The sharp slap of wet feet echoed off the walls of the Grizzly Pool, a near-constant refrain that let up only at the sound of a loud splash and a chorus of cheers. The owner of those feet, Amber Larsen, perched atop a plastic log. Moments earlier, her male opponent had been poised across from her, the two squared off like foil-less fencers on a balance beam. After splashing down, he bobbed back up from the water, and Larsen, in the parlance of her sport, victoriously took the fall.
The Dec. 2 event marked Missoula’s entry into the world of competitive Key Log Rolling, named for the Minneapolis-based company that produces the synthetic logs that UM’s recreation department acquired two years ago. Larsen, a member of the nationally ranked Flathead Valley Community College Logger Sports Team, said the competition first took shape last spring when, during a visit to Minneapolis, she was told Key Log was looking for schools to host qualifying events for a national collegiate Key Log championship in spring 2019.
“This is our time to prove it, to prove we have a pretty solid support base and we have a lot of people that want to do this,” said Amber Auld, Larsen’s fellow event coordinator and a member of the UM Woodsman Team.
“We deserve to have a qualifier next year,” Larsen added. “I think that’s the point we’re trying to make.”
The Saturday competition drew 15 participants, all from woodsman teams at UM, Flathead Valley, the University of Idaho and UM-Western in Dillon, as well as a handful of spectators. Key Log draws its name from the early timber days, when workers occasionally had to remove a “key log” from the head of a logjam. The sport bears more than a passing resemblance to burling, a classic timbersport in which dueling competitors clad in spiked shoes attempt to roll each other off a real log. There were no spikes in the Grizzly Pool. Just bare feet, balance and the competitors’ unwavering focus on their opponents’ footwork.
UM’s Jace Frudden distinguished himself early with a unique tactic. In nearly every match, he leapt backward on the log with one foot, rocking the other end upward and sending his opponent scrambling for balance. His strategy worked until the final round, when Larsen’s fleet-footedness proved too much for the trick. Larsen took the first fall, Frudden took the second, and, in a tense standoff that raised shouts from spectators, Larsen took the third. Larsen claimed first place, with Frudden placing second.
Third place went to Auld, who lost to Larsen following a string of timed-out draws that prompted the removal of two sets of ridges designed to slow and stabilize the Key Log. After handing out shirts and prizes, Auld seemed confident about the prospect of producing a national qualifier.
“We had representation from four schools here,” she said, “and I think we had more people than any of [Key Log’s] qualifiers so far.”