A former producer of the Stihl Ironjack Series, Brett McLeod is as close as you'll get to meeting a modern-day Paul Bunyan. Brett has been competing and coaching professional lumberjack sports for 15 years. He is currently the head coach of the Woodsman Team at Paul Smith’s, where he is also an associate professor of Forestry and Natural Resources. His first book, The Woodland Homestead: How to Make Your Land More Productive and Live Self-Sufficiently in the Woods (Storey Publishing), hit shelves earlier this year and guides readers on how to use whatever land they have to grow food, harvest wood or support livestock. (We've been to his homestead; it's the shit.)
PW: How did you first get into lumberjack sports?
Brett: My college search had different criteria than most prospective students…I wanted to chop wood. I asked foresters, loggers, and woodsmen about my options and they all said the same thing: “Go to Paul Smith’s; they’re the best.”
PW: What's your favorite woodsman event?
Brett: The standing-block chop. I love the feeling of a sharp axe blowing through several inches of wood with a single swing. It’s addictive.
PW: What was the transition from coaching to competing like for you?
Brett: I fully admit that I’m a vicarious participant! This sport has a really steep learning curve, so there’s a huge amount of satisfaction in seeing someone go from not knowing how to hold an axe to blowing through a block of wood with precision. Coaching is also a great way for me to share my passion for old tools and the lost art of chopping and sawing.
PW: How do get the best out of your team?
Brett: Yell. Just kidding. Sort of. It’s kind of a tough-love environment; I push people to be their best. Most of the time they’re way tougher than they think.
PW: What surprises people most when they start to learn this stuff?
Brett: Like most sports, it's way more difficult than it looks! It’s also a sport with a wide array of events so if someone isn’t too good at one thing, chances are good that they can find a different event that fits them better.
PW: What are you most looking forward to during the upcoming woodsman getaway?
Brett: I’ve always thought this sport has huge growth potential, but didn’t know how to connect with people outside of my own rural demographic. It’s really exciting for me to think about people bringing these skills to other parts of the country. Even if folks decide they’re not going to become pro lumberjacks, they’ll have darn good woodsmen’s stories at their next cocktail party.
PW: Your axe collection inspired us to start our own. Do you have a favorite?
Brett: I think I have about 80, though I haven’t counted in a while. I’ll answer your question much like a parent would answer a similar question about their children. They are all special and unique, but I really adore my Kelly Black Raven axe. She’s beautiful, and reminds me of a time when function and style were part and parcel.
PW: You've got this amazing homestead in the Adirondacks that you've built with your hands and that lets you live off the land. How did the skills you picked up from lumberjack sports come in handy to realizing some of your projects? Was there any practical application that surprised you?
Brett: The Adirondacks are heavily wooded, so homesteading here requires proficiency with saws and axes for clearing land, cutting firewood, and building with logs. I see my axe as a paintbrush that lets me sculpt the land in an ecologically responsible way.
PW: What projects do you currently have in the works?
Brett: Well, I just finished building a barn. I cut the wood off my property and milled the lumber. Not only did this save a pile of money, it was also hugely rewarding. Next summer I may build a cedar cordwood cabin in the most remote corner of my property.
Brett will be teaching many of the woodsman skills at the Project Woodchips Getaway through the Paul Smith's Adirondack Woodsman School. Sign up to be notified when registration goes live, and learn to hang steel from a true Adirondack woodsman.