Lee Pickett credits his “magic ax” for consistently winning local competitions at Loggers Playday.
For seven out of the past eight years, he’s either won or tied for the best local logger title during the sports competition.
The ax has a special design to it with a 6-inch blade on both sides and a handle that stretches down longer than most other axes. He says the long handle helps it keep balance and twirl in the air. To give it a bit more aerodynamics, the ax has about 2 inches of metal cut away from inside of it, Pickett says, to allow the air to pass through it as it flies.
“It’s unique,” Pickett says. “It’s my baby.”
And, whatever the case, it’s helped Pickett continue to win.
It’s hard to miss Pickett, with his short-billed white hat, Harbor Saw & Supply suspenders and a big grin under a bushy mustache.
He’s spent most of his life either working in shake mills or the forests. He’s traveled all over the country, but he always returns home to Moclips.
“He’s just always identified with this community and Moclips has become part of him,” his girlfriend Wendy explains.
Pickett, 64, recalls the time when he’d go to Arizona to cut Pinyon pine and haul it to Yuma, Ariz. He’d place the trees on Christmas tree stands and sell them.
“You’d sleep with rope between two trees and drop a canvas between them to create a tent and sleep right there out in the stars,” Pickett said.
A few weeks later, he’d head back home to Moclips, but keep going back over a five-year stretch in the ’70s.
Also in the ’70s, he spent a few years backpacking, going through Oregon and California until he ended up in the Mojave Desert.
“I was there for 30 days and it didn’t rain and that was just so nice, given what we deal with around here,” Pickett said with a laugh. “I’d work out there in the desert in the summer and came back here in the winter to cut cedar blocks.”
Then there were times he’d head up to Alaska and try his luck on logging crews there. He recalls raucous, joyous times with his fellow loggers and a few times when, as a greenhorn, more experienced loggers would have to intervene to save his life.
“To be honest, I didn’t last very long in Alaska before I came home again,” Pickett said.
Pickett says his mother worked for McDonnell-Douglas during World War II and his father was in the U.S. Army. They met at a USO club in Long Beach, Calif., and re-located back to his dad’s home in Moclips.
“Dad actually graduated from Moclips High School in 1937, which is where I graduated from in 1967,” Pickett says. “Believe it or not, we actually had the same math teacher. I think that’s how I passed algebra,” he said with a laugh.
7-YEAR-OLD SHAKE RAT
There were four boys — Harold, Darrel, Jeff and Lee — in the family.
“As kids, when we were 7 years old, we were packing shake boards out of the brush,” Pickett said. “You used to split board and we’d get 10 cents for every six inches of wood. This was back in the 1950s and that was pretty good money back then for a 7-year-old.”
By the time he was 10 or 11 years old, Pickett graduated to cutting shake blocks for local mills.
“We’d take two rows of shake boards 4-feet high, 8-feet long, line them up against the wall and start splitting the shake blocks,” Pickett said.
But he found his true place in life as a teenager and later as an adult in the woods.
“I would go between the mills and the woods, back and forth but, I really liked the woods,” Pickett said. “It’s where I wanted to spend most of my adult life. It’s all about the freedom. You don’t have to wait two hours to take a coffee break. If you see something pretty you can just sit down and watch it for a while. You were always watching the guy cutting next to you because you didn’t want to get cut off. You didn’t want him into your strip.”
By the 1970s, Pickett said helicopter-logging became a regular feature. Pickett would cut up shake blocks in the middle of the woods and a helicopter would fly in about 25 feet above the loggers, dropping a cable to pick up the blocks. That’s much lower than today’s regulations would allow.
“With that 25-foot line, we’d just start piling up the shake blocks and it was always dangerous stuff because you had to get it there just right,” Pickett said. “Otherwise, the ropes would break and some 1,200 pounds would come down right on you. There were people who used to get hurt, sometimes with even just a single 50-60-block of wood dropping from 30 feet high.”
Pickett said that as a “shake rat,” he was more interested in ferreting out good pieces of cedar that other loggers looking for the full-standing timber might not even notice.
“I’d be after the stumps, the windfalls that grow underneath the stumps and the windfalls,” Pickett said. “Sometimes, there were two, three, four layers of windfalls.”
Pickett said he couldn’t help but look with longing at the windfalls stemming from the 2007 storm in the Lake Quinault area.
Years ago, before roadless rules, endangered species rules and wilderness areas, Pickett says that windfall would be exactly what he’d be after.
“If you stand at the Quinault school parking lot and look east toward the hills and the different patches that blew down, that’s where I would have been,” Pickett said.
Pickett credits Jack Reynvaan, Jim Jackson and Don Hurd for being among his influences at the time.
Off to war
In 1968, Pickett registered for the draft — and then enlisted in the Navy.
“I was 18 going into my senior year of high school,” Pickett said. “As nice as the Marine Corps looked, I said I’d take the Navy for four years and I still ended up going to Vietnam. We were there for 29 months out of four years.” Pickett said he served on an amphibious attack cargo vessel, helping transport Marines and equipment to the shores.
Pickett remembers having mortars fired at him while offloading ammo at Cameroon Bay.
“Those were pretty dangerous times and we got out in time. … You know, as much as I may complain, I have to say, I do look back at the good things. Cameroon Bay was one of the most beautiful harbors in the world. It was just pristine and blue. Beautiful.”
But Pickett says his time in Vietnam changed him.
“I still deal with it on a daily basis when the demons come at you,” he said.
In 1997, Pickett said some of those memories came back in force.
He was driving to a job building the county’s sewer treatment plant at Pacific Beach.
“I was passing another vehicle and there was a boy standing in the fog line with his back turned,” Pickett said. “It was an early October morning.”
Pickett said his car hit the 14-year-old.
“I never saw him until I got right alongside the other vehicle,” Pickett said. “By the grace of God the young boy survived. That set into motion nightmares from my service times. It just opened up a really big can of worms for me. But through the VA, I was able to find the help I needed.”
Pickett actually credits Congressman Norm Dicks’ office for getting him the help. Pickett said he had put in a call for help, but it took many months to get anyone to pay attention to him. Four days after the congressman got involved, he got exactly what he needed.
“You know, I’m doing better today than I ever was,” Pickett said.
In 1976, when Lee and his brother Darrel were working for Jackson Logging, they decided to try their hand at the professional log sports with Loggers Playday.
“You know, when I got down there and really stared going, it was one of the first times where I didn’t have anyone hollering at me to do something and I was left on my own to do what I wanted,” Pickett said. “There was no one telling me what they thought of me or telling me I didn’t do the right thing. And, you know what? I was good at it.”
Pickett started racking up competition wins. And he and his brother Darrel had friendly competitions to see who could do better. Back then, Darrel was the true champion, winning the all-around logger title in 1980 and 1982.
“It was bonding,” Pickett said.
“I still remember my first event with Truman Santiago, one of the greats, doing a choker setting and Truman was our hook tender on the same rigging crew,” Pickett said. “Here we were all working together and then going to Loggers Playday to compete. And folks in our crew would work with guys like Larry Vessey, working in the woods and then doing a whole show right there in the woods to train. They had all of the events set up and they’d do chopping and sawing, speed climbing, power-saw bucking, double-saw bucking. They’d have the whole thing planned out. It was an amazing time to be alive and to witness.”
Pickett found out he was pretty good at the ax throw by luck. One day he started throwing the ax for gas money and found he was pretty right-on in hitting the target.
“The ax throw didn’t get too interesting for me until probably the early- to mid- 1990s,” Pickett said. “Probably in the last 15 to 20 years.”
This past year, Pickett would place dandelions on a wooden target at his home in Moclips and try to hit them.
“When the sun’s out it was easier because they were a bit bigger, but I can even do it now,” he said.
He demonstrated, picking up his ax, standing some feet away and then letting the ax go. A blur of motion and yellow bits of flower fly into the air as the loud sound of the ax slamming against the wood is heard.
“When you hit a dandelion with the ax it’s pretty cool,” he said. “It’s a great sight.”
Just this month, Pickett pulled in three bull’s eyes in a row to win the local ax throw competition at Loggers Playday.
These days, Pickett says he mainly competes locally. In years past, though, “in my prime,” he would travel all over the country. He says the highest rank he ever managed to get was 17th, “a bummer for me because at 16th place, you get to at least go to nationals.”
Pickett says he hopes to continue competing at Loggers Playday for as many years as he’s physically able.
Meantime, he’s practically the one-man greeter in Moclips, keeping tabs on a “Welcome to Moclips” sign located in his yard and doing the upkeep at a neighborhood park. He also cuts wood for seniors in the area, “both practical and it helps me training,” he says.
“To me, seeing the beach nearby and just sitting here with the open sky above, it’s all about therapy,” Pickett said.
Steven Friederich, a Daily World writer, can be reached at 537—3927, or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.