Sean Duffy No Stranger to Logrolling

Posted November 4, 2011 at 5:22pm

If a tree fell in a Wisconsin forest, chances are pretty good that Rep. Sean Duffy heard it.

The Republican freshman is widely known for his stint on “The Real World: Boston” in 1997, but before that, he spent years as a lumberjack.

In fact, he got his start at the age of 5 as a competitive logroller, an event that requires the participant to maintain balance while controlling the rotation of a floating log, trying to unseat his opponent.

Lumberjack skills are not an obscure hobby Duffy happened to take up. Northwestern Wisconsin boasts a long history of families who depended on sawyer work and lumber mills to make a living.

Duffy’s great-great-grandfather immigrated to Wisconsin in the late 1800s from Ireland to work at the Northwestern Lumber Co. The lumber mills were the largest employers at the time, and much of the local culture centered on the profession.

Although many of the mills are closed now, lumberjack skills have become a part of the culture that defines Northwestern Wisconsin.

“A lot of kids in the community, instead of taking swim lessons or diving lessons, take logrolling lessons,” Duffy said.

Duffy’s hometown, Hayward, which is in his district, is home to the annual Lumberjack World Championships. Contestants compete in events such as chopping, sawing, logrolling and tree climbing.

“It’s all skills of the old-time lumberjack,” he explained. “As a little boy, I saw these guys come out from the West Coast to climb 90-foot speed-climbing poles. It was the bull riding of the rodeo to lumberjack sports.”

He wasted no time getting into the ring. At 13, an audacious Duffy convinced older speed climbers to teach him the basics, and shortly after, he was outfitted in boot spurs, a harness and a rope.

Speed climbing is a timed sprint up a wooden pole and a controlled free fall back down. The pole lengths vary greatly. The 60-foot pole is usually the shortest, and from there, they measure 80, 90 and 100 feet. The 100-foot poles are rarely seen in competition because of their scarcity.

Western red cedar is the wood of choice for speed climbing and logrolling because it is buoyant. It is also soft, and boot spurs dig in easily. White pine and aspen, also soft woods, are used for the sawing and chopping events.

Speed climbing requires three pieces of equipment: boot spurs to dig into the wood as the climber ascends the pole, a rope to wrap around the width of the tree providing a hold that ties around the back of the climber as a support and a harness that secures the rope around the waist.

Boot spurs are no laughing matter; Duffy once miscalculated his free fall and dug his spurs in a little too late, coming down hard on top of the spurs in a crouching position. It turned out to be a real pain in the backside.

“I sat on my spurs and sliced my rear,” he said.

On average, it takes a professional speed climber around 17 seconds to climb up a 90-foot pole and 4 seconds down in a controlled free fall.

Duffy won his first world title in the 60-foot speed climb at the age of 18. He also holds two more titles in the 60-foot climb and two titles in the 90-foot speed climb. Duffy traveled cross-country and throughout Canada and Australia, participating in lumberjack shows and competitions to help offset the cost of law school.

While campaigning for Congress, Duffy appeared in a number of TV ads donning a red-and-black-plaid jacket, either carrying an ax or logrolling. He appealed to the Wisconsin lumberjack culture by promising to “dunk our career politicians” and to “bring the ax to Washington.”

Even though he was referring to federal government spending, Duffy did bring an actual ax to Washington. A six-pound Australian ax sits in the corner of his office behind his desk.

While he is competitive in logrolling and speed climbing, he also dabbles in chopping and sawing events. Though normally razor sharp for chopping events in lumberjack competitions, Duffy said his office ax had been dulled.

Aside from the preparation for and intensity of one-on-one competition, Duffy said speed climbing has instilled in him a sense of gracious determination.

“In competition you see people who win and lose, and you have to learn how to lose gracefully,” he said. “You have to be able to come back in the day and compete again, not hold a grudge and put everything into the next fight.”

Duffy brought the lessons he learned in lumberjack sports to Congress.

“We have to be able to argue hard on the floor for our ideas. But at the end of the day, if you don’t get it, you can’t take your ball and go home,” he said.

Duffy has six children with his fellow “Real World” cast member and wife, Rachel Campos-Duffy. The older children are already logrolling. Will the rest follow suit and continue the family lumberjacking tradition?

“I hope they will,” Duffy said.