Ray Geist has an ax to grind.
As a lumberjack, it’s part of his job.
Geist is part of the talent and intrigue behind the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show in Ketchikan, and he is quick to point out that he is an athlete who competes in 585 shows the group stages every year in addition to dozens of other shows around the country in places like Hayward, Wisconsin; Shawnee, Pennsylvania; and SeaWorld in San Antonio, Texas.
A master of such events as ax-throwing, the double-buck, which is a two-man sawing competition in which loggers race to cut through thick timbers, and the single-buck, in which a competitor solos as he cuts through a log for time, Geist lives for the thrill of competition and the always-present danger in lumber jacking.
“The adrenaline rush comes from the fact that almost anytime you compete something could take a limb or break a part of your body,” he said. “It’s a little intense but it adds to the excitement of the sport.”
Not to mention the fact that the audience appreciates the lumberjacks’ efforts.
“It’s not every job where people stand up and cheer for you and ask for autographs,” said Geist, who is originally from Trappe, Maryland. “Coming from a small town on the eastern shore of Maryland, when people ask for your autograph it’s kind of surreal.”
Geist has always enjoyed being outdoors, and lumber jacking suits him well. He got his start while attending Unity College in Unity, Maine, a small liberal arts school that specializes in courses focusing on the environment. Lumber-jacking was a club sport at Unity, and, curious, he joined the club. He soon began competing in places like New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in Canada.
Later, after spending his senior year at the University of New Hampshire, he met Zach Brown, who worked for the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show and was looking for recruits. Geist graduated in 2011 and came to Ketchikan to join the show. He has competed for the past seven years seasonally.
Once he discovered he was good with an ax, his vocation as a lumberjack was set.
“I found I was pretty decent at the ax throwing,” he said. “Then they got me into chopping and sawing and all that. It’s an adrenaline rush because it’s something that not a lot of people can do. It’s a very physical sport, but you don’t have to be a muscle guy.”
“The sport is very much muscle memory,” added Geist, who practices ax throwing by embedding a bottle cap in an old growth tree stump and aiming at it with his ax. “You stand in front of the target about 18 to 20 feet away and keep throwing at it. When you’re hitting the bottle caps you know the practice has been worth it.”
In the off-season Geist maintains an intense training schedule.
“I have a training area where I chop,” he said. “I’m constantly practicing. Ax throwing is fun. It’s not as hard on the body as chopping or climbing. It’s a good gateway to timbersports.”
At 28, Geist is in the prime of his lumber jacking career. But he knows there will be a time when he has to call it quits.
“Timbersports is definitely something I want to continue to be involved with even when I’m through with competition,” he said. “It’s something I’d like to continue to do as a sport for as long as the body will allow. But through 585 shows, you get your aches and pains, cuts and bruises, and at some point the body says, “enough.’”
Meanwhile, as someone who tosses axes at timber, Geist can tell you a few things about Alaska’s trees.
For example, he likes to talk about the late eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes’ aviation exploits with a wooden plane known as the “Spruce Goose,” a 320-ft. transport Hughes had manufactured during World War II. Alaskan wood was used to build the plane.
“The Sitka Spruce is well-known because Howard Hughes used it to make the ‘Spruce Goose,’” he said. “The wood actually came from Ketchikan. They started out using fir, but that’s very dense and heavy and it wouldn’t fly. Then he found out that spruce is very strong and flexible and a lot lighter.”
He added that spruce was also used on the decks of ships during World War II, but it is not a wood used for lumberjack competitions because it is a hardwood. Instead, softer woods such as cottonwood, aspen or tulip poplar are used for chopping and sawing and because hardwoods would ruin the metal edge of the ax.
Geist said that growing up in a small town in Maryland, he never thought he’d wind up in Alaska as a lumberjack.
“I grew up in Maryland and went to school for fisheries and aquaculture,” said Geist, who thought he’d wind up in oyster farming. “I wound up chopping wood in Alaska.”