RED LAKE FALLS, Minn. — Where many people might just see a log — sometimes a very big log — Joe Wavra sees potential.
And he’s perfected the art of bringing that potential to life, so to speak, with a chainsaw.
The results are as beautiful as they are amazing and inspiring.
Bears, wind spirits, eagles, trappers, wolves, farmers, tiki statues, Vikings, cardinals — you name it — and Wavra probably has carved it. In the process, the Red Lake Falls chainsaw artist has carved out a career with his business, Klondike Carvings Custom Artwork and Gifts.
Wavra’s shop and gallery is on the south edge of Red Lake Falls, a community of some 1,425 people about 45 miles east of Grand Forks.
“I love it,” Wavra, 54, said. “I get up every morning, and I’m here and rocking by 7. I’m ready to go to work. The only stress I have is what I put on myself, which isn’t much. I’m pretty relaxed, so it’s good for me.”
Wavra got his start with chainsaw carving about 17 years ago, when he and his wife, Chris, built a log cabin in a part of Red Lake Falls between the Red Lake and Clearwater rivers known locally as “the Klondike.”
His wife, Wavra says, wanted “cabiny stuff” for their new home, so he started to make some.
Wavra, whose chainsaw carving prowess is “100%” self-taught, said those early creations were mostly wind spirits, classic carvings of men with long, windblown beards and wizard-like faces. He mostly made carvings for himself and friends, but as word got out, Wavra says, he “kept getting busier and busier.”
“It’s hard to tell people no,” Wavra said. “You work all day and work all night. I had to make up my mind whether I wanted to do it” full time.
Wavra says he left his job as a tool salesman to become a full-time chainsaw artist four or five years ago. The career move has been quite a change, he says.
“The tool business was good, but nobody’s excited about having to replace a table saw or something,” Wavra said. “They’re excited when they come here.
“This is a whole different thing,” he added. “I don’t have grouchy customers here. They’re excited, and I enjoy doing my work.”
Wavra’s benches and carvings of voyageurs, Native Americans, eagles and other wildlife can be found throughout the parks and trails system in Red Lake Falls. He has also carved numerous Norwegian trolls for the Sons of Norway in Thief River Falls over the years.
He hasn’t kept track, but Wavra says his carvings have ended up across the country, including Florida, California, Illinois and, of course, Minnesota and North Dakota.
On a recent May morning, Wavra was carving a bear and a cub out of a white pine log. He hadn’t been working long before the heads of the two bears began to emerge from the soft wood as the chainsaw whirred. He’d add a second cub in a hollow spot near the bottom of the log, and the carving soon would be for sale in the Klondike Carvings showroom.
“I like it because it’s fast,” Wavra said of chainsaw carving. “I call it speed art. You don’t have to wait so long to see what you’re doing.”
Wavra gets most of his carving wood from Wille Logging Lumber and Timber in Puposky, Minn., north of Bemidji; white pine is his preferred wood for carving. He loads the logs on a trailer and has a little four-wheel-drive tractor to carry the logs to the shop, where he uses a hoist to move them around. His largest pieces can weigh several hundred pounds.
In addition to his shop work, Wavra has a full schedule of site visits on tap throughout the coming summer. When the workload gets too hectic, his wife will come down to the shop and help with painting the carvings.
“She’s so good about helping, so it’s a lot of fun,” Wavra said.
Less noise, no fumes
The advent of lithium-ion battery technology allows Wavra to work without the noise and fumes of gas-powered chainsaws. He has 14 saws with bars of different sizes, depending on the cuts he needs to make for particular projects, among his arsenal of carving tools.
The cordless chainsaws also allow Wavra to carve at indoor events such as the home show at the Ralph Engelstad Arena in Thief River Falls, where he also carved the Viking statue that is the mascot of the Thief River Falls Norskies junior hockey team.
Shows historically have been a big income generator for Wavra and other chainsaw artists, he says, but most were canceled last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year has been “pretty steady,” despite the pandemic, Wavra says, and many shows are back on the calendar, including the Summerfest event set for July 23-25 in Red Lake Falls.
As part Summerfest, a half-dozen chainsaw artists, including Wavra, will set up and carve throughout the weekend. About 40 finished carvings then will be sold during an auction set for 7 p.m. Saturday, July 24, in the Red Lake Falls bandstand.
“We make a little friendly competition out of it,” Wavra said. “Everybody does better when there are more carvers around. You go the extra little bit, and it’s a lot of fun.”