When Kendall Kunelius ’15 arrived at UNH in 2011, her path was clear. A 10-year 4-Her and the devoted owner of a pony named Winsome, Kunelius planned to major in equine management, graduate, and manage a horse barn.
That’s the path she stayed on until 2012, when a bus ride from the Fairchild Dairy pointed her in a much different direction. “One of my friends was on the bus and said, ‘I’ve got practice tonight — why don’t you come join me and try out for the team?’” Kunelius says.
The team in question was the UNH Woodsmen, a co-ed club in which members saw and chop wood, throw axes, and roll logs. Kunelius grew up on a farm in Vermont and was no stranger to chopping wood, “so I just kind of went with it,” she says. That night, she ventured to the Thompson School Sawmill and fell in love with her first swing of the axe.
Four years later, Kunelius is making a name for herself in the world of professional lumberjack sports. She’s won 10 overall championships at competitions across the country, including the 2014 New England Lumberjack Association’s women’s overall championship, and, most recently, a world championship in single-buck sawing at the 2016 Lumberjack World Championship.
Kunelius credits much of her success to her informal early start: “My father was the one who put a chainsaw in my hand and said, ‘Hey, you need to know how to do this,’” she says. The two spent afternoons working in the woods, taking down trees and hauling lumber.
That skill set is one piece of the picture, but Kunelius says lumberjack sports require as much mental fortitude as they do physical stamina. First, there are the tools of the trade: roaring chainsaws, sharp axes, saws hot with friction. It’s not a sport for the anxious. During wood chopping competitions, “you’re standing there, swinging an eight-pound razor blade between your feet,” Kunelius says.
“There’s definitely a need for women to step up and share their voices and say, how can we keep going in this sport, how can we push for this?”
Competition is similarly intense, with a fraction of a second often the difference between a win and a loss. “It’s just you and the wood” up on stage, she says. “You can’t be worried about what other people are doing.”
What started as friendly competitions in logging camps decades ago has become a growing national sport. Stihl, the company famous for its chainsaws and other tools, hosts professional and collegiate-level competitions every year. The competition schedule is a job in itself, Kunelius says. From the last weekend in May through the first weekend in October, Kunelius and her husband, William Kunelius ’10, who is also a lumberjack sports professional, travel throughout New England and beyond for events, hitting two or three competitions in a single weekend. It adds up to a lot of miles — and a lot of sawing.
“You’ve got to have some amount of crazy in you to do what we do,” she says with a laugh.
Kendall and William met on the Woodsmen team, and this fall, the two returned to campus as coaches. She’s excited to help the next generation of lumberjack sports competitors build their skills, particularly young women.
“There’s definitely a need for women to step up and share their voices and say, how can we keep going in this sport, how can we push for this?” she says. “I want to be the one saying to team members, we’re making a future here for you.”
The Kuneliuses, who married last year, live on a farm in Chester. Kendall still loves riding and hanging out with Winsome, but her future is devoted to lumberjack sports, and, eventually, teaching, she says. Unlike other athletic fields, lumberjack sports favor older competitors. Though she’s already come far, there’s still plenty of work to do. Kunelius smiles at the thought. “I’ve got a lot of years ahead of me to really get good,” she says.
Originally published in UNH Magazine Winter 2017 Issue