On a warm Wednesday evening, the crowd at Feckin Brewery in Oregon City spilled out of an open roll-up garage door. They were there for a bar game with a little more spunk than trivia or cornhole—throwing axes inside a cage.
Six months ago, the business became the first to give Portland Axe Throwing a permanent home after the league had taken its mobile unit to area breweries. The weathered siding, jumble of wooden pallets near the door, and collection of banged-up automobiles in the parking lot give it all the charm of a junkyard, just the kind of ambience you'd expect to find around patrons wielding steel.
Much of Oregon was built by sharp blades. Museums scattered across the state tell the stories of logging through carefully preserved two-man crosscutters and giant steam donkeys. A nearly 40-foot lumberjack oversees the gateway to Portland's Kenton neighborhood like a giant Walmart greeter. Even our Major League Soccer team is lumber-themed, each goal punctuated by the ceremonial sawing of a log.
Given all that, it's surprising then that more locals haven't been flinging axes for fun until recently. The modern version started in Canada and has been slow to reach the Pacific Northwest, so you wouldn't necessarily know flying blades are hot in places like Chicago, Detroit and Nashville. But in Portland, the trend is starting to take hold: In addition to Portland Axe Throwing, breweries have taken to hosting ax-throwing competitions to promote new beer releases, and downtown's underground mini-golf course, Glowing Greens, is about to add throwing alleys to its property.
Ax throwing started at Feckin as a pop-up, but when it quickly became a hit, owner Mark Maher moved tanks in his already cramped brewhouse to accommodate two lanes built by Portland Axe Throwing's founder, Eilif Knutson, who was playing with sharp objects long before it became a nationwide trend.
Tossing a tomahawk is not his only skill. Growing up on Lopez Island in Washington, Knutson practiced spear hunting, lassoing and firing a musket. His fondness for range sports came from his father, who learned them growing up on a farm where "you have to make your own fun," Knutson says.
And it's hard to deny the adrenaline that begins to build when you grab the handle of a hatchet and yank it free from a hunk of wood. It's as if you've released some raw Paul Bunyan power that's now transferred to your hands. But all of that primal urge stuff aside, ax throwing is really just a fiercer version of darts, with a bit of baseball finesse thrown in. Turns out, the key to making it stick is all about the follow-through.
"To me it's just a great way to spend time with people," Knutson says. "It's much more like darts when you're doing it right—but it's way more sexy."
It does, however, take practice. There was nothing sexy about my first attempt, as the ax hit the lip of the frame around the target and went clanging to the floor. That night's teacher, David Tate, was there to help me improve my form. With thick arms, a chest-length, red-tinged beard and a plaid shirt tucked into his jeans, Tate looks as if he could've stepped off a package of paper towels. Though he discovered Portland Axe Throwing only a few months back, he had a childhood like Knutson's that revolved around pointy projectiles—screwdrivers, saw blades, knives.
"It didn't matter," Tate says. "If we had it, we'd throw it."
This is an individual who can throw five axes at once, so if anyone could help me hit the target, it was him. In the lane next to me was a graying woman in her 50s who appeared a little nervous but also excited for her first toss. Since we were both right-handed, Tate directed us to step forward slightly with our left foot for a firm stance. We then grasped the base of the ax handle, first with our right hand, thumb facing upward, with the left hand slightly overlapping. To prepare to launch, I rocked back on my right foot while raising the ax skyward as if I were about to bring down the blade in a dramatic beheading. With a gentle push, I heaved the ax toward the wall.
I didn't stick the landing.
After my neighbor retrieved hers from the floor as well, we lined up for another try.
Tate's keen eye noticed I'd been turning my wrist and releasing a bit too late. I set up again, chopping the air for a few practice swings. "Take a deep breath," Tate instructed. I took several, glared at the target, propelled forward and let go.
There it was, sunk partway into the wood. Without pause, I jumped in the air, yelling, "Yes!" It was incredibly gratifying. I had controlled a weapon. My neighbor was getting the hang of it, too. After her fifth or sixth throw, she began to bury it each time. "Oh, I love this!" she squealed.
Then, after about five minutes of feeling victorious, I was put in my place by a kindergartner.
Tate's 5-year-old son walked in right after I did and began firing axes that barely veered from the bull's-eye. I quickly realized I'd been glowing about what was essentially a few layups in a session dominated by shots bouncing off the rim.
That's, in part, what makes this sport so attractive. Anybody can do it and eventually get better. It'd be easy to assume an ax-throwing night at a brewery would be soaked in testosterone and smack talk. Sure, there was a smattering of men in mullets, camo and overalls. But women wearing dresses and pin curls were also nailing the target with just one arm.
"Urban ax throwing is for everyone," Knutson says. "When you're doing this sport, everyone is equal. That's what is so beautiful about it."
TRY IT: Portland Axe Throwing is at Feckin Tavern, 415 S McLoughlin Blvd., Oregon City, portlandaxethrowing.net, every Wednesday. 6-8 pm.