(Photo: Christinne Muschi)


She came, she sawed, she conquered

McGill master’s student Stéphanie Bélanger-Naud, FMT’14, BSc(AgEnvSc)’17, had a summer to remember. Thanks to her skills with buck saws and axes, she won a national timbersports championship while finishing second in an international competition.

Story by Philip Fine

August 2019

With a swing of her axe, Stéphanie Bélanger-Naud, FMT’14, BSc(AgEnvSc)’17, regularly bites out large chunks from totem-like wooden poles, and, handling a single buck saw, slices through pine logs the size of sewer pipes. She’s no slouch when it comes to a chain saw, either. A professional female timbersports athlete, or lumberjill, she excels at an axe event called the underhand chop. It involves hacking at a log she stands on, and breaking it in two, which she is capable of completing in 31 seconds.

This past August, Bélanger-Naud took home first place at the STIHL Timbersports Women’s Pro Canadian Championship in Mississauga, Ontario. The 25 year-old has also proved herself internationally, having placed second among the women in this past summer’s Lumberjack World Championships in Wisconsin.

One would think it would be on the Eastern Townships dairy farm on which she grew up where she would have first learned how to tear into timber. But she says her father didn’t want her handling a chainsaw (he thought it was too dangerous). Far from felling trees, her sister’s and her farm chores involved preparing packages of goat cream cheese and offering samples to supermarket shoppers.

She learned about timbersports by way of a Macdonald Campus pamphlet. “I didn’t even know that this world existed when I got to McGill,” she recalls. But she loved the outdoors and wanted to join a team. She read about the McGill Woodsmen and then joined a friend who was heading to the tryouts.

That was in 2012. She’s still at McGill, on her third year of a master’s degree in animal science, and still involved in timbersports.  She competed for five years with the Woodsmen and, for the last three, has been coaching the team, sharing duties with Olivier Lamarre-Tellier, BEng(Bioresource)’19.

Bélanger-Naud says technique and flexibility is more important for the sport than big muscles. She points out some of the finer points of timbersports for anyone who might want to swing an axe aimed at a log between their spread-out feet. “You want to slice into the wood and not just hit it,” she says, explaining that the heel of the axe (the bottom corner point of the blade) needs to hit the wood first. “You hear it when your axe gets into the wood the right way.”

As for the dangers of her sport, she and others wear chain-mail socks that extend to the shins and protect against wayward underhand chops. She competes in about 15 events each summer and has never had an accident — save for having sliced her hand once on a sharp axe. She did witness one unfortunate incident recently, when one competitor’s axe bounced off a wood pole and landed deep in his calf.

The dangers have done nothing to diminish her love for timbersports and an increasing number of women are taking it up. She says Canada, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand are the top four countries attracting lumberjills, and there has been a growing interest in Europe.

Bélanger-Naud and her sister, who is also in school, are hoping to restart their dairy goat farm. The operation, a skateboard shop and a real estate business their family ran in Farnham, along with their home, were all destroyed by fire a decade ago. At the time, her parents were able to continue in real estate, but rebuilding the cheese operation was too onerous. She and her sister are confident that they can resurrect it. “Probably in the next four or five years we should be able to sell cheese again.”

But that will mean being away for at least a couple of years from timbersport competitions, she says. Now a national champion, Bélanger-Naud sounds reluctant about completely closing the door on that part of her life. “I would love to still be able to do a few shows.”

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