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"Throw the ax you have"

Three men holding belt buckles stand in front of a pile of wood, with mountains and blue sky behind.
Joe Goeken, flanked by Dustin and Derek Trimble, won the 2024 wood chopping contest at the Potter Valley Rodeo on Memorial Day weekend.

The Potter Valley Rodeo this weekend featured twirling lassos, thundering hooves, and contests of skill with an ax. The wood-chopping competition pit old-timers against newcomers.

Kurt Johnson, who owns a tree care and logging business in Ukiah, has been competing in the contest for 34 years and won 18 buckles. He said he was testing his skill one last time before retiring, though he is rumored to have said that before. Nevertheless, he has a lifelong taste for competition, having ridden bulls and played professional racquetball for years before hitting on the wood-chopping competition.

Each team has three men, two splitting mauls, and two chainsaws, though only one chainsaw can run at a time. The wood has to be cut to precise specifications, and it has to be stacked. “You want to make perfect wood as fast as you can,” Johnson summarized. On Saturday, he was facing his nephew, Joe Goeken and Dustin and Derek Trimball. “They are going to be hard to get around,” Johnson predicted. “They’re very tough.”

A man in a yellow shirt points at a log as two other men look on.
Kurt Johnson directs his team at the wood-chopping competition at the Potter Valley rodeo.

Kieran Keaney from Rohnert Park works on a wildland firefighting crew in Marin County. He joined the wood chopping competition on a whim, wearing a borrowed pair of jeans. He said he and his friends had come to Potter Valley to go camping on the Eel River. He wandered in, “was introduced to wood chopping, and immediately signed up.” Sitting in the shade after the long 12 minutes, he noted that the judges were “taking a lot of the wood off our pile. So I’m not sure how great we did, but we’ll see what happens.” He said he met his two teammates an estimated 30 seconds before signing up for the event, which is not the only time he’s taken part in a contest he happened to stumble upon. He’s also competed in a fishing contest and a few races.

Keaney’s team came in fourth out of four, and he says he’ll be back next year.

It turns out Johnson was right about Joe Goeken and the Trimble twins, who won with 227 pieces of qualifying wood. Goeken was looking forward to seeing more of the up and coming competition. “We had to go out there and kind of beat the streets to get those extra couple teams in here, and they did real good,” he reflected. “I think they're going to be hooked and we'll hopefully get them back in the following years. He added that this is his 28th year taking part in the wood chopping, “So we've seen all different teams throughout the years and all different groups. So we kind of got to see it mold.”

His current teammate Dustin Trimble said he’s won three belt buckles in the seven years he’s competed, not counting the lost covid years. He noted another team has won 11 contests in a row, and added that, “The Johnsons have been great. So hopefully we get everybody back and it turns into a bigger competition.”

The wood chopping was over when the counting was done, but at the booth next door, the ax-throwing competition was a day-long event. Joe’s father Alex Goeken was in a three-way tie at around 3:00 in the afternoon on Saturday. There is some crossover appeal. Alex wore his prize-winning belt buckle from the 1993 wood chopping contest, but hasn’t yet won the ax throw. He described his son Joe as “the king at it,” adding with a laugh that, “It would be cool if I could beat him.”

Drew and Kendra Blundell make sure the axes are sharp, all competitors are over 18, and everyone is wearing shoes. Kendra Blundell said the main change the couple made when they took over, not quite ten years ago, was creating men’s and women’s divisions, with two places in each. “It brings a lot more of the girls to play because before, they didn't think they would be competitive enough,” she explained. “So now that they have their own category, we see lots more females. It’s really fun.”

The goal, of course, is to hit the bullseye with an ax. The bullseye of the bullseye contains a can of beer, and if you hit it, you get a free beer, plus an extra point. Each turn consists of four throws, scored by how close the ax comes to the bullseye. The lowest score is discarded. As the exes twirled through the air, they landed almost gently in the wooden target. Occasionally, a celebratory foam would rise out of a broken can, though there wasn’t much left by the time it was extracted and presented to the winner.

Drew Blundell said there’s only been one injury in the whole time he and his wife have run the concession, when a thrower wearing flip-flops was doing a few practice swings and sliced his foot. The next year, they changed the rules so that all competitors must wear closed-toe shoes. As he was being interviewed, the competitor who had cut his foot the year before was taking his turn (wearing closed-toe shoes). He was doing pretty well, and did not appear to have suffered permanent injury.

Ian Blundell served as announcer for both events. He’s been an amateur timber sports competitor since college at Cal Poly Humboldt. Now he works in the state parks forestry department in restoration programs. He has a historical perspective on the contests of workman’s skills. “Back in the day we used simple tools,” like axes, mauls and wedges, he said. “That's just how we had to do it. Nowadays, we have chainsaws, big heavy machinery. These events really do just give a tie to what people had to do back in the day. They really show the struggles and the hardships that we all face on a daily basis.”

It’s not all hard work and suffering, though. “Ever since back in the medieval times, people needed something to do,” he said. “Bide the time and do things. So you might as well use the ax you have and throw it around with some friends.”

Local News
Sarah Reith came to Mendocino County in 2008 and worked as a reporter and freelancer, joining KZYX as a community news reporter in 2017. She became the KZYX News Director in March, 2023.