KENNAN, Wis. (AP) – Gary Edinger is not the type of guy you would expect to see featured in a video posted on Outside magazine’s website.
Yet there he is, walking through the woods, wearing a blaze orange hard hat and carrying a chainsaw over his right shoulder.
Edinger is a 68-year-old logger from Kennan, a little town nestled among the trees and streams of the Northwoods, about midway between Tomahawk and Rice Lake. He’s the unlikely star of a documentary called “Will to Live: The Gary Edinger Story,” shared on the Outside website.
Outside magazine covers outdoor sports, adventure, gear and clothing for active people, but not many wear scuffed-up hard hats or use chainsaws for a living. Some of the other Outside video offerings include social media-friendly, youth-oriented films such as “How to Boil Snow For Drinking Water,” “Overlanding Will Take You To Rad Places” and “Why You Should Ski in British Columbia.”
Outside presented the movie with the teaser “A Freak Accident Changed This Man’s Life.” It’s kind of misleading.
It’s true that the string of split-second events that led to the loss of Edinger’s leg below his left knee were unlikely and unusual. But it’s not accurate to call any logging accident “freak.” Logging is the most dangerous profession in America, according to USA Today, and life-threatening and fatal accidents happen regularly. In 2016, for example, the fatality rate for loggers was 136 per 100,000.
Losing his lower leg didn’t really change Edinger’s life, either. Yes, a carbon-fiber prosthesis took the place of his left foot, but he still lives in the log home he built. He still goes out into the woods – alone – nearly every day to cut down trees. He still hunts elk every year in some of the most rugged terrain the Rocky Mountains have to offer. He still loves square dancing, the Wausau Daily Herald reported.
What has changed, though, is the amount of attention Edinger and the documentary have attracted. Even though he gained a certain amount of fame in the 1980s and ‘90s as a champion sled dog racer, and he wrote an autobiography in 2010 that delved into the accident and its aftermath, this documentary has propelled him into a spotlight normally not shone on an iconoclastic logger who spends most of his time on his own.
Since the unveiling of the film – sponsored by Danner, a shoe company, and Filson, a high-end outdoor clothing retailer – he has been flown out to Washington state and Oregon to speak about his life and experiences. He now is corresponding by email with a movie production company that aims to make a feature film based on his life.
It’s all “embarrassingly flattering,” Edinger said. “I’m just busy living life on my terms. I’m not trying to prove anything to anybody, except maybe myself.”
‘I always have to push things’
It was super cold when Eding woke up about 5:30 a.m. Feb. 15, 2007, he wrote in his book, “Will to Live: A Saga of Survival.”
But he decided, before he even got out of bed, that he would go into the woods anyway. “Most normal loggers won’t work when it’s colder than minus 10,” he wrote. “But there is nothing normal about me. … For some reason, I always have to push things.”
Edinger figures it was mid-morning and about 15 degrees below zero when he started to cut down a double-stemmed tree, a soft maple that had two full-sized trunks coming from a single stump on land east of Phillips in the town of Emery. That tree was near another he just had felled, and his plan was to use his old mid-‘80s era skidder to pull all the logs out at once to a pile, then cut them into sections for a trucker to load and take away to a mill.
He notched the smaller of the two trunks, then went to work on the larger stem. His intent was to have the larger one fall onto the smaller, and both fall to the ground. But as he was cutting the larger trunk, it began to “barberchair.” That’s what loggers call it when a tree’s trunk begins to split, and it’s bad because the tree could fall anywhere.
Edinger started to run as the large tree came down. It fell against the smaller trunk, which fell but got hung up in another nearby tree. That created a kind of ramp for the large tree as it fell and it followed the running logger. Edinger was just pulling his left leg over the stump of the tree he had just cut down when he felt a “tremendous boom.”
“There was no pain, just a stunning jolt that ran through my whole body,” Edinger wrote in his book. He ended up sitting, straddled on the tree he had previously cut down, stunned. He checked his chest. It was solid, he wrote, “and I thought, ‘Oh, you’re all right.’”
‘What I saw … just hammered me.’
For just a few seconds, Edinger thought he would be all right. Then he went to stand up. “But my left leg didn’t touch the ground,” he said.
He looked down, thinking that his leg was broken. “What I saw instead just hammered me,” Edinger wrote in his book. His lower left leg was gone, guillotined by the falling tree and the edge of the stump he had tried to run past.
“Steam was rising off the end of the stump, and I could see a stream of blood, about the size of a pencil, arcing down into the snow,” he wrote.
He tried to use his belt as a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. It broke. He tried again. “I really reefed on that thing,” he said in the documentary. It broke again, and he knew it wouldn’t be of any use.
He figured he had, maybe, a half hour before he bled to death.
‘Really, really hooked on racing sled dogs.’
When Edinger was convalescing after the loss of his foot, he spoke to a psychiatrist. Edinger was worried about getting depressed. The psychiatrist “told me I had been living my life to prepare myself to survive that day,” Edinger said.
Part of that included his stint as a sled dog racer.
Edinger was a young man when he started to dabble in the sport. It wasn’t long before he was all in on the sport. “I was really, really hooked on racing sled dogs,” he said. “It’s like I was born to raise dogs. Something really got a hold of me.”
Kennan was a great place to raise and train sled dogs. It’s quiet up there, and he could run the dogs on the back roads. He continued to work in the woods, too. He drove a logging truck, then worked for another logger. In 1986, he bought his skidder and other equipment, and went logging for himself.
Edinger never wanted to work with anyone. It’s all about freedom, he said. Working by yourself, a guy can eat lunch when he wants, sing if he wants, curse if he wants. And, if he’s like Edinger, he can go off and race dogs.
“Bosses don’t like it when you run off every Friday afternoon in the wintertime to go race a dog team,” he said.
By this time, Edinger was married to his wife, Leanne, a Phillips native. Leanne started racing sled dogs, too. The sport consumed them, but Edinger said he found out that “winning isn’t what I thought it would be,” and left the sport in 1992 as a champion.
“All the fun had been getting there,” Edinger wrote in his book.
‘Why don’t you see how far you can get?’
There was a moment or two after the accident, as Edinger sat on the log with his leg bleeding and his belt broken, that he thought of how easy it would be to lay back and let the cold and loss of blood take him away.
“But then I thought, ‘What the heck, why don’t you see how far you can get until you die?’ Just to show people I wasn’t a quitter,” he said.
When Edinger was sled dog racing, he bred dogs known for their ability to just go and go and go. They would run themselves to death, keeling over in their harnesses, if you let them. Edinger figured he could do that – go until he could not go any longer.
So he started an agonizing journey. First, he crawled to his skidder and drove the machine back to his pickup truck, where he kept his cellphone and could call for help. When he reached the truck, which had a manual transmission, he used his right foot to put in the clutch, and put it in the first four-wheel drive low gear. After shifting into second, he started a slow drive out of the woods.
Then he called 911.
‘After you’ve logged long enough, it’s addictive.’
Winning sled dog races took the challenge and allure of the sport from Edinger. But he’s never gotten sick of logging.
“After you’ve logged long enough, it’s addictive,” Edinger said. “It’s the freedom. I said it in the film. How many jobs can you bust out singing, or bust out swearing anytime you want? And I’m still calling my own shots. In the wintertime, I work seven days a week, at least 10-hour days.”
Like he does everything, Edinger works at his own pace, his own way. He could never work with someone else, he said, because “I don’t like people all that much.” He’s joking, but only partly. If he had a partner, then he’d have to consider someone else when he stopped for lunch, or decided to work into the night using the lights on his machinery.
He also takes a throw-back approach to the job that most modern loggers shun, using hand-held chainsaws to fall trees.
“Most guys use processors now,” Edinger said.
Processors are long-armed, powerful machines that can cut and stack trees while the operator stays warm, dry and safer inside a climate-controlled cab.
“Those guys don’t even get sawdust on them,” he said. “Hand cutting is the hard way.”
Edinger likes using older, smaller equipment because it does less damage to a woods. “I’m a tree-hugging logger,” he said. “I’ve always cared about the environment. A person should do as little damage as possible to it.”
He also opposes the rampant use of all-terrain vehicles on publicly owned forests, and has spoken out against the vehicles in public meetings. He doesn’t understand why people want to use them to get out into wilderness.
“Aldo Leopold said it’s like bringing the factory to the woods,” Edinger said.
‘I couldn’t let that tree win.’
Edinger was on the verge of passing out when he got in touch with an emergency dispatcher on that morning in February 2007. When he told her he was driving slowly, in pain, and had lost his foot, you can hear the astonishment in her voice. (A recording of the call is used in the “Will to Live” documentary.)
The dispatcher implored him to pull over.
“I ain’t pulling over,” Edinger responded. “I’m getting out of here.”
Deputy Brian Roush and an ambulance crew connected with Edinger on Price County D, and Edinger was taken to the airport near Phillips to be loaded into the medical helicopter that would fly him to Marshfield.
At this point, Edinger felt he would live, and even had hopes that doctors could reattach and save his foot (he had dragged it with him). But the medical responders knew that he was on the cusp of death.
If it had been a couple of degrees colder, the helicopter would not have been able to fly, Edinger said. And without the helicopter, he would have died.
Doctors and EMTs gave Edinger roughly 10 pints of blood as they worked to save his life. An average adult has about 12 pints of blood.
The recovery wasn’t easy. There were times when he said he wished he hadn’t made it, Leanne said in the documentary.
But 10 months later, Edinger returned to the scene of the accident, hooked up to his skidder the tree that severed his foot, and dragged it out of the woods.
“I couldn’t let that tree win,” he said.
‘I’ve always done things the hard way.’
At 68, Edinger is well past retirement age. But he won’t be giving up logging anytime soon.
Retirement, he said, “was never a goal.”
Edinger’s approach to the job is like his approach to survival on that February day. He wants to see how far he can make it.
It keeps him fit, and besides, he’d likely go a little crazy if he couldn’t go out into the woods and work.
It’s not always easy. “But my whole life,” Edinger said. “I’ve always done things the hard way.”
Keith Uhlig grew up east of Colby, the place where one his favorite foods, Colby cheese, was invented. He is a very slow runner, a lazy bicyclist, a clumsy cross-country skier and awkward kayaker, but he enjoys doing all those things whenever he can nonetheless. He loves learning and writing about all the people, cultures, places and things that make Wisconsin a terrific place to live.
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