By Jenny Neyman
As professional chainsaw carvers, one would think that spending the summer churning out an endless stream of bears, fish, eagles and the like would dull the appeal of carving for fun, especially if it entails a marathon, intensive, three-day effort.
Not at all, said Derrick Stanton, of Nikiski.
Even though participating in the third annual Sawfest carving competition at Scott and Sandy Hansons’ Town of the Living Trees establishment on the Sterling Highway in Soldotna last week was in a sense more of the same for him — carving — it was also an opportunity to do something different.
“It’s not too often we get to get away from our regular carvings that produce an income and be able to pursue more of a masterpiece and something we really, really want to do,” he said. “It gives me an opportunity to do something new and fun and stretch myself beyond what I’ve done before.”
Seven carvers participated in the annual invitational event, starting out 9 a.m. Wednesday and finishing up by Saturday morning for judging by a panel of local businessmen and Soldotna Mayor Peter Micciche, as well as by the packed crowd that attended the festival.
“It definitely is a large endeavor. I put in 50 hours in three days. The year before it was a lot more than that. I did an overnighter last year. This year I went until about twelve, one in the morning. My hands are still buzzing today,” Stanton said Monday.
Stanton, who carves at Town of the Living Trees as well as periodically selling his wares in front of the .406 Sportsmans Lodge in Kenai as Derek Stanton Log Works, was awarded first place and the viewers’ choice award for “Giddyup,” a carving of a cowboy riding a salmon. The design idea came from a Kenai Wild T-shirt.
“I was trying to come up with something, and I just wasn’t coming up with it. My wife said, ‘What about that?’ I just start thinking about all the detail you can put into a cowboy. I’ve always wanted to do a cowboy, but being up here in Alaska it just isn’t something I’ve pursued, but that was a good way to make it Alaskan and still be able to have fun with it,” Stanton said.
He’s actually started a bit of a trend, following a piece he did in a carving contest in Seldovia earlier this summer of a boy with a fishing pole surfing on a halibut.
“That’s the second person riding a fish I’ve done in a row. I don’t know, maybe I’ll try to find a new way to get someone to ride a fish. It’s kind of a fun theme,” he said.
Stanton used just one 8-foot-tall, 30-inch diameter log for the piece. He said roughing out the design with a chainsaw was the easy part. The time-consuming portion was all the detail work that went into it, including grinding out the scales, the cowboy’s hair and the intricate scrollwork and fringe design on his chaps.
“It’s all those little details that take all the time, especially the sanding. That’s why when you do a bear it’s a lot easier because that fur can be done entirely with a chainsaw and there’s no cleanup. It’s just the paws and snout. But a piece like (‘Giddyup’), everything’s got to be grinded on and sanded,” he said. “One more night would have been good. When I got to the hands it was one in the morning and I was tired and burned out. I kind of put some grooves in them and called it good. For the most part it turned out every bit as good as I hoped.”
Stanton said that he got a lot of good comments from visitors, mainly that the piece was different.
“We’re used to sticking to wildlife and things that really, actually happen,” Stanton said.
Sandy Hanson said she was hearing good things from attendees during the festival. People always enjoy watching the carvers at work, she said, and they told her they liked seeing everything Town of the Living Trees has to offer, including an art gallery and gift shop, as well as the large-scale carvings, including a working Alaska carousel.
“They were amazed and astounded,” she said. “The one thing that we hear the most from everybody that walks in is they’ve been to many carving places all over the U.S., and these are a cut above.”
Hanson said they decided to start the Sawfest festival after attending the Seldovia carving contest four years ago.
“We thought, ‘Well, we want something that’s for the whole family … and we wanted something else to fill in the time when the visitors are here. We got asked time and again, ‘Well, what else is there to do here other than fish?’” Hanson said.
Town of the Living Trees, named in part because carvers take trees killed by the spruce bark beetle and bring the wood back to life through carving it, also hosts several vendors that participate in the festival. Prospector John, from Cooper Landing, offers jerky for sale along with his gold sluicing and panning operation. And food vendors offer a variety of items, including Black Jaxx Barbeque, Northern Lights Delights ice cream and newcomer Copper Dragon, run by Pamela and R.J. St. Onge, of Sterling. This is their first year doing food vending, and they sell homemade creampuffs with sweet fillings, as well as smoked salmon puffs, Alaska jambalaya and other treats.
Having food on the premises is a nice perk for the carvers, who only take short breaks to grab a bite during the three-day carving marathon.
“They’re pretty worn out at the end of the day. It’s a lot on them, but they all enjoy it because they have to push themselves,” Hanson said. “They have to come out of their box and do something they’ve never done before, because they’re competing against each other and they’re all really good.”
The carvers also created a piece to be donated to the Outdoor Recreation Heritage Fund, which runs the Wounded Warrior fishing events, Hanson said.
Other carvers taking part in Sawfest this year were Scott Hanson, of Soldotna, second place, with “Mine, Mine, Mine,” a carving of a bear and a fisherman fighting over a salmon. Third place went to Eric Berson, from Sterling and Washington state, with “Sly Fishing,” of foxes looking up at an eagle with a fish.
Honorable mention went to: Scott Thompson, of Anchorage, with “Fish’n Contest Today,” of two boys wrestling to weigh a salmon while a puppy tries to wrestle off one of the boys’ shirts; Steve Hopkinson, of the central peninsula, with an 8-foot-long eagle bench; Brandy Vaala, from the central peninsula, with “The Watcher,” a carving of four bears and an eagle; and Jordan Anderson, of Bird Creek, with “Soaring Dreams,” a carving of a boy with an eagle on his shoulders.
The carvings are on display at Town of the Living Trees.