ELLSWORTH — The first — and only — person to ever logroll across the Mississippi River just so happens to be a Mount Desert Island native.
Along with making history, Alissa Wetherbee, who now lives in Ellsworth, is the founder, owner and operator of the traveling show the “Axe Women Loggers of Maine.”
She is also a passionate promoter of women in timber sports and is not afraid to challenge herself, as shown by the decision to cross the second-longest river in North America on a synthetic log.
And while the training to cross the Misssissippi was a year in the making, the idea to do so came about quite spontaneously.
On the way back from a timber sports competition in Nebraska in 2018, Alissa and her husband, Mike, stopped for lunch at a restaurant that overlooked the river.
When Mike asked Alissa if she thought she could cross the waters while balancing atop a log, she replied, “Yeah, of course I can.”
The following year, training for the challenge, Alissa spent hours at a time logrolling, not knowing how long the actual event would take.
She trained in the ocean off the Mount Desert town of Pretty Marsh — where she grew up — to prepare for the Mississippi’s mighty current. She practiced pulling herself up on the log were she to fall off into the water during the challenge.
Alissa took the time to ensure all safety measures were met and coordinated with the United States Coast Guard, Army Corps of Engineers and vessel operators who travel the river.
The night before, operators of local barges communicated with Alissa to let her know the river would be available for her to cross around 8 a.m.
“’This is your window,’” Alissa was told. “[The barge operators] had no reason to be as nice and as helpful as they were.”
She also had support from onlookers on both sides of the river and garnered local news coverage.
“We had a fun group of people on both banks,” Alissa said.
Her hard work resulted in a 30-minute log roll from a dock in Port Byron, Ill., to a dock on the other side in LeClair, Iowa.
Alongside her, Mike paddled in a canoe with a rope attached to the log. He was accompanied by Alissa’s dad, Clayton Jones, whose presence was an especially meaningful surprise.
Alissa’s dad helped encourage her love for working in the woods from a young age.
“I grew up cutting wood with my family,” she said. “We heated strictly with a woodstove for most of my childhood.”
As a kid, Alissa helped her parents stack and split firewood. When she became a teenager, her dad taught her how to safely run a chainsaw.
“I enjoyed that work,” Alissa recalled. “I enjoyed being outside and in the woods. I enjoyed the manual labor part of it.”
About 20 years ago, when she was 20 years old, Alissa discovered that the work she loved to do also had a competitive side after competing in her first woodsmen’s competition.
“[I] completely fell in love with the whole sport,” she said.
At the time, there were not any women-only events, but women could compete against men.
While Alissa is a promoter of women in the sport and is happy with its growth to include them, she notes that chainsaw and axe-throwing events present “a pretty even playing field” between men and women. She has won her fair share of co-ed events.
In 2011, Alissa’s advocacy expanded when she formed the Axe Women Loggers of Maine, a group that has grown from five members to 27 and competes in shows across the United States and globally.
“All of the ladies are just incredible role models,” Alissa said of her team, which is made up of law enforcement officers, doctors, lawyers, scientists and educators.
Many, including Alissa, are world champions. Others hold collegiate titles.
The group performs at small festivals, large shows and regularly during the pre-game show for Minor League Baseball’s Portland Sea Dogs.
Events include competition-style games, often between two teams, like axe-throwing, racing to start a chainsaw and make a certain number of cuts on a log, chopping events and trying to knock the other team off a log balancing in a pool of water.
“That’s always a crowd favorite,” Alissa said.
Women participating in the sport is significant.
“It’s been incredible to see how the sport has grown in the 20-some years I’ve been doing it,” she said.
She reported that about half of collegiate teams — those that compete at a nearly professional level— are comprised of women.
And it’s not just the female athletes cheering each other —the sport has a fanbase.
During a world championship that Alissa attended, she said that the grandstands were packed during the women’s competition day — hours before events got underway.
“People are really interested in us, and we want to show that there’s another side to this and that these women are actually professional athletes,” Alissa said.
The Axe Women are highly decorated athletes, but it is also important for the group to educate and promote “ambassadors,” women who may be new to the sport but show great promise.
The “Pathfinder Program” is the way for the Axe Women to educate and support these up-and-coming members of the timber sports community.
“Yes, the Axe Women Loggers of Maine team has several members who hold professional world championships, collegiate championships and world records,” reads a statement on the team’s website. “Yes, we are proud of this fact, but we are even more proud that our whole team champions all of the pioneering women who compete in logging sports.”