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Rippin’ it up at Old Mill Days

Local Suquamish chainsaw artist Marty Smith works on his next creation during a demonstration at the Port Gamble Old Mill Days Sunday. Thousands of spectators turned out for the weekend-long event which included guided forest walks, crafts and a carnival. - Brad Camp/Staff photo
Local Suquamish chainsaw artist Marty Smith works on his next creation during a demonstration at the Port Gamble Old Mill Days Sunday. Thousands of spectators turned out for the weekend-long event which included guided forest walks, crafts and a carnival.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff photo

Chainsaws grind and lumberjacks

run rampant in

Port Gamble.

PORT GAMBLE — Last weekend’s Old Mill Days in Port Gamble shook awake the sleepy little town with roaring chainsaws and gravelly voiced lumberjacks.

The town, which at most boasts 30 live-in families, hosted 17,000 people over the weekend who came to watch the competitions and snag a seat on carnival rides, said Old Mill Days creator and coordinator Johnathan Miller.

Although Friday night started out bleak, come Saturday afternoon the crowds surrounding the chainsaw competitions were impenetrable.

“We couldn’t even walk through the crowds on Saturday,” he said. “We are on the map. People know where Port Gamble is now.”

Chest-high piles of sawdust — reminiscent of dust dunes — lingered Monday morning, remnants of a ferocious battle of strength and talent: the Team Chainsaw Carving competitions.

It was the Cunning Rogues versus Wolf Pack.

Whidbey Island’s Steve Backus — for the media savvy, he’s the famed Northwest Profile No. 16 Roadside Chainsaw Woodcarver in PEMCO Insurance Co. commercials — was instrumental in forming the competition.

Although he’s competed individually in the Northwest for 20 years, team carving competitions are only a few years old, he said.

“We started the team competitions to create synergy,” he said. “It’s kind of like high school. We all end up in our different gangs for different reasons.”

The competition, judged by the public in a primitive form of ballot voting, resulted in the dominant Team Cunning Rogue obliterating Team Wolf Pack 23 to 17.

“This is a fun group,” Backus said. “It’s a bunch of rugged individuals and everyone is an artist in their own right.”

Rugged might be an understatement.

Team Wolf Pack’s Dave Tremko travels the states selling his carvings by the roadside. He eats roadkill. He said he loves the stuff. An Alaskan Aleut native, Tremko said he even carries a license for acquiring it from State Troopers looking to clear the roadsides.

“I just got done eating a gourmet dinner,” Tremko said, holding up Friday night’s VIP dinner pass. “But a bag of spuds and a dead moose will do just fine.”

When he’s not traveling solo Tremko hones his carving skills at his home in Sequim.

“I get up and look in my wallet and if I see any money I have the day off. If I see just a few coins and sawdust I know it’s time to work,” he said.

Tremko, as ruggedly charming as he is, is also well educated in the ways of people.

After years of people-watching he said he’s learned an important life lesson.

“Shoes,” he said. “Multimillionaires inevitably do not wear Wal-Mart shoes. If someone comes up to me and is wearing plastic Wal-Mart shoes and says he’s only got $80, I’m going to say ‘sold’ every time. But if someone comes walking up wearing designer shoes I’ll tell him my pieces typically sell for $500 but I’ll make him a special deal for $250.”

Tremko, who’s self-taught in the ways of roadside chainsaw carving, said since he was 11-years-old his grandma never received a store-bought gift.

“Even when my grandma’s gone, I realize there’s an endless number of grandmas who want this stuff,” he said, pointing to a bear, baring its large, menacing teeth.

Bonney Lake’s Jason Smathers, who also competed for Team Wolf Pack, said his addiction to carving stems out of reverence for the wood.

“It symbolizes the wood a little bit. It pays homage to it. It’s getting pretty scarce as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

Smathers, a fourth-generation timberworker, said carving is second nature; however, the lifestyle requires “a lot of beer,” he said. “Now and then you sleep in sawdust. It’s a problem with the wife and vacuum cleaner for sure.”

Local Marty Smith, who lives in Suquamish, was a guest carver in the weekend’s events. Smith owns his hobby/business Dances with Bears, named accurately because he dances around the wood with a chainsaw until it turns into a bear.

Smith started the business originally to help pay for his daughter’s college. She’s now a senior at Central Washington University.

Whatever the reason for carving, events and competitions such as Old Mill Days gives the carvers a chance to exchange tricks of the trade and share life stories of travel and work, Smith said. (Tremko tells his famous tale getting picked up on the road by comedian Tom Green, from MTV’s The Tom Green Show. He was also flown out to carve Jay Leno on the Tonight Show).

“Us chainsaw carvers are not going to get better until we come to these events,” Smith said. “Once I learn something, I like to pass it forward. It builds commaraderie.”

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