Lumberjacking as exercise

A cold weather workout that results in more than just sore muscles
The author at work in his yard.

Charles Bethea

I didn’t get into axes until my early twenties. Working at a backcountry hut in the White Mountains after college, I was paid to do some trail maintenance. That meant moving rocks around and curtailing the growth of a troublesome tree or shrub. It felt good to wield the ax with a practical purpose—as opposed to wielding it as part of an overly realistic and probably illegal Halloween costume, which I’d done years before (eleven-year-old lumberjack).

New calluses, dirt under the fingernails, a little premature back pain: all healthy, character-building consequences of early onset ax use.

Anyway, I moved back to Atlanta and didn’t touch an ax for most of a decade—thanks to delicate condo living—until this past weekend. A family friend who runs a tree removal service left a giant white oak in my new Cabbagetown front yard, as a Christmas present. And, with a little help, I’ve since turned it into a few hundred pieces of kindling for my fire pit. I’m not even half done with the thing. It’s incredible how much wood a single tree provides, and how much exercise—aerobic and muscular—you can get if you decide to chop it up by hand.

I’d heard it was going to get cold (and it is). Splitting wood warms you up before the fire arrives, conveniently. So does the beer that your dad and brother bring over unsolicited, but much appreciated, to help “lubricate” the axing process. It was a weekend, and a new year, and with our $25 maul from Home Depot we felt invincible. Two hours later, we’d learned some lessons, which YouTube confirmed.

The keys to splitting firewood, according to a video called “How to split wood,” viewed a surprising 158,000 times:

-Place the seasoned wood log (hickory, white oak, red oak, and locust are all good varieties) flatside down on a split stump to save your blade from quick dulling.

-Find your swing distance: Place the blade on the middle of the wood log and step back until your weak hand is at the far end of the handle.
-Position your feet shoulder width apart.
-Bend forward and put your strong hand at the end of handle closest to the blade.
-Shoo away all bystanders and pets you wish to see live another day.
-Let the tool and gravity do the work: the weight of the blade, brought straight up your head, will bring itself down.
-Most logs will require a few swings before splitting all the way.
-Don’t kill yourself.
-And repeat until you’re absolutely exhausted and/or you have no more room to stack wood.
-Appreciate the fact that you didn’t pay $15 for a few sticks of wood at Whole Foods.

I’d add to that: Once your back is feeling a little better, invite over some friends—especially the friend with three axes and a wood grenade, who is opening a brewery soon—and do what you did before. Only, this time, with more beer and more doughnuts and more yelling. The primal yell is possibly the best, most therapeutic part.