The blue-collar reality-television genre invaded television, and “Ax Men” was one of those TV shows that gave the viewers an inside look at how logging was done on American soil. Logging has been a successful industry since pre-colonial times, with many people becoming rich through this tough although highly disputed industry. It was a testament to the so-called American Dream that if people worked hard, took risks, and remained true to their goals, they would ultimately be rewarded. Showing documentaries about the logging industry may sound inexplicably boring on paper, but when it made its television debut in 2008, viewers were soon hooked, and it ran for 10 seasons. The success of the TV show wasn’t one without controversies and scandals, with dark secrets that most of its loyal viewers might be shocked to learn about.
- 1 Background on “Ax Men”
- 2 The premise of the show and what to expect each season
- 3 Dark secrets, controversies, and scandals in “Ax Men”
- 3.1 S & S Logging busted for illegal logging
- 3.2 Logging companies lost money on the show
- 3.3 “Ax Men” pilot’s death led to safety investigations
- 3.4 Gustafson Logging was booted out due to professionalism
- 3.5 Veteran logger Jay Browning gave unfavorable reviews about the show
- 3.6 The original cast thought it was going to be an educational TV series
- 3.7 Jimmy Smith and his fraudulent disability claims
- 3.8 Faked family connections for better show narrative
- 3.9 Mike Pihl was arrested by the police
- 3.10 Most deaths in “Ax Men” were not due to the danger of their work
Background on “Ax Men”
The History cable network found a goldmine when it followed the successful formula of the television programming of the “real-men-real-danger” trend, such as “Ice Road Truckers” and “Deadliest Catch.” They were both produced by Original Productions, and after chronicling the world of ice and water, they shifted their focus to the trees and mountains. “Ax Men” featured logging companies as they faced the dangers of cutting down trees and preparing the timber.
The first season tracked four logging crews based in the Pacific Northwest, such as J.M. Browning Logging, Gustafson Logging, Pihl Logging, and Stump Branch Logging. It showcased the activities of each crew as they used a chainsaw on timber in areas where they were given a permit to do so, amidst the damp and foggy weather.
Basically, the show could be summed up in one of the star’s descriptions about his experience: ‘I’ve had this leg broke, this knee crushed, my ribs broke, my shoulders broke. I’ve been cut and beat up just about every place on my body.’ He also said that in their line of work, anyone who posed a risk to the crew was ultimately fired.
“Ax Men” aired its first episode on 9 March 2008, and ultimately produced 163 episodes during its 10 seasons on History Channel. The show’s popularity had expanded globally, and was broadcast in several countries including the UK, Australia, Canada and Spain; the last episode was aired on 12 September 2019.
The premise of the show and what to expect each season
The main backdrop of the TV show, “Ax Men,” was the coastal forest of Oregon, a remote frontier hardened by the fury of the Pacific Ocean. It was where a rare breed of men gambled with life and limb as they wrangled thousand pounds of logs, dodged bone-crushing steel, and fought Mother Nature at every turn.
They risked everything just for a piece of the logging fortune. This particular job had beenas unforgiving as the terrain itself, and Mother Nature didn’t play favorites. It was always either boom or bust, with the big rewards coming with even bigger risks. In this industry, not paying attention to the job or not being scared enough would mean stupidity.
The isolated Oregon wilderness was home to over a million acres of green gold. With more than 60 inches, or over 150cms of rainfall each year, it’s the perfect incubator for growing trees. One of the veteran loggers, Jay Browning said, ‘We grow trees by accident. Trees are a renewable resource and a lot of people don’t understand that.’ The first episode gave the viewers what to expect from the logging crews as the first brigade of loggers drove into the heart of some of the deepest and the most remote forests in the Pacific Northwest.
For three months, these loggers retrieved timber from the unforgiving forest, with time their enemy as with every job they took, they were aware that millions of dollars worth of timber was on the line.
Dark secrets, controversies, and scandals in “Ax Men”
With the stiff competition in the logging industry, the crews in the Pacific Northwest placed everything they had on the line each year, just to be on top of the game. Some of them were even questioned by the authorities about their business practices, which led to some legal repercussions. Others took risks in battling the unpredictable and extremely dangerous weather conditions to get a huge payday, or at the least gain enough just to keep their businesses afloat. During its successful 10-season run, the cast and crew of “Ax Men” had their share of dark secrets, controversies, and scandals.
S & S Logging busted for illegal logging
In the second season of “Ax Men,” they welcomed three more logging companies, one of them S & S Logging. It was owned and managed by Jimmy Smith, who started his Aberdeen, Washington-based company because he said nobody was doing it. He proudly claimed in the TV show that his crew located and acquired those perfectly preserved timbers laying in the waterways for a quick buck. His son James Jr. helped him run his underwater logging operation, and their colorful and comical narrative in the series made them fan favorites.
However, in March 2009, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, or DNR investigated the company after they were featured in “Ax Men.” With the help of the Harbor County Prosecutor, the Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife, and the Grays Harbor County Sheriff’s Office, a search warrant was executed on S & S Logging.
Apparently, the company didn’t have a permit to operate, and so more than 50 pieces of wood including 20 logs were seized from their warehouse. Harvesting the old-growth logs from the riverbed was considered illegal, and the Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark said that it was unfortunate that History Channel chose to feature this illegal practice on TV. The only time that the DNR gave a permit to remove those logs was during emergencies, in which their presence in the waterways caused flooding in the area, but never for commercial harvesting.
Logging companies lost money on the show
It was ironic that several logging companies that were featured in “Ax Men” didn’t earn as much money as they did when they weren’t on TV. While being on the show gave them a bit of national fame, and captured the hearts of a loyal audience, there were reports that some of those loggers posted their best results when they left the show.
Apparently, the logging crews were heavily distracted by the cameras and so their performance wasn’t on a par as compared to the time they weren’t on TV, and their revenue suffered because of this.
“Ax Men” pilot’s death led to safety investigations
Logging has been known to have a high mortality rate, considering the dangers that loggers go through each time they harvest timber. When it was reported that one of the helicopter pilots, William Bart Colantuono, had an accident while lifting logs during the filming of the TV show, it wasn’t shocking given the situation. He was one of the fan favorites during the second and third seasons of the show, because of his helicopter antics. Days after the accident was reported, people were stunned when it was revealed that some of its loyal viewers urged the authorities to conduct a safety investigation surrounding his death.
The official report of the accident was that the rotor blade of the helicopter malfunctioned, which wasn’t anything unusual. However, some of them felt that the producers of the show allegedly asked the pilot to do some stunts to make it more exciting for the audience, and they may have caused mechanical problems in the helicopter.
Gustafson Logging was booted out due to professionalism
Viewers wondered why Gustafson Logging only appeared on the first season of “Ax Men.” Their company had been harvesting timber since 1974, and it came as a surprise to many when they were never invited back onto the show. When Clay Gustafson was asked about it, he didn’t mince words, and said it was because his logging crew was too professional for a reality-TV series. He said that the Gustafson crew were considered a dry bunch of loggers who only worked hard, and never offered anything dramatically entertaining that the producers could use as a highlight for the show. While other logging companies had fiery arguments and were throwing insults, their crew kept everything respectful.
Veteran logger Jay Browning gave unfavorable reviews about the show
Fans of “Ax Men” knew about Jay Browning’s criticisms of the TV show. He was the first star to gain popularity through the show, by participating in it from its TV premiere up to its fourth season. His no-holds-barred personality captured the hearts of many viewers, and his prosthetic limb added an appeal to his gruff nature that made him one of the most recognized faces in the show. Loyal viewers were shocked when he left – he kept quiet for a while, but eventually said yes to some interviews, revealing that he wasn’t happy with the way History Channel producers were running the show.
Jay had reservations about the show when the first season was aired, but he somehow learned to adapt to it. However, after staying from 2008 to 2011, he’d had enough, saying that History Channel ‘set the industry back 50 years.’ Modern technology and safety guidelines made logging safer, as they didn’t have many fatalities anymore, compared to the past.
The TV show, he claimed, was hell-bent on waiting for something dramatic or tragic to happen, which didn’t do any good for the industry. At that time, he hadn’t ruled out returning to the show, but said that certain changes must be made first.
The original cast thought it was going to be an educational TV series
History Channel started by airing documentaries that educated viewers on the history of mankind in different parts of the world, most especially the horrors of World War II. When TV producers offered the TV show to the original logging crews, they all thought that it would feature the different aspects of the logging industry, and its relation to natural resources preservation, which could help educate people about it, never thinking that the producers were banking on the different personalities of the crews to create tension and drama. Some didn’t like what happened or were surprised when they finally watched the episodes. Some thought they could adjust to the business side of the television industry and just go with the flow, but eventually they quit.
Jimmy Smith and his fraudulent disability claims
After being investigated due to his illegal logging activities, one would think that Jimmy Smith would have been more careful not to attract the attention of the authorities. However, he made some fraudulent disability claims that sparked another investigation. Apparently, many years ago, long before he became part of “Ax Men,” he applied for disability benefits from the government. He was already working, but failed to inform the agency that he no longer needed support. This scheme would have worked with other regular Joe’s out there, but with him being seen on TV every week, not only locally but internationally, he was bound to get busted.
Faked family connections for better show narrative
Fans were disappointed when they found out that some family connections presented in the show weren’t real. For instance, during the sixth season of the show, Katelyn Sims was introduced as a replacement for Dreadknots Logging crewmember Chris Miller, and that she was the cousin of another crew member, Dave Stone.
She was called “cuz” several times in the show, but they weren’t blood-related at all. Some of the fans believed it was probably the decision of the producers or writers of the show to give a better narrative when certain people in the show were replaced. This crew was easily remembered, due to their unusual practice of firing guns into the water to help them find logs.
Mike Pihl was arrested by the police
One of the original cast members of “Ax Men” was reportedly arrested in 2009. Mike Pihl, the owner of Pihl Logging Company, was seen as a typical logger with a gruff personality, but was never perceived to be a bad guy. He was known to have been generous in helping people start their own companies, just like he did with his former employee, and Mike was also instrumental in giving other loggers a chance to be featured on the TV show. However, he made the monumental mistake of driving while under the influence of alcohol which resulted in a vehicular accident that injured his children. He was charged accordingly and with assault, but it was later dropped due to a technicality, as the accident happened inside his property.
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Most deaths in “Ax Men” were not due to the danger of their work
Almost 200 years ago, mountain men bootstrapped their way into the wilderness and never left. Most of the logging companies featured in the show were run by families, as children followed their parents into the same industry. It was in those mountains that generations of loggers continued the tradition of harvesting and replanting over and over again. For the men who chose to do this work, it would mean wrestling the timber from the forest, and getting out alive.
However, since the show’s inception, only one death was connected to logging, and that was the helicopter crash involving William Bart Colantuono. The others were of natural causes, accidents away from work, and illness. Jimmy Smith (Season 1 – 4) battled cancer, and died in November 2012. Gabe Ryyard (Season 2 – 10) was involved in a vehicular accident, and died in September 2016.
Stacey Robeson (Season 1-2, 10) from the Pihl Logging crew died in December 2018, but no official reason was given; initially, it was reported he died in a logging accident, but later on, someone said it was from a heart attack. Dwayne Dethlefs (Season 1) died in 2019, but again no official cause of death was announced.
The TV show, “Ax Men,” generated much interest in the logging industry, but unfortunately missed the chance to show the viewers the full picture of how these loggers also protected natural resources. The loggers asked the producers why they never showed them replanting trees or protecting the streams in the wilderness. They too wondered why the show was just focused on the drama and the danger. The producers told them that it was because they wanted people to watch the TV show – not everyone realized that television was just like every other industry out there; they needed to earn huge money to be competitive. The more a TV series became entertaining to viewers, the more money they earned for the network. That’s life!