In recent years, History Channel has ironically become one of the biggest platforms for reality TV shows, launching the trend of ‘real-men-in-danger’ series. Following in the footsteps of hit shows such as “Ice Road Truckers” and “Deadliest Catch”, the Channel in association with Original Productions LLC started airing “Ax Men” in March 2008.
The show follows several logging crews, based in the forests of Oregon, Montana and Washington State, and the swamp regions of Florida and Louisiana, highlighting the dangers loggers face in their daily work. “Ax Men” has managed to capture a wide and dedicated audience, but since the 10th season of the show concluded in September 2019, there has been no official news concerning a new season, leaving many of the show’s fans wondering what had happened, and whether “Ax Men” is eventually going to return.
With Ax Men making its return last night and establishing it's a family affair, did any one family stand out to you?
Will there be a season 11?
As of February 2022, History Channel hasn’t officially announced the cancelation of “Ax Men”, however, as the show hasn’t been renewed in almost three years, it’s safe to assume that potential season 11 isn’t coming to TV screens any time soon.
It wouldn’t be the first time that “Ax Men” came to a halt; back in 2016, following the death of one of the cast members Gabe Rygaard, who tragically lost his life in a car accident, it was announced that the show had come to an end. However, due to popular demand, History Channel rebooted the series three years later, under the title “Ax Men Reborn”. Also, as of 2020, the production of many TV shows has become more complex due to strict COVID-19 related rules, so a lot of “Ax Men” fans have speculated that the series has been put on hiatus until the pandemic resolves.
While that might be one possible reason why “Ax Men” hasn’t been renewed, the pandemic is not the only issue plaguing the show’s production, given the tragic passing of five former stars, legal troubles faced by logging companies, and increased criticism coming from both the viewers and former cast members.
The first cast member who passed away was the S&S Aqua Lodging founder Jimmy Smith. He died in Wenatchee, Washington on 1 November 2012, at 56 years old, after losing a long battle against cancer. His family, friends and colleagues attended his memorial on 17 November, and History Channel released an official statement saying ‘We are extremely saddened to report that our friend and beloved member of the Ax Men family, Jimmy Smith, passed away yesterday. All of us at HISTORY and Original Productions, along with our Ax Men team, would like to extend our heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of Jimmy.’ Jimmy had appeared in five seasons of “Ax Men” prior to his tragic passing. Following Jimmy’s death, many people expected his son James Smith Jr. to take on the leadership role at S&S Aqua Lodging, but details of the continuation of their business remain unclear.
On 18 September 2013, the police reported the death of William Bart Colantuono, a professional pilot who appeared in the second and third season of “Ax Men”. He lost his life in a helicopter crash at 54 years of age, as he was attempting to fly logs in an Oregon forest. Several witnesses told Linn County deputies that they saw William release logs, indicating that he knew there was a problem with his helicopter. They also saw a rotor separate from helicopter, moments before it flipped upside down and crashed. While the circumstances of William’s death weren’t necessarily unusual, the tragedy prompted a very deep investigation, which was based partially on the fact that the late “Ax Men” star was often pictured participating in unsafe acts on the show. It was speculated that the crash happened after “Ax Men” producers requested William to perform a ‘showy’ manoeuvre.
Gabe Rygaard, the co-owner and operator of Rygaard Logging Inc, was killed in a car accident on 16 September 2016.
The tragedy happened a few miles outside of his hometown of Port Angeles, Washington State, and involved three vehicles. The Washington State Patrol reported that Gabe was driving a Ford Bronco which rear-ended another car turning left, before crossing the center road line into the path of an oncoming vehicle. Gabe left behind his wife and three children. Unlike S&S Aqua Lodging, Rygaard Logging Inc. continued operating, and was featured in the 10th season of “Ax Men”.
Pihl Logging’s yarder engineer Stacey Robeson, who appeared in the 10th season of the show, passed away on 15 December 2018. ‘Many of you know my brother Stacey and know he was truly one of a kind. He passed away suddenly on 12/15/18, and left behind a wife and three children.’, his sister, Jalaina said in a public statement announcing Stacey’s passing. It was speculated that the “Ax Men” star lost his life in a logging accident, while some suspected that he succumbed to a heart attack, however, the real cause of Stacey’s death hasn’t been publicly revealed.
He died at the age of 28, leaving behind his wife and three children.
Another Pihl Logging member, Dwayne Dathlefs, passed away on 6 December 2019, at 60 years of age. He had joined the cast in 2009, and appeared in six episodes of the show. Dwayne’s death was announced by Mike Pihl, the owner of Pihl Logging, on 7 December 2019. It’s widely believed that he died from natural causes.
Adding to the controversy surrounding “Ax Men”, several of the companies and individuals featured on the show have faced troubles with the law.
Back when the first season started airing in March 2009, Jimmy Smith’s S&S Aqua Lodging was subject to investigation by The Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR), under suspicion that they were salvaging logs from the Hoquiam River without permission. DNR executed a search warrant on the company’s property on 13 March 2013, seizing approximately 20 logs and 34 other pieces of wood.
‘These are valuable materials that belong to the public, and this looks like theft, plain and simple’, said the Commissioner of Public Lands, Peter Goldmark. Interestingly enough, DNR was alerted to the possibility of illegal practices of the logging company after they were plainly featured on “Ax Men”.
Subsequently, separate charges were filed against Jimmy Smith, as he was apparently exploiting disability claims. It seems that the late “Ax Men” star had applied for disability and medical benefits several years before the show started airing, while continuing to work as a logger. Similarly to the Hoquiam River incident, Jimmy had managed to get away with abusing the system until the first season of the series was broadcast, publicly revealing that in fact he didn’t have a disability, and was still able to work.
In 2013, it was revealed that Chapman Logging’s master diver, Roger Gunter, had a history of poaching.
He was fairly notorious at that, having been caught hunting without a license on six occasions.
One of the biggest stars and most eccentric characters from the show, Shelby Stanga, had also found himself in hot water, after having faced jail time for cutting down his neighbor’s trees. It remains unclear what motivated him to perform such an act, but the “Ax Men” star apparently had to spend some time in prison. The controversy didn’t hurt his career, however, and Stanga later went on to star in two “Ax Men” spin-off shows – “The Legend of Shelby the Swamp Man” and “The Return of Shelby the Swamp Man”.
Mike Pihl, the owner of Pihl Logging is also one of the “Ax Men” household names who had faced legal troubles. In 2009, he was arrested when his children were injuring in a car accident with Mike accused of driving under the influence of alcohol.
He flipped his car into a ditch and was booked for assault and drinking and driving, however, the DUI (Driving Under Influence) charges were later dropped, as Mike was driving on personal property.
In summer 2008, Northwest Oregon logging companies Stump Branch, Browning Logging and Pihl Logging were subject to a safety investigation by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). The Oregon OSHA spokeswoman at the time, Melanie Mesaros, said that the agency’s increased interest in logging companies featured on “Ax Men” had nothing to do with their time on the show, however, many of the show’s stars found it hard to believe. ‘We haven’t seen or heard from them for the longest time’ J. M. Browning of J. M. Browning Logging said. ‘You can’t tell me it has nothing to do with the show.’ He had subsequently admitted that there were in fact some unsafe practices shown on the show.
Despite the investigation, even in later seasons many of the cast members could have been seen wearing little to no safety equipment, and failing to maintain safe distance from the falling trees, which sparked concerns over the show possibly promoting unsafe practices in the logging business.
Cast members’ criticisms of the show
As any other reality TV show, “Ax Men” strives on showcasing dramatic moments between the cast members, and even fabricating drama to make the show more appealing. There were quite a few moments in the show’s run during which it seemed that the loggers did nothing but fight each other. According to many people who actually worked for the companies featured in the show, the production crew was determined to focus on drama early on, and there were apparently moments when they would quite literally run to capture any debate between workers. even if it was relatively insignificant.
Clay Gustafson, the owner of the logging company Gustafson Logging, which was featured only in the first season of “Ax Men”, has supported these claims, revealing that he believes that his company didn’t featured in subsequent seasons because their workers didn’t provide enough drama, and other typical reality TV show material.
Being on the show has also proved to be a bad financial decision for some of the companies featured. Workers of the companies which left the show have revealed that their employers had been experiencing losses in hundreds of thousands of dollars while filming “Ax Men”. Apparently, a lot of workers were left distracted and unable to focus on their primary job, as History Channel crew mainly wanted to focus on personal relationships, instead of showcasing working conditions,
One man in particular, and one of the show’s first stars, Jay Browning has been vocal about his grievances with the show. ‘I, like everyone else waited to see what would be shown. I was not happy with the show. I had originally thought the series would show more day-to-day logging. They chose not to show anything but the drama.’ , he said in an interview that he had after his departure from the show, but had still wrapped it up by thanking the History Channel for making a show about loggers in the first place, and introducing millions of viewers to the hardships of the industry.
Is “Ax Men” fake?
Just as most other reality TV series, “Ax Man” has made a lot of fans wonder how realistic the show is, and which part of it is scripted. While the show had no shortage of fascinating characters and naturally occurring conflicts, some events shown in the series were embellished for added dramatic effect. Although nobody who was actually on the show has outright said that it’s fake, some former cast members have revealed that the producers had a tendency to turn the small-time workers into over-the-top characters.
Other logging shows
While “Ax Men” has most likely concluded, it’s worth noting that it had served as a blueprint for a series of similar documentary/reality TV shows centering on the lives of loggers in North America. In 2009, Discovery Channel launched two logging TV shows, “American Loggers”, which concluded in 2011, and “Swamp Loggers” which ended in 2012.
In 2020, the Canadian History Channel started airing “Big Timber”, a reality show about a timber business on Vancouver Island. The show was officially renewed for a second season in October 2021, and is expected to premiere in the second half of 2022.