Born: July 8, 1929 (Saseenos, B.C.)
Died: January 20, 2013 (Sooke, B.C.)
Ardy Wickheim’s job was as easy as not falling off a log.
The British Columbia lumberjack won four world championships as a professional log-roller. He and a younger brother dominated the sport through the 1950s and ’60s.
Mr. Wickheim, who has died at 83, was a rugged, quiet man who preferred physical labour to a desk job. He rarely spoke to reporters, even after winning world titles.
The brothers – Ardiel and Jubiel, known as Ardy and Jube – also displayed the peculiar skills of log-rolling in performances at a trade show in Tokyo in 1965, at Expo 67 in Montreal and at the Pacific National Exhibition fairgrounds in Vancouver. An audience of city slickers whose daily exertions were no more dramatic than running for a bus marvelled as the brothers skipped atop a log floating in a pond.
The venerable sport, which traces its first world championship to a competition in Nebraska in 1898, demands quick wits and nimble feet. In 1955, Ardy Wickheim became the first Canadian to win the world title when he flipped his American opponent into the water in two consecutive falls. Jube Wickheim won the following year. The Wickheims claimed 14 world titles in 15 years, with Jube winning 10 to Ardy’s four.
Their success gained them notice in newspapers and magazines such as Sports Illustrated. The consecutive world titles earned an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records.
The sport, also known as log-rolling, or birling, and dubbed “roleo” to rhyme with rodeo, even made a cameo appearance on television’s Wide World of Sports.
The Wickheims earned barely more in prize money than their travel costs to competitions in such woodsy locales as Hayward, Wis., Spokane, Wash., and Priest River, Idaho. In 1957, the world championship was held in their hometown of Sooke on Vancouver Island. (Jube won.) As many as 12,000 spectators gathered to watch annual log-rolling competitions at Sooke.
In July, 1971, B.C. premier W.A.C. Bennett designated logger sports, including birling, axe-throwing and pole climbing, as the official industrial sport of the province. It was about then that the sport began a long decline, not coincidentally at a time when fewer workers earned their living as loggers.
“Logging used to be dangerous, hard work,” Ardy Wickheim told Erin Kelley of the Sooke News in 2005. “It used to be a respected industry. People forget this is where most of the wealth came from in B.C.”
Ardiel Wickheim was born on July 8, 1929, at the family farmhouse at Saseenos, a townsite established only a few years earlier about 30 kilometres west of Victoria. His father Mikael, known as Michael, had been originally lured from his native Norway in search of gold along the Klondike. He found none, returning home empty-handed. The Bergen farmer married Karen Alterskjaer of Narvik and, after their first child was born, the family immigrated to Vancouver Island in 1922, living at first in a tent on a four-acre stump ranch.
Even before he left school, Ardy began working atop log booms in Cooper’s Cove in the Sooke Basin for Eric Bernard, a logging entrepreneur who supplied cedar utility poles as tall as 25 metres for use throughout the continent. The still waters of the basin were ideal for booming and birling, though in winter the loggers had to break ice on the salt water to practise.
Jube, five years younger, eventually joined his brother on the booms. Of similar height and weight, they spent hours after work trying to knock each other off a log through clever spins and counterspins. By 1953, they had won enough local contests to travel to Albany, Ore., to compete at their first world championship.
“It was an education,” Jube Wickheim said. “We were just a couple of kids off a farm who had never seen a major city.”
The farm they left behind had neither running water, nor electricity.
Soon, the Wickheims were a force in the sport, known for their balance, their determination and their concentration, a necessity in a sport where an opponent can legally kick water in your face.
“One little mistake,” Jube Wickheim said, “and you’re in the water.”
(The competitions were not without risk. The 1956 contest included the death of a competitor, who was believed to have suffered a heart attack after falling in the water.)
The Wickheims won their share of prize money, including purses worth as much as $500 – “better than wages” – returning home at the end of each summer to work as loggers.
The Wickheim brothers travelled to Japan in 1965 to demonstrate their sport – and to promote B.C. timber – at the International Trade Fair at Harumi Pier in Tokyo. The sight of the lumberjacks in trademark dungarees, checked woollen shirts and caulked boots caused a sensation among the Japanese audience. One of the tricks shown by the brothers included Jube standing atop a chair at one end of a floating log while Ardy used a pole and his feet to maintain balance.
Ardy Wickheim returned to Japan five years later to give more demonstrations at the Canadian pavilion at the Osaka world’s fair. He won the birling competition there and was presented a trophy by a visiting premier Bennett.
Many thousands of Canadians also saw the brothers perform at Expo 67 in Montreal, as they put on four shows daily on Dolphin Lake in the shadow of Old Fort Edmonton at La Ronde.
Both brothers had a reputation for being taciturn, so they faced a dilemma when the announcer hired to work as ringmaster for their summer show at the Vancouver fair pulled out at the last minute. They chose lots. The younger brother lost, unhappily adding emceeing duties to his daily routine.
Later, Jube formed the Wickheim Timber Show to travel the globe, including a 1992 performance at the opening of Euro Disney outside Paris. (Among the log-rollers employed by the show over the years were the four Herrling brothers, known as the Birling Herrlings. One of them, Paul Herrling, died in Sooke on Jan. 27, 2013, at 54.)
Ardy retired from the sport to work on his acreage, building trout ponds on his land. He also helped to build many homes in his community, always preferring to work based on a handshake instead of a contract.
Ardy liked to attend events hosted by the local Sons of Norway, where he was known for his nimbleness on the dance floor, especially during a waltz.
Ardy died at his home in Sooke on Jan. 20 after a diagnosis of leukemia. He leaves a son, two daughters, five grandchildren, two sisters and two brothers. He was predeceased by a sister and his wife, Barbara, who died in 1981.
Despite his many victories, Jube considered Ardy the superior birler, both as a competitor and an entertainer. So, during long demonstrations, it was left to Ardy to pronounce an end. He would say, “Time to take a flyer,” before allowing himself to be hurled backward into the drink.
Originally published in The Globe and Mail, March 6, 2013