We in western Montana can see it any ol’ day, but the Garrett Grothen Memorial Arena at Fort Missoula will be something special for the cameras of ESPN.
With a backdrop of the Bitterroot and Missoula valleys, and with maybe a horse-drawn high wheel log hauler passing by, the all-sports network’s Timbersports series comes to town Friday afternoon.
“We’ve got this great arena. We need to do something to show it off,” Scott Kuehn said Tuesday.
Kuehn, of Bonner and the Society of American Foresters, is a former hot saw world-record holder and one of the founders, in 1978, of the annual timber sports competition held these days on Forestry Days weekend at Historic Fort Missoula.
He’s been around for each of the previous 19 Forestry Days and will be there Saturday for the 20th, when the professionals come to town and the fort becomes a showcase for old-time logging techniques. The competition is believed to be the only combined pro-am timber sports event in the United States. It runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., along with logging demonstrations and kids’ activities staged by the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula at the nearby forestry interpretive area.
Before all that, however, are three days of preliminaries to the 2016 American Western Forestry Clubs Conclave starting Wednesday morning. Teams from universities and community colleges from Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada and Arizona will be on hand, as will the UM Woodsmen’s team and clubs from Flathead Valley Community College and a handful of entrants from Montana State University.
John Parcell, a junior from Condon, will be UM’s entrant in the College Stihl Challenge on Friday, when the cameras start rolling at 2 p.m. Parcell placed third in the elite contest last year. The winner qualifies for nationals in Chicago in July and could advance to the world championships in November in Stuttgart, Germany.
“At a normal conclave we'll have 50 to 75 and normally it starts on Friday,” Kuehn said. “This year we’ll have about 150 contestants because it’s regionals.”
Missoula last hosted the regional event and the televised portion of the competition in 2013 at the Missoula County Fairgrounds. This will be the first time at the Grothen Memorial Arena at Fort Missoula, named for a beloved logging sports competitor who died in an avalanche in the Blackfoot Valley in 2002.
While Forestry Day turns 20, this will be the 77th annual Western conclave dating back to the late 1930s.
“You look at the tradition,” Kuehn said. “Here you have a forestry club (at UM) that’s 100-some years old. The tradition of the wood products industry dates back from the late 1800s with the Anaconda Company and all the way up through Champion and Plum Creek. This is just keeping some of the old traditions alive. It’s about the only time people use crosscuts any more.”
The pros lend the sport an international flavor, and contestants from New Zealand, Germany and Australia are common in Missoula. They compete in events such as pole climbing, cross-cut sawing, choker racing and birling (log rolling).
Where the pros and collegians differ is in some of the equipment they use, such as cross-cut saws. While the collegians use the old-style peg-and-rakers, the pros might bring handmade laser-cut saws worth a couple thousand dollars, Kuehn said.
Unique to the Missoula event is the array of other activities nearby Saturday. They include demonstrations of one of the museum’s prize possessions, a rare operational steam-powered sawmill, by three generations of the Troutwine family – Marvin, Bruce and Andy. Dick Clemow, a Missoula accountant, will be back with the Belgian horses and high wheel log hauler he still uses on logging operations around Missoula.
Kids' Lumber Jack and Jill activities will be offered near the museum’s Mill Creek guardhouse and lookout. The Historical Museum at Fort Missola will open all its exhibit buildings, with living history interpreters and docents on hand.
“Forestry Day usually sort of kicks off our outdoor season, so the buildings that have been closed (over the winter) will start being left open after this,” said Jessie Rogers, the fort museum’s development director and a former double-buck conclave champion for the UM Woodsmen’s team.
Admission Saturday is $4 for adults, $3 for seniors and $2 for students. Families get in for $10.
The public is invited to watch free of charge the competition events Wednesday through Friday at the Grothen Memorial Arena at the foot of the S&L Sawmill teepee burner.