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Ray Routhier

Portland Press Herald staff writer Ray Routhier will try anything. Once. During 20 years at the Press Herald he’s been equally attracted to stories that are unusually quirky and seemingly mundane. He’s taken rides on garbage trucks, sought out the mother of two rock stars, dug clams, raked blueberries, and spent time with the family of bedridden man who finds strength in music. Nothing too dangerous mind you, just adventurous enough to find the stories of real Mainers doing real cool things.

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Posted: May 15, 2017

Grab an ax and join the latest trend in target practice

Written by: Ray Routhier
Tim Johnson, co-owner of Maine Warrior Gym, throws an ax at the gym. Staff photos by Derek Davis

Tim Johnson, co-owner of Maine Warrior Gym, throws an ax at the gym.
Staff photos by Derek Davis

In Maine’s not so distant past, it would be hard to imagine under what circumstances someone one would grab a small ax and throw it as gently and deliberately as possible.

Throwing it hard to make a notch in a tree, now that sounds like something a 19th-century Maine woodsman might do. But today there’s really no reason for most of us in Portland and the surrounding suburbs to throw an ax. So, we might as well just do it for fun.

That’s what Tim Johnson is counting on. Johnson, co-owner of Maine Warrior Gym in Westbrook, set up The Axe Pit in a room off the gym in March. People can rent the space by the hour, get some instruction in ax-throwing safety, then practice throwing the ax at a target. It’s a little like darts or bowling, in that it’s more about technique than power. In fact, it’s a lot like bowling, because players keep track of points on a 10-frame “Bowl-Ax-ing” scorecard.

Ax-throwing at Maine Warrior Gym.

Ax-throwing at Maine Warrior Gym.

And like bowling, it looks simple, but it’s not easy.

“I think part of the appeal is the novelty, and anyone can do it because you don’t really need power,” said Patrick Corbett, who tried out The Axe Pit in April as part of a company outing. “It’s not as easy as it looks. I started to get the hang of it, but it was still challenging enough that it doesn’t get boring.”

The Axe Pit is part of a trend, believe it or not, with ax-throwing centers popping up around North America. They’re especially popular in Canada, where sleek, new ax-throwing centers have sprung up with names like Rage Axe Throwing, Axehole, Bad Axe Throwing and the Backyard Axe Throwing League (BATL), which has nine indoor locations around Canada.

There are also other leagues, including the 23-member World Axe Throwing League, of which The Axe Pit is a member. To help promote the activity, an International Axe Throwing Day is planned for June 13. Participating ax centers, including The Axe Pit, are offering free admission those days so people can see what ax throwing is all about. People can try it on a first-come, first-served basis.

Johnson first discovered ax-throwing while visiting a Rage location in Montreal with his wife. He thought it fit in well with the “warrior” philosophy of the Maine Warrior Gym, where people work out by learning to run on over or through giant obstacles.

But throwing axes isn’t about power, as Johnson pointed out when he demonstrated recently.

Tim Johnson, co-owner of Maine Warrior Gym, throws an ax at the gym.

Tim Johnson, co-owner of Maine Warrior Gym, throws an ax at the gym.

The Axe Pit is basically a 20-foot-long alley-shaped room, with plywood on most surfaces. People sign a waiver and get an explanation of how to throw and safely handle the ax (never give it to someone blade side out).

At The Axe Pit, the axes are really short-handled hatchets or throwing tomahawks, weighing about a pound to a pound and a half. So they’re thrown with just one hand.

Throwers stand 13 to 16 feet from a target – like a dart board with a bullseye, that’s made of plywood. The ax rotates just about one time and the trick is to have the point of its blade sticking straight out when it reaches the wood. If it doesn’t, the ax clunks to the floor.

So the keys to sticking the throw are knowing how far to stand from the target and how to cleanly release the ax from your hand. The power is supplied by the weight of the ax itself.

“We had somebody with us who had rotator cuff surgery recently and she had not trouble at all,” said Corbett, 36.

Corbett, who runs a Portland web development company called Redfin Solutions, took a group of employees to The Axe Pit as a team-building exercise. He said he liked the fact that everyone could do it, and since nobody had ever done it before, they could all learn together.

Ax-throwing at Maine Warrior Gym.

Ax-throwing at Maine Warrior Gym.

He said it was sort of like darts, because of the throwing technique needed. But sort of like bowling, where you take turns and cheer or jeer for each other.

“I’m sort of surprised they haven’t caught on around here before this,” said Corbett.

Johnson says his customers so far have included knife-throwers, a couple people who are Viking scholars (big ax-throwers, those Vikings) and several groups who are just looking for something new and different to do together.

Ed Zelinksy, 71, is a knife enthusiast. He throws knives in his backyard at a target. So when he heard about The Axe Pit, he decided to book an upcoming session with his niece.

“I throw darts and I throw knives, so this seemed like something to try,” said Zelinsky, a graphic artist from Falmouth. “It’s unusual and sort of amusing to think about.”

THE AXE PIT AT MAINE WARRIOR GYM

WHERE: 865 Spring St., Westbrook
WHEN: One-hour sessions booked by appointment
HOW MUCH: $20 to make a reservation, plus an additional $15 per person for each ax thrower; for ages 18 and up only.
INFO: theaxepit.com

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