Our two vans and trailer rolled to a stop in the midst of a freak March heatwave in North Carolina. We had driven through the night with one student unsuccessfully battling carsickness through Alabama. Seventeen forestry students and I dragged our gear across North Carolina State University’s golf course and set up camp mid-morning. We tried to sleep, but the sun beat down on our tents and roasted us until we admitted defeat. It was 2012, and this was my first forestry conclave.
Dr. Mike ‘Conclave’ Fountain, SFA professor emeritus of forestry, had just retired after serving as the SFA Sylvans’ adviser for 30-plus conclaves across the South. He could throw an axe backward over his shoulder and hit the bull’s-eye. He led the Sylvans to eight championships. I had no clue what I was doing, and everyone kept reminding me of the size of the shoes I was filling.
That evening, I met the advisers from the other 14 schools. I struggled to remember their names under a fog of exhaustion, having been awake for 36 hours. As I drifted to sleep that night, I wondered if I could get someone else to advise the Sylvans next year.
As the competition unfolded during the next two days, Bubba Loofboro, Sylvans’ president, sank one arrow after the next in the archery target, winning. Chelsea Lopez and Courtney Hall sawed through a yellow-poplar log in 7.56 seconds. Then, Chelsea and Caleb Murray did the same in 7.17 seconds, both winning times. The roar of our small student group belied their numbers as they cheered on their teammates.
I sat sunburned at the awards ceremony as we fell short, placing second overall. The University of Georgia students jumped up and down celebrating their hard-earned win with a trophy carved in 2009 in Nacogdoches by an SFA alumnus. I was hooked. These students invested countless hours in training. They took this seriously. No one was taking my job as the Sylvans’ adviser, and next year, we were going to be better.
In March 2013, Auburn University hosted the 56th conclave. As we pitched our tents in darkness, the university police warned us of imminent peril from a marauding coyote. We didn’t tell them we had axes and knives.
The academic events concluded before lunch the second day. The results were not disclosed, which held us in suspense. I had judged tree identification, so I knew SFA’s Scott Wahlberg had narrowly won that event. I had hope. As the timber sports events proceeded, we tracked our progress: axe throwing, Courtney Williams, third place, one of only two women in the event; pole climbing, Mike Hartford, first place, 3.745 seconds to scale a 20-foot pole; log chopping, Ryan Assenheimer, fourth place, his axe splitting a poplar timber in 61 seconds.
As a representative from Auburn University announced the results of the technical events during the awards ceremony, we held our breath: Grant Korbel, first place, tree-diameter estimation; Lopez and Brant Day, first place, wildlife identification; and then the announcement of the overall winner — the Stephen F. Austin State University Sylvans! We leapt elated to our feet as Sylvans’ President Caleb Murray claimed the hefty walnut trophy. It was the first championship for each and every one of us.
We again brought the trophy home to Texas in 2014 from Virginia Tech and in 2015 from Mississippi State University. This past March in South Carolina, our team was strong, but Clemson University dominated at home with the fifth-highest conclave score in history.
Now it is our turn. The SFA Sylvans will host the 60th Southern Forestry Conclave from March 16 through 18, 2017, in Mount Enterprise at Durango’s Canyon.
Make plans to come witness us in action as we go boot-to-boot in competition with schools like Louisiana State University, Louisiana Tech University and the University of Florida. You won’t be disappointed. We promise.
And, if you’d like to support the SFA Sylvans with a donation, we welcome the gift. Conclave registration fees cover only half the cost of the event, and we rely heavily on fundraising to help us with the remainder.
Donations to the 2017 conclave can be made online at sfasu.edu/conclave; by calling the SFA Office of Development at (936) 468-5406 or by check mailed to P.O. Box 6092, SFA Station, Nacogdoches, Texas 75962. Simply include a note that states your contribution is for the 2017 conclave.