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Nothing like 117 chain saws to cut boredom

Wednesday, March 06, 2002

RIDGWAY, Pa. -- Way at the bottom of Boot Jack Hill, in the center of yet another of Pennsylvania's wondrous little middle-of-nowhere towns, there is more stark evidence that sometimes it doesn't much matter what you do in this life, but when you do it.

Generally in America, as elsewhere, if you are on your knees on the courthouse lawn wielding a chain saw at 1 o'clock in the afternoon, you are facing an immediate future thick with legal matters and perhaps an unpleasant vacation as the guest of corrections officials.

But last Friday in Ridgway, Elk County, that kind of thing was not only encouraged but literally celebrated and especially if you were from out of town.

I tried to determine whether the delicious quirkiness of it all was being lost on Keiji Kidorkoro, since, judging by the lettering on his coveralls, he'd journeyed from Toei, Japan, to Northwestern Pennsylvania to carve a fish out of ice with a chain saw. Thus my first interview at the annual Ridgway international Chainsaw Carvers Rendezvous established that while Keiji's English is indeed dreadful, it is 100 times superior to my Japanese. Also established were that I worked for a newspaper, that I spoke English and, somehow, that Keiji had indeed come all the way from Japan for this.

"Welcome to America," I said.

"Thank you," he said.

I had better communication with Rodney Holland of Scotland, probably because his accent was only about three times as thick as that of Groundskeeper Willie, the great Scottish curmudgeon on "The Simpsons."

"I get invited to carving competitions all over the world, and I don't go," he said as he rolled his own cigarette on the courthouse lawn. "A lot of people enjoy them, but to me, there's too much cloak and dagger. But when I got an e-mail from Randy Boni, I could tell it was from the heart. Here there's no competition. Nobody wins anything. Nobody gets a dime. And then when I found out it raised money for Make-A-Wish, I was persuaded. This is my second one. When I left last year, I said I'd be back."

Holland figured he had come 5,500 miles. Rick Boni and his wife, Liz, and Rick's brother, Randy, traveled, uh, five minutes. The Bonis organized the event. This one, the third annual rendezvous, grew out of meetings that local carvers held in midwinter starting in 1995, to discuss carving techniques and trade stories, but mostly to pierce the boredom. And as Hollywood has long instructed the world at large, nothing chases boredom quite like a chain saw.

This time, about 117 carvers from six countries converged on this remote enclave 3 1/2 hours northeast of Pittsburgh in Elk County. They convened for a spaghetti dinner Thursday night, fired up the saws for a day of ice sculpting Friday, brought their guitars and such for a party at the Moose on Friday night, then made beautiful and elaborate auction-worthy carvings from pine logs on Saturday. There's nothing like the ear-splitting maaawww of a chain saw as it fractures a pristine winter's morn, unless it's 117 of them, I always say.

"Everybody's got a destiny in life," Holland said. "But there's always a lot of people messin' with your head about it. I just kind of fell over this. But it's been so liberating. People get up in the morning -- I call 'em the clock-key people -- like they have a key in their backs. They go to work at a certain time, work work work until the key runs down, then it's time to go home. Me, I might be carving something at 4 in the morning. Maybe 10 at night. I'm self-employed.

"Carving is an art form. You can improve it, but you have to have it in you. It's basically a gift."

The basic gift to the basic carver seems to be an ability to fashion large wooden bears with a roaring 12-inch blade. They do eagles, angels, American Indian figures and assorted other images, but mostly manly outdoor stuff. Few carvers carve poodles. Bear carvings outnumbered everything in Ridgway.

"Because everybody just seems to love bears," said Dennis Richardson as he prepared a kind of double bear bench for the auction. "I can sell 10 bears for one of everything else. And bears are the standard by which most chain saw carvers are judged."

Richardson is from Murrysville. He started carving six or seven years ago and saw enough improvement that he got out of the auto body shop and started his own business. Not everybody can do it. There are technique hurdles that can prove too daunting.

"It can be discouraging," he said. "You can get lost in the wood. They call that mindless cutting."

But if you've been lost in the wood and somehow wind up in downtown Ridgway on the right winter weekend, you know it was all worth it.

Gene Collier's e-mail address is gcollier@post-gazette.com

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