JEFFERSON CITY — Jason Jensen stands in front of an 18-inch wide log. His face is hidden behind a protective mask, his ears encased in sound-dulling headphones. In his hand, he grasps a chain saw.
He is ready.
Suddenly, without hesitation or warning, Jensen thrusts the chain saw forward, carving through the log as if it’s a Thanksgiving turkey. Splintered pieces of wood fly in all directions, scattering through the air without any pattern or harmony. Bits of debris deflect off of his mask and fall silently to the grass below him.
Buried in the chaos, there is technique. There is precision.
Jensen, a Jefferson City resident, is a five-time winner of the Missouri State Logging competition, an event that tests a logger’s ability to use a chain saw with both speed and accuracy. With his recent victory at the event Oct. 15 in Piedmont, Jensen qualified for the Game of Logging national competition for the second straight year.
The entrants in these competitions navigate through a series of categories, each designed to test a specific skill.
There’s the speed cut, bore cut, spring pole and big stump events, to name a few.
In simple terms, the speed cut measures how quickly a competitor can saw cleanly through a block of wood, while most of the other categories determine how accurate a cut the competitor can make, as well as how well they can control their saw.
The tree fell, on the other hand, is a different animal. It challenges the competitor to cut down a tree at a specific angle so that it falls as closely to a target on the ground as possible. The closer the fallen tree comes to the bull's-eye, the better.
To be competitive in the world of logging, you must possess a precise control of a chain saw as well as correct body positioning and upper body strength.
This doesn’t come overnight.
Jensen has been working with wood ever since he was a teenager, when he used to cut firewood outside his house. He spent time working for various forest services, cutting down trees to thin out and restructure forests.
Now, as the forest products supervisor with the Missouri Department of Conservation, wood surrounds him from all angles. The walls of his office are wooden, as is the door and bookshelf that sits in the corner of the room. His desk, predictably, is made of wood, as is the coaster and pencil holder that sit upon it.
The nameplate on the front of desk is — you guessed it— wooden, with the name "Jason Jensen" carefully etched into the block.
It becomes clear very quickly that logging and woodwork aren't just hobbies.
The basement of his home serves as his workshop. He simulates each of the contest's categories, practicing alone. He sharpens his chain, sets up the wood and cuts. The process is repeated over and over again until Jensen is satisfied. It’s an endless cycle.
Sharpen. Cut. Repeat.
That dedication has rendered positive results. When Jensen cuts, he controls the saw; he enforces his will on it.
“Whenever Jason cuts anything, whether he’s cutting down a tree or cutting a piece of plywood, he’s forcing that saw to do what he wants it to do, and he expects it to be done,” Joe Glenn, Jensen’s instructor and a judge at the Game of Logging national competition, said by phone from Piedmont.
“You have to make the saw do what you want it to do and not just throw it up on a piece of wood and let it do its thing. You have to tell it what to do, and then it has to do it.”
If a logger can cut perfectly in his basement, that’s a start. It takes a deeper focus to be able to duplicate those results in front of an audience. When Jensen started competing in 1999, he had to learn that the hard way.
“The first time I competed, I was so nervous I could hardly function,” Jensen said. “Over the years I’ve gotten much more comfortable with that, and I’ve learned that you just have to totally zone everybody else out and focus on what you have to do.”
Jensen’s eyes are glued to the saw. He takes deep breaths.
During an event, he doesn’t think about outside distractions. The people cheering and judging his technique fade away. While he is competing, Jensen is only aware of three things: himself, the saw and the soon-to-be massacred block of wood sitting in front of him.
”You don’t think about anything else,” Jensen said. “You don’t think about what you’re doing after the competition. You don’t even think about the next event. You think about what you have to do in that moment in time.”
That, more than anything, is what separates a professional logger from a competitive logger. Some people can cut quickly, efficiently and precisely in front of no one. When a crowd of people and the pressure of competition are added to the mix, the results can be drastically different.
"I’ve seen guys that if you’re out in the woods by yourself with them, they can do those things every single day, but put them in front of a group of people and … they just can’t,” Jensen said.
“When a timber cutter or a logger is out in the woods cutting down trees and the landowner comes to check on his wood or see how he’s doing, he’ll get nervous with just one person watching him,” Glenn said. “Whenever you throw in a bunch of people watching, it really ups the bar. A little bit of nervousness helps, but whenever you get too nervous, you can’t do anything right.”
At last year's Game of Logging, Jensen’s chain saw malfunctioned in the first event, causing him to lose points and eventually finish in second place.
This year, he is expecting a different result.
“I intend to win it, and then I intend to retire … kind of like Tony LaRussa,” he says, laughing. “That was my intention last year. I had every intention of winning it, and I should have.”
He shakes his head, silently recalling the missed opportunity. “It’s just one of those things.”
In the first week of October, almost a year from now, Jensen will compete in the Game of Logging national competition in Cambridge, Ohio.
Until then, he’ll more than likely be in his basement, practicing.