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Ax Men features local loggers

Reality TV - Vernonia loggers appear on new History Channel show
by: Chase Allgood, Mike Pihl, owner of Mike Pihl Logging of Vernonia

When Mike Pihl was getting ready to choose a career, his father, former Washington County judge Hollie Pihl, gave him a suggestion.

'He told me he wanted me to be a lawyer, but I thought he said 'logger,'' joked Pihl, 47, who grew up on Pihl Road in Manning.

He's been knocking down trees ever since.

But the stocky, outspoken owner of Mike Pihl Logging Co. in Vernonia recently took on a second, if temporary, career - as a television personality.

He and a number of his employees are being featured on 'Ax Men,' a reality TV show about loggers in the Pacific Northwest.

Joining a whole genre of shows that depict unusual or dangerous occupations - such as 'Ice Truckers' and 'The Deadliest Catch' - the first episode of 'Ax Men' aired last Sunday on cable TV's History Channel.

'It was pretty exciting,' said Pihl, who watched the show with his children two times in the same evening. 'It shows a lot of different personalities that work in the forest. Out there, it's survival of the fittest.'

Pihl and his son-in-law, Kelly Baska, 26, were filmed on the job by a professional camera crew from Original Productions, which was sent up from Los Angeles last fall.

'We were logging in (Vernonia's) Stub Stewart State Park at the time,' recalled Pihl, who said taping all the show's segments took more than four months to complete.

Videographers stayed at the Vernonia Inn and rode out to the job sites with Pihl's crew every morning, said Baska, who has worked for his father-in-law for eight years.

'He started out mowing lawns, and now he's mowing down trees,' Pihl observed.

Tagging along to

Oregon Coast

When the loggers took a job in Pacific City on the Oregon Coast, the film crew tagged along. If they traveled to Astoria, the cameramen did, too.

'We go anywhere there are trees to be buzzed,' said Pihl. 'There really wasn't anything staged.'

Also featured on 'Ax Men' are employees of Stump Branch Logging in Buxton and two Astoria firms, Gustafson Logging and J.M. Browning Logging.

Men in hard hats and heavy shirts are shown attaching cables and shouting instructions, sometimes experiencing near-misses when the giant fir trees fell.

Logging terms like 'bull buck,' 'side rod' and 'rigging slinger' pepper the narrative after Pihl announces, in a gravelly voice, 'I'm Mike Pihl. I'm an ax man.'

Originally named

'Timber Country'

The 13-episode series will conclude sometime in May.

'It's a look inside the life of a logger,' said Pihl, who was approached last August by the show's creators. Originally tapped to be called 'Timber Country,' the title was changed to 'Ax Men' in late fall.

'It has a nice ring to it,' noted Pihl, who attended a private screening of the premier episode March 8 at Liberty Theater in Astoria.

He's happy that an occupation he's enjoyed for 25 years is getting some mass media attention.

'We're a unique breed of people, for sure,' said Pihl, whose daughter, Lindsay, is married to Baska.

She works in the front office at his firm, answering phones and 'generally running things,' Pihl said.

For his part, Pihl is eager for the show to clear up a few misconceptions about loggers.

'When a lot of people think about loggers, they think of a 1950s clear-cut,' Pihl said. 'They think we still do that, but we don't - everything we take down is re-planted.

'There are a ton of rules and regulations we have to follow.'

First rule of logging:

stay safe

One thing the show doesn't falsely dramatize, Pihl said, is the dangerous aspect of logging.

Using chainsaws, axes and heavy equipment, workers use specialized skills and battle the elements while harvesting and hauling out millions of board feet of timber from Oregon forests each year.

Rule No. 1 is to stay safe, Baska said.

'We're out there risking our lives every day, but we do it because we love it,' noted Baska.

'We pride ourselves on doing an extra-good job,' Pihl added.

During what turned out to be more than 1,000 hours of filming, only one 'fairly scary' incident occurred, said Pihl.

'The producer got hit with a sky line,' he said, referring to a heavy cable used to carry loads of timber. 'But he's OK - he's tougher than nails.'

The series' third episode, which is scheduled to air March 23, focuses on the Vernonia flood back in December.

'We had a lot of hands-on activity during that time period,' said Pihl, whose crews removed dozens of tree limbs from area properties after the floodwaters receded.

Pihl hopes that viewers tune in to 'Ax Men' to learn more about a profession he's loved for a quarter-century.

And when they do, they'll view some healthy competition between loggers who try to cut as much timber as they can each month.

'People ask me why I'm a logger,'Pihl said. 'I tell them I like the smell of the forest.'

Catch the show

What: 'Ax Men,' a new reality show about loggers in the Pacific Northwest

When: Sundays at 7 p.m. on cable television's History Channel