most dangerous hand-held power tool on the face of the earth!"
The event, a first at the Crawford County Fair, was a western Pennsylvania regional competition in Soren Eriksson's Game of Logging, a chain saw safety and productivity training program.
Audience members could be forgiven if they thought of the competition as Game of Logs. Unlike the similarly-named HBO series that also features a wide variety of cutting, only sawdust was spilled on the track Tuesday, no blood.
Much of the point of the event was to prevent the unnecessary spilling of blood when using the only power tool to have inspired a series of horror movies. The Game of Logging program trains loggers in safety techniques developed by Eriksson, covering everything from chain maintenance to strategies for felling awkwardly leaning trees.
Snyder kept the crowd entertained with his commentary on the chain saw action, but he also paused occasionally to remind "landowners" in the audience — the Game of Logging term for amateur chain saw operators — of best practices and to explain how the competition's various tasks simulated common conditions encountered in real-world chain saw use.
It was clear, however, that most in the audience came to see the sawdust fly and trees fall.
Connie Greeley, a former 4-Star Homemaker at the fair, and her husband Barry were among those in the crowd. The Greeleys have been attending the fair since they visited it on their first date 50 years ago, missing only two years along the way. The annual tradition led them to the logging competition Tuesday.
"It's fun to watch," Connie said above the chainsaw's song. "We just got a lot of firewood from trees that've been downed, so this is kind of interesting."
Looking toward the line of target-topped trees, Barry agreed.
"I want to see that," he said.
Before he could, each competitor worked his way through four stations testing their precision and speed as well as their knowledge of chain saws and safety procedures.
First came the speed cut, in which they cut down and then up through a large squared-off log to make two "cookies" as Snyder told the crowd. Next up was the precision stump, where the loggers cut a notch by eye, similar to the notches used to fell trees.
Third came the boring post, where competitors plunged the tip of their blades deep into an ash block, careful to keep it level and not dull their chain by letting it go all the way through to where a board represented a large rock like those loggers often encounter in the forest.
Then came the spring pole, a sapling that looks innocent but can be as dangerous as a toppling timber. With the bent-over sapling, the men had to find the spot where it could be cut without sending it careening off like a taut spring.
To level the playing field and ensure chivalry among loggers, each competitor used the same chain saw — not just the same model, but the same actual machine. Out of respect for the individual artist's style and technique, each man was allowed to put his own chain on the Makita. Before the competition, they were each given a stock chain and 45 minutes in which to sharpen and prepare it as they saw fit.
Tree felling, the final and most important event, required loggers to use all of the skills demonstrated at the previous stations.
"It always determines the champion," Snyder told the crowd.
The mysterious black targets atop the trees came into play as each logger prepared to send his tree plummeting to the ground. This was no cartoonish lumberjack shouting "Timber!" and letting the tree fall where it may. This was a precision tree drop in which each logger, operating by eyeball only, placed a spike so that it would penetrate the 10-ring target atop the tree.
Snyder's words proved prophetic on this day, as Terry Swartz of Pleasant Mount placed his spike just outside the bull's-eye and scored 110 out of a possible 120 in the tree felling event, vaulting him from third place to first on the day. Both Swartz and second-place pro finisher Todd Sampson of Titusville qualify for next June's national competition in State College, as do the top two landowners, Mark Ott of Howard, a first-time competitor, and Kyle Minium of Titusville.
Having worked on getting the Game of Logging into the fair for years, Snyder seemed satisfied as he prepared to head home after a long day of sawing logs.
"I think it went really well," he said. "We had a fairly decent crowd considering the weather forecast."