Fighting the flood

STIHL TIMBERSPORTS Collegiate Challenge competitor Ben Vandermyde's practice for the championship was cut short by the 2008 epic Midwest flooding. Rick McFarland

It certainly wasn't Collegiate STIHL TIMBERSPORTS competitor Ben Vandermyde's best competition. Not even close, really.

He finished dead last in two of the three events, and last overall.

But who can blame the recent Southern Illinois University-Carbondale graduate? His dreams of winning the collegiate title had been washed away for weeks — four to be exact.

When he picked up the ax for the underhand chop — the first collegiate event — it marked the first time he had held one since he was put on emergency Mississippi River flood duty by his employer, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a month earlier.

"I had everything lined up — wood and everything — but since the emergency call came, I haven't had any time," he said. "There was a two-day stretch in there where I actually worked 46 hours. That doesn't leave much time for practice."

Before the flood

Vandermyde, 23, is a self-declared river rat. He grew up in Morrison, Ill., less than 20 miles from the mighty Mississippi, and SIU-Carbondale is just as close to the river.

"I love of the land," he said. "I grew up in the country, and I want to die there."

Vandermyde worked as a seasonal park ranger in the summer for four years in Thompson, Ill., before graduating in the fall with a degree in forestry.

He was hired on full time right out of school as one of four Illinois National Resource Specialists in the Forestry Division, and eventually, since the flood, added "for the Army Corp of Engineers" onto the end of his title.

While his current focus is on saving lives, homes and land, his true heart is with the trees.

"Timber trespass is a close issue to my heart," said Vandermyde, acknowledging the immediate ironic scene it creates as a TIMBERSPORTS competitor. "I'm interested in being a consultant with land owners and helping them know what to do with their land and their trees.

"When they don't have help, it's kind of like going to court without a lawyer."

Vandermyde said the key to having a proper ecosystem in regards to forestry is to harvest the correct number of trees in the right places. He said it's not about pushing something to the brink of survival; it's about keeping the forest healthy.

"I'm at an advantage at this time in our country because I'm educated in the ecosystems process," he said. "I have a pretty good grasp on the dynamics of the forest.

"I'm studied into that area. When I walk into the woods, I can see what can be taken and what can happen, and what will actually benefit the land."

Before it was a sport, dismantling timber was a means to an end, and that's something Vandermyde connects with.

"When I hit up on that ax it makes me feel like I'm part of something," he said.

And then it rained

It depends on where you live as to how much and when the rain started, but those living anywhere near the Mississippi will agree that too much of one thing is not good.

Vandermyde, fresh out of college, got the call early and moved his belongings to Quincy, Ill., a couple miles off the river.

"I was in charge of one location, of unloading, figuring out what and where the need was and sending supplies," he said. "The river came up real quick. They were looking at a 500-year flood almost overnight."

It was in that moment, when he took the call for emergency help, that Vandermyde went from part-time forester and part-time timber competitor, to full-time sand bag loader, unloader and distributor.

"One day there were 14 trucks parked when I got to work and we moved nearly 2 million sand bags that day," he said. "As soon as we got done with one truck, another one would move in."

In the three weeks he was on the job before the TIMBERSPORTS championships, Vandermyde said he personally saw more than 8 million sand bags move, along with dozens of water pumps and countless other flood fighting materials.

He said he was working 100-hour weeks, but even when he went back to his camper to rest, work was all around him.

"I'd see people fighting the flood right there at the campsite with sandbags," Vandermyde said. "I'd get up the next morning and go to work. I knew those were the people I was trying to help— people who were just trying to do what they can.

"A friend of mine caught a bass off the back of the camper — 8 feet away. And that's in an area that's usually at least a half mile from the river."

The work was so hectic, Vandermyde went straight from work to catch his flight for the TIMBERSPORTS Collegiate Finals, and he went straight back to work after the return flight.

Overall, Vandermyde said the flood fighting efforts in Illinois have been a success, but it might take another month of the same drill for the threat to die down and for things to start back toward normal.

"For the most part we lucked out," he said. "A lot of levees held."

As for his TIMBERSPORTS career, Vandermyde said he wasn't going to let his performance at the championships affect his attitude, but he knows it will never be a career.

"I don't know that I'll ever have the time available to commit to be a pro, and I don't know if I'll have the resources," he said. "But I do intend on doing a couple side events a year and bumping into these guys every once in a while."