Last week, a dozen Brooklynites gathered in Gowanus to decompress… by throwing hatches, chopping wood and sawing logs!
What started out as a slightly tense gathering soon evolved into a roomful of exuberant cheers and high fives, as the dozen or students learned how to confidently handle one of America’s most primitive (and terrifying) tools: the axe.
“It was nerve-wracking at first,” said Lora Sorrentino, referring to the woodchopping. “I had to tell myself to relax.”
Axes After Dark, a woodsman class organized by two wood-loving Brooklyn women and led by a former Timbersport professional, is a new effort to connect New Yorkers with nature, history and the rewarding experience of doing something with one’s hands.
Paula Pou and Caitlin Barrett are the brains behind the event. The two women are friends and long-time coworkers who bonded over a shared love for less conventional, challenging pastimes.
“We were always the people in the office doing things that other people didn’t want to do,” Caitlin said, laughing. They ran off a list: Tough Mudder races, pushup contests, archery classes. Paula has even done a marathon in Antartica and skydives around New York City.
At first, their hobbies were just that… hobbies. But during a weeklong woodsman class in the Adirondacks, something clicked. Perhaps it was how the class connected them to nature and American history. Perhaps it was how it represented an opportunity to use their body in a different way while escaping technology and eighty-hour work weeks. The friends came back determined to share their newfound hobby with nature-starved New Yorkers.
They quit their jobs at a corporate branding agency, embarked as freelancers and launched Project Woodchips, a local social organization dedicated to connecting New Yorkers to lumberjack sports.
“It was so new and exciting to put down your phone and do something useful,” Caitlin explained. “We just wanted to share it with people.”
A special invited guest at the first Axes After Dark class was Brett McCleod, a professional lumberjack. He explained to the participants the principles of axe-throwing, wood splitting, chopping and sawing. Then, for the next three hours, they rotated around the room hacking, throwing and sawing away.
Caitlin and Paula rotated around the room, offering coaching and guidance. The class was not easy to organize, they explained: Everything from finding space, advertising and hosting a professional instructor came from friendships they have forged over the past few months.
Many of the attendees were also friends. Heidi Jones, a Crossfit coach knew Caitlin from the gym. An Indiana native who has lived in New York for twelve years, Heidi said the experience was a chance to reconnect with nature. “There is this total longing to feel like I’m part of something [more] than a concrete jungle,” she said.
Steve Mosier, came to the class from Williamsburg. He also knew Caitlin from the gym. For Steve, it was about reconnecting with a childhood hobby.
“I cut wood for camping, but never in a class… never worried about technique,” he explained. This class, he said, made for a good, tiring workout and a good chance to “mentally get out.”
Getting out is a resounding theme that drives interest in these types of classes. Ken Hsu is one of the co-owners of Gotham Archery where Friday’s class was hosted. He said classes like this are becoming increasingly popular as alternatives to the normal going out. “People get bored with bars,” he said.
That desire for alternate, primitive experiences is something that Paula and Caitlin are hoping to capitalize upon. Not literally — they won’t make any money from running these classes — but they do want to see more people connect with the experience.
“We want to see… more people delighting in something they’ve never done before,” Caitlin said.
The next Axes After Dark meetup is November 18.
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