By Clay Riness —
What if someone told you there was a tavern in downtown La Crosse where patrons can throw axes? Let that sink in for a moment. The common reaction might be to ask, “Um, alcohol and axes, what could possibly go wrong?” In fact, The Driftless Axe is exactly the opposite … it’s a competitive axe-throwing facility where you can also enjoy a brew and some fine pub grub, and everything therein is about safety first.
Co-owner Toby Farley spent a year researching the growing popularity of axe throwing in Canada, the upper northeast, and in major cities. In Canada, he says, axe throwing has overtaken darts. Further, he opines, sticking an axe in a board brings out something primal in people.
“You stick a flipping axe, I don’t care if it’s in the bullseye, if it’s anywhere on the board, you’re an instant Viking god,” he says, laughing. “It busts out that inner lumberjack in you.”
The endeavor began as a mobile service. Farley and his business partner, Clinton Melendez, began taking the necessary gear to public and private events, including local bars and festivals, to offer customers a chance to safely throw axes. The business took right off, the two insist. “Then Oktoberfest came around and we had close to 3000 people throughout the festival,” says Melendez. “We figured if we could manage that much intensity in a large space then we could do even better in control of our own smaller environment, so that was when we realized we should go brick and mortar.”
They opened to the general public on Black Friday last year on the corner of 4th and Jay, in what was once part of Players, which still remains in the other half of the building.
Patrons first check in at the counter and must sign liability waivers. They are then paired with a lane coach and are delivered to a throwing lane where they are given safety instructions and a demonstration on three different techniques for throwing. Then, the customers are left to throw at their own level of comfort.
The lanes themselves, eight in total, are 4 feet wide by 16 feet long and are basically open-ended cages so nothing can bounce off and injure anyone.
As to safety, the two explain that there is a three-tier process. The first is check in, where employees can assess the condition of a customer. The second is that bartenders can do the same when a customer orders a drink. And finally, once the customer gets to a lane, there is a lane coach who can talk to them, ask questions and watch for impairment. The staff members are always communicating with each other, safety being a priority. “We don’t have regulars who just come in and drink here. We have regulars who come in weekly and throw, but we don’t have that guy who comes in on Friday night and stays until bar time. Our food and drink menus are very much a bonus for the lanes,” explains Melendez.
While there are a variety of axes used, many are simple hatchets. “Axes you can buy for league throwing can go all the way up to $125, but we can go to Harbor Freight and buy some of their $8 hatchets and you can throw any of those … and any price range in between, and they’re all going to fly the same way,” explains Melendez. “The general public basically uses a 1¼-pound, fiberglass-handled hatchet.”
According to Farley, however, under the World Axe Throwing League’s rules, there is a 3-pound maximum for weight and the handle length can be no more than 19 inches. And, the WATL is certainly on the minds of these two entrepreneurs, as league play began on Jan. 14. The league is eight weeks in length: six weeks of regular play with one week of playoffs and an eighth week of finals—the regional championship. “If you win the region here, you will then be qualified for the championships, wherever they’re held, and we don’t know that location yet,” says Melendez. “There, you play for $5000 and a championship ring. Right now we have roughly 80 people interested.”
Farley adds, “It’s got its bragging rights internally because you’re really competing with the world; you place in the top 16 in the world, that’s a pretty big deal.”
It’s important to note that the downtown location is open to almost all ages. There is a minimum age of 12 (to throw), and all children must be accompanied by a parent or guardian. All patrons 18 years and older can throw up to 9 p.m. After that, you must be 21 to enter or remain on the premises. Non-student, military, student and corporate prices are available. The facility is open Wednesday through Sunday, noon to midnight.
The Driftless Axe still offers mobile services. Although winter is the offseason, it is still available for indoor and corporate events. All that is required is an eight foot or higher ceiling.
For more information, call (608) 571-7246, stop in at 300 4th St. S. #101 in La Crosse, or find The Driftless Axe online at www.driftlessaxe.com.
Scoring is a match system where 10 axes are thrown per match. The player with the highest points of their 10 thrown axes wins the match. In case of a tie, a “sudden death” throw is made for the highest score. Sudden death throws are done until one thrower scores higher than the other. Scoring is determined by where you strike your axe into the target.