Two Brooklyn women ditch their office jobs for lumberjack business

Caitlin Barrett, left, and Paula Pou started Project Woodchips after discovering the fun of lumberjack sports in the Adirondacks. James B. Wright

Having work friends is normal, but when Paula Pou and Caitlin Barrett met sharing a desk at a Manhattan branding firm five years ago, they quickly realized they were more like work soulmates. They discovered they were both black-nail-polish-wearing riot girls as teens, were into all the same music and had also both evolved into fitness enthusiasts, reveling in CrossFit challenges and entering women's lightweight strongman competitions.

"It was just bizarre to meet someone at work who I had so much in common with," Pou said. "There was a guy in our office who liked to play a game imagining which actor or actress would play everyone at the agency if we were in a movie, and he cast us as Rooney and Kate Mara. That sounds about right."

With the two always on a similar wavelength, it wasn't a surprise to their colleagues when one day last spring, Pou walked in and announced she wanted to learn ax throwing and Barrett replied, "That's so funny, because I was just saying that I want to learn knife throwing! I just bought a book about it."

After a quick Google search revealed the latter to be illegal in New York, they turned their sights to all things ax and signed up for a weeklong course at Paul Smith's Adirondack Woodsmen's School in upstate New York, run by former professional lumberjack Brett McLeod. As the only 30-somethings enrolled among 20 others who were there for college credit, they earned respect by earnestly diving into all things woodsman, including chopping, bow-sawing, speed climbing and, yes, ax throwing.

"I'd like to think we're in good shape, but it was surprising how physical and somewhat intimidating it was," Barrett said. "Firing up a chain saw for the first time was intimidating. And speed climbing up a 60-foot pole was definitely intimidating, but it was also so rewarding when you reached the top and rang that bell."

They were hooked, and by the time they returned to their homes in Brooklyn, they were convinced that other people would be, too. So they decided to quit their jobs at the agency and create Project Woodchips. For their first endeavor, they're partnering with McLeod's school for a getaway in July in the hopes that city dwellers will find the activities as exhilarating as they did.

"Our goal is to reach this different demographic of people like us who are into fitness, but when they take time off from their desk jobs to really unplug, they want to feel like they truly went away and learned something new that has both physical and mental rewards," Pou said. "I think you find people in the city who like to put themselves to the test in a way they haven't before. They want something more than sitting on a beach somewhere.

"We just looked at each other and said, 'How do we bring this to them?'"

They want to build a true lumberjack experience for men and women, in which people are taught not only the aforementioned physical instruction in competitive timber sports, but also primitive skills like brewing tea from native plants, shelter building, fire starting and stalking techniques. (We're talking stalking in the primordial sense, not the modern version of Googling dates.)

The $1,095 tuition covers seven days and six nights beginning on Sunday, July 24, in which members can chose to get chummy with six fellow novice woodsmen by sleeping in a yurt on the banks of Osgood Pond on Paul Smith's College campus. Alternatively, the school's dorm rooms are available for a shared suite, and there's an accommodation upgrade option for one-bedroom preferences.

They've capped the first session at 20 participants to ensure complete hands-on attention. But they've received some perplexed responses when broaching the idea -- even from Pou's husband and Barrett's boyfriend, who view the concept of chopping wood as more of a chore that they were forced to do growing up.

"We get a lot of, 'Two Brooklyn girls want to come over and help clear my property? Have at it,'" Pou said.

But as much as the hipster trend of "lumbersexuals" -- adopting the fashion of the traditional woodsmen -- has become a punch line, the goal behind Project Woodchips is to instill an appreciation for the skills of actual lumberjacks. And that means more than just having a closet full of flannels.

Yet surprisingly, the duo didn't grow up even remotely running around in the woods. Pou's father was a diplomat for the World Health Organization in conflict-ridden Central and South American countries like El Salvador and Colombia. Suffice it to say, the family was always on high alert, and even bike riding was restricted to peddling in circles behind the barricades of her family's apartment complex. For Barrett, Los Angeles was home, where her interior designer mom and music equipment manager dad (who's toured with stars from guitarist Jimi Hendrix to rock band Aerosmith) weren't exactly outdoorsy.

And this is precisely why they believe they have such a thirst for it today.

"I almost felt starved for it," Barrett said. "I didn't even realize how little I did because I was just more into museums and movies in L.A. to keep me occupied. It really wasn't until I was in my 20s in New York that I started to really, really want to be outside and felt a need to go hiking. There were these revelation moments in my tiny apartment where I realized that I needed to see a tree or I might freak out."

When they're not out there throwing axes, they're restoring them in Pou's basement, which she shares with some neighbors who accept having a Patrick Bateman-level arsenal in their lower quarters. With some relics more than a century old, they scour flea markets or purchase wares online and begin the methodical restoration process. First comes a three-day vinegar bath to wear away the rust and reveal the original engraved markings. Then the intense filing process begins, which they say is akin to their own take on knitting.

"There's something so satisfying about reshaping metal," Barrett said. "It's repetitive and can take days where you really just zone out, but seeing that mirror finish reveal itself at the edge of a blade is really wonderful."

Barrett also recently attended blacksmith school -- the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina -- to immerse herself in the traditional craftsmanship involved in creating axes. She spent 60 hours in front of a forge with her arms throbbing but maintains that the process was fascinating and has given her an extra appreciation and foundation for her new passion.

Besides axes, Barrett also started a small Project Woodchips-themed jewelry line. While available for purchase on Etsy, she sends them gratis to women who inspire her on top college woodsmen teams like Colby and Dartmouth.

But the ultimate goal of Project Woodchips is weekend outings closer to home for city dwellers who are curious -- if not eager -- to learn. Besides the weeklong immersion program this summer, they also offer demonstrations on both ax throwing and restoration.

So after a morning hike spent discussing their new endeavors, the conversation begged the question: Do they still see each other as regularly now as they did when they were in a structured office setting?

"Every day," they said in unison, laughing.