History Channel’s ax man has stories to tell.
Abby Miller Photograph
Shelby Stanga might be a television personality, but you won’t find him living in luxury. The swamp logger prefers to sleep in a sleeping bag and hammock next to a boat launch on the Tangipahoa River.
Stanga has recently become a bit of a star thanks to the History Channel’s show Ax Men, which features him and four other logging companies around the country.
Stanga, as the show chronicles, pulls ancient sinker logs out of the Bedico Swamp in Tangipahoa Parish. Between 1850 and 1944, the swamp around Tangipahoa River and its creeks and bayous was milled extensively. The old-growth trees, most of which are cypress, were felled and floated down the creek to Lake Pontchartrain and used in home construction in New Orleans. Some of the logs sunk, and they’ve been sitting in the mud ever since — some for more than 100 years. The trees range in age from 2,000 years old to 5,000 years old.
The logs have absorbed minerals from the mud in a process that alters the appearance of the wood. The result is a rainbow of colors — yellow, red, blue, green, purple and brown — and a very attractive product that Stanga sells to such furniture-makers as the Northshore’s Keith Dufour.
Stanga, fast-talking and weathered, with a penchant for expletives, dives into the water to locate the logs.
“I put 108 pounds of lead [diving weights] on, steel-toed shoes and sometimes a damn hard hat,” he says of his preparation for finding the logs. He runs along the river bottom, feeling in the mud with his feet, because “99 percent of the logs are underneath the damn mud.”
When he locates a log, Stanga digs in the soft mud, sometimes 6 or 8 feet down. It’s dangerous work: He risks running into a log if the visibility is poor or losing his respirator if it gets ripped out of his mouth on a branch.
“Every load, I drown three times,” he says. He’s generally swimming in 18 to 20 feet of water, he says, and the logs can be 5 feet around.
And then there are the critters he encounters while searching for logs. He sports scars from snake and snapping turtle bites, though he’s been known to get revenge on the offending reptiles: He sometimes bites the heads off venomous snakes and has teeth marks on his tongue to prove it.
Once he’s finished digging, Stanga hooks the log to a crane on a barge and drags
it to shore.
Stanga, who gave this interview with a long barrel revolver tucked into one of his camouflage hunting boots, is quite the storyteller. With his signature shout of “Here we go!” and his throaty cackle, he spins tales of finding sunken ships and treasure, gun fights, being kidnapped as a baby, living in the tops of enormous cypress trees and hunting snapping turtles for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s boots. Some of it must be true — he’s got photos of himself perched high in trees and holding enormous snapping turtles, plus a collection of artifacts such as broken clay pipes and Civil War-era coins. But with Stanga it’s hard to tell if even he knows where the truth ends and fiction begins.
Despite his rise to fame, Stanga’s iPhone is probably his fanciest possession; he’s never known anything other than hunting, fishing and logging the swamp. “I’m happy,” he says, “as long as I have bullets and chew for my lip.”
(See related story, Feature Loggers. )