What happened to Ax Men? Deaths and the true reason why it’s canceled

April 18, 2024
10 mins read

The reality-television series “Ax Men” gained millions of viewers as it focused on the logging operation of selected logging crews in the woodland forests in North America. The show depicted the extreme risks that loggers go through each time they enter the forest, along with their personal dramas. The danger they encountered wasn’t limited to human or machine errors, but also to the unforgiving forces of nature that easily disrupted an operation without warning. For nine seasons, the series entertained and educated people about the logging industry, until it was canceled in 2016. After three years, History Channel rebooted it with the new name, “Ax Men Reborn,” and its 10th season aired in 2019. However, no 11th season was announced, and most fans believe that it might be because of the Covid-19 pandemic, which made filming difficult to undertake.


“Ax Men” – The Reality-TV Show

When the “real-men-in-real-danger” kind of concept became a huge hit with viewers, the TV company Original Productions – which created the TV series such as “Ice Road Truckers” and “Deadliest Catch” – knew that a show featuring rugged American loggers would gain a huge following as well. On 9 March 2008, “Ax Men” premiered on History Channel with the episode “Man vs. Mountain”; it featured four logging companies – Gustafson Logging, J.M. Browning Logging, Pihl Logging, and Stump Branch Logging. Most of the members of the crew were either third or fourth generation family loggers, who inherited the profession from their fathers and grandfathers.

The first season with 14 episodes was set in the Oregon wilderness, home to millions of acres of trees. It was the perfect location for growing trees that would be logged, as they expected more than 60 inches of rainfall each year. Jay Browning, a veteran logger, said that trees were renewable resources, as Mother Nature helped in making the remote Oregon forest the perfect incubator for growing trees.


The harvesting and replanting of trees continued every year, and so for the next eight seasons, more logging crews from Montana, Washington, Florida and Louisiana joined the “Ax Men” family. Logging crews would come and go, but the crew ever-present in the show from the second to the last seasons was Rygaard Logging. The show gained many viewers who were fascinated by the way these loggers wrestled timber from the forest while somehow trying to leave it unscathed.

At the end of each season, all participating logging companies would tally the number of loads that they hauled from the forest. The crew who achieved the highest total loads won top place, complete with bragging rights as the best logging crew for that year.

“Ax Men” aired from 2008 up to 2016 with nine seasons and close to 160 episodes. It featured around 25 logging crews, with many loggers also embroiled in personal dramas, run-ins with the law, and scandals, which made the TV show even more interesting, not to say controversial.


Its popularity saw the show also became accessible to international viewers, through several cable channels and a wide variety of digital platforms.

Deaths in “Ax Men”

Logging is a dangerous business and one mistake could result in a physical injury or death, even to the most experienced logger. People who work in this industry knew from the get-go the difficulties they would face once they entered the forest to harvest timber.

William Bart Colnatuono – Helicopter Crash

On 17 November 2013, it was reported that William Bart Colnatuono was killed after his helicopter crashed while lifting logs from the Oregon forest. Witnesses said that a loud snapping sound was heard and the logs he just picked came crashing down to the ground. It was believed that a rotor broke off from the helicopter, and William lost control of the machine.

Bart joined the second and third seasons of “Ax Men” as part of the R&R Conner Aviation heli-logging crew, in which he used his 25 years of helicopter utility experience, from his military training.

The US Navy veteran and author of the suspense-thriller novel “Helilogging in a Sucker Hole,” died at the age of 54 and left behind his four children along with his fiancée. He would be remembered as a smart and competitive helicopter pilot, who wasn’t afraid to take risks.

Jimmy Smith – Cancer

On 1 November 2012, James “Jimmy” Smith, the founder of S&S Aqua Logging crew from South Cle Elum, Washington, died after his long battle with cancer. It was the first death in the “Ax Men” family, and all were saddened by his passing. He joined the reality-TV series in 2009 during the second season, and was an active participant until the sixth season. His logging company’s motto was “Recovering the forests of yesterday to save the forests of tomorrow.” Instead of cutting trees in the forest, he salvaged those sunken logs from river beds, which had been left by earlier generations of loggers, as they were floated downstream.


Jimmy died at the age of 56, and was survived by his mother, Leah, and two sons, James and Chad. He was an Army veteran, and after he was done with his military duties, he started his logging business with James. In his last season on the show, it was obvious that Jimmy was getting weaker, as his weight dropped by around 50 pounds. His son stepped up and became the new captain of their boat, Logzilla, as Jimmy could only direct operations from the shore.

Dwayne Dethlefs – Natural Death

The Pihl Logging crew was heavily featured during the second season, as Dwayne Dethlefs’ interesting comments were often used in promotional spots, or teasers for upcoming episodes for that season. However, for some reason, he and his son Dustin only appeared in six episodes. They both quit the show, and the owner of the company, Mike Pihl, didn’t offer any detailed explanation. Dustin returned in the fourth season, but worked for another logging crew, while Dwayne appeared again in the 10th season when the show was rebooted.


Dwayne died on 6 December 2019 in his home in Hillsboro, Oregon, at the age of 60. His family didn’t share the cause of death, but it was generally believed that he died in his sleep. The image of him carrying a power saw was what the fans would remember about him, and during his brief time with the show, he showed exemplary dedication to his work, combined with his funny personality.

Stacey Robeson – Heart Attack

When it was reported that Stacey Robeson had died, many speculative comments were thrown in by fans on social media, as the family never revealed the cause. His brother, Jalaina Robeson, only posted, ‘Many of you know my brother Stacey, and know he was truly one of a kind. He passed away suddenly on 15 December 2018 and left behind a wife and three children.’ It was so vague that fans of the show initially thought he died during logging operations, but later on it was generally accepted that he died of a heart attack.

Stacey was the yard engineer of the Pihl Logging crew, which made his death the second in the company. He became one of the more recognized stars in the show.

Ax Men

Gabe Rygaard – Vehicular Accident

The death of Gabe Rygaard, the owner of Rygaard Logging, was quite a shock to everyone. His company was the only crew who never left the show, from the moment they were invited to be part of the main cast, up to the time it was canceled, and even when it rebooted in 2019 for its 10th season. Arguably, Gabe was the most recognized face in the show so the duty to tell the fans that the show was canceled fell on his shoulders in 2016.

His death at 45 years of age was happened in a multi-vehicular road accident – it was reported that he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt at that time as he was driving his Ford Bronco, which probably made it difficult for him to survive the crash, which happened just outside of Port Angeles, Washington State. He was the only casualty, as the six occupants of the other two vehicles only had minor injuries. He left behind his three children along with his father, Craig, and brother, Jason.

When Rygaard Logging joined the TV show, Gabe was the new owner of the company, launched by his father in 1992.


He was able to manage it well, and acquired more clients so his loyal crew never ran out of work. After his death, Craig and Jason had a hard time getting enough jobs for the company to stay afloat. Jason wasn’t prepared to take the helm as he knew nothing about the business, so it was Gabe who managed it from 2009.

The Cancellation of “Ax Men”

Fans were confused as to why there was no announcement of new episodes for the next season of “Ax Men” after the final episode of the ninth season was aired. It was only cleared when Gabe Rygaard posted a message on the official Facebook page of Rygaard Logging, Inc., ‘We are sorry to say that Ax Men will not be returning for the tenth season. Thanks for all the support from our fans.’

Not all TV networks would explain why a TV show was canceled, but most of the time in broadcasting it was for financial reasons. Basically, it would mean that the last season aired had a low percentage of viewership. With no high TV ratings, the chance of attracting advertising or subscription revenue for the show was low.

However, there were cases when the reason for ending a TV show abruptly was because of controversies that led to unfavorable reviews, not only from the critics but from the viewers as well. The displeasure of the viewers could now easily be noticed through social media.

Reasons why “Ax Men” was canceled in 2016

Since there was no official explanation offered by Original Productions or History Channel, many theories were discussed by fans on social media. Here are some of the possible reasons why there were no more episodes ordered:

Federal investigations of S&S Aqua Logging

Some cast members became controversial for legal issues, about the way they handled their logging business. The late Jimmy Smith was under federal investigation for possible illegal logging practices; apparently, his company S&S Aqua Logging was issued with search warrants by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) after seeing their logging crew salvaging wood from the Hoquiam River, when they didn’t have the license to do so.

According to the DNR, no one could remove sunken logs from the river bed since it had become an important part of the river’s ecosystem.

Ax Men

It helped with providing food for fish, as it could harbor insects and trap sediment as well as creating riffles where fish could rest. Their illegal activities were only noticed when it was shown on an episode of the TV show. The Public Lands Commissioner, Peter Goldmark, said at that time, ‘These are valuable materials that belong to the public and this looks like theft, plain and simple.’ More than two dozen timbers were seized from the logging company by DNR officials, at that time worth around $10,000, as stated in the financial records of the company.

Jimmy Smith fraudulent disability claims

Aside from the illegal logging practices, Jimmy Smith, was also investigated for fraud when still alive of course, due to his monthly collection of disability checks he filed for back in 1993, and other medical issues in 1996. He was questioned about it since he became a popular figure through his participation in “Ax Men.” His disability claims contradicted the activities he was engaged in while was active in the show; it was reported that he had already cashed checks worth $50,000 over the years.


This case was probably dropped before his death, when it became apparent that Jimmy was battling cancer.

DUI case against one of the logging crew owners

Michael “Mike” D. Pihl, the owner of the Pihl Logging Company, was reportedly arrested after he flipped his Jeep CJ5 with the top down on his own driveway near Nehalem Highway in Oregon. After an initial police investigation, it was learned that he was driving under the influence of alcohol. It wouldn’t have been a huge deal since it happened in his private driveway, but his three children, who weren’t wearing seatbelts, were involved in the accident. Mike and his two daughters, three-year-old Rylee and five-year-old Jayda, only suffered minor injuries but his son, three-year-old Mathias, was pinned by a roll bar with his head to the ground, and was rushed to a Portland hospital by helicopter. When Mike was released from the hospital, the police charged him with third-degree assault, and three counts of reckless driving endangering another person.


Someone was caught hunting without a license

Chapman Logging, which joined the reality series during the seventh season and stayed until the ninth, became controversial because of one of its crew members, Roger Gunter. He worked as a master diver in the company, as the logging company salvaged logs from the river beds in Florida. Apparently, although Roger was also a skilled hunter, he didn’t have a hunting license. He was also into monkey fishing, and that became controversial when it was revealed to the public. Roger was caught six times engaging in allegedly illegal activities. While it was said that Roger had already changed his ways, fans were still shocked at the kind of nefarious characters that most of the logging companies hired as part of their crew.

Too much negative feedback on the show

Some professional loggers criticized the TV series for not being authentic, just to create fake scenarios to boost TV ratings.

There was too much cussing and swearing that instead of uplifting the status of the loggers, depicted logging crews as a bunch of hooligans with nothing better to do but fight with each other when the going gets tough. Somehow, “Ax Men” wittingly or unwittingly gave the viewers the impression that most of the logging crews were made up of incompetent, unprofessional and unsavory characters.

Conversely, some logging crews stayed only for a season, such as the Gustafson Logging Company who wasn’t invited to appear in another season because, they claimed, that the TV producers thought of them as too professional at their job.

People were curious as to why it was rebooted in 2019, if the reason it was canceled back in 2016 was due to low TV ratings. Included was just one logging crew from the former cast, and featured three new logging companies. The general consensus of the fans who aired their feelings after watching the rebooted show, was that the new season showed more professionalism and less over-dramatized scenarios.

Olivia Wilson

As the Freelance Writer at Net Worth Post, I steer producing riveting stories about the lives and triumphs of influencers. With an unwavering commitment to precision and a flair for weaving compelling tales, I guide our content creation, from the depths of research to the pinnacle of narrative excellence. My responsibilities encompass the full spectrum of editorial management, including the meticulous investigation, narrative development, and upholding the integrity and high standard of our output.

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