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Bringing wildlife to life

Troy Helget has been carving chainsaw sculptures for about 11 years. He is also a taxidermist.1 / 3
Troy Helget is pictured with several of his carvings.2 / 3
This sunfish is one of Helget's wood carvings.3 / 3

When a storm blew down a tree in his yard, Troy Helget carved himself a new career.

As Helget surveyed the damage caused by the strong winds, he didn't see destruction - he saw possibilities. Instead of getting rid of the stump of the tree, he decided to make it into a work of art.

"I had this big stump, so I carved a big fish in it," said the Alexandria resident of his first chainsaw carving. "It turned out pretty good, so it became a hobby."

This new hobby, using a chainsaw to create various animals and fish from tree stumps and other wood, soon grew from an occasional weekend carving to a way to make a living - not surprising considering his lifelong love of both art and the outdoors.

Helget has never been a stranger to artistic ventures. Throughout high school in Parkers Prairie, art and shop were his favorite classes.

"I always wanted to be an artist," he recalled.

After high school, Helget took a course in taxidermy. He immediately showed talent in the art of preparing and preserving the skins of animals and stuffing and mounting them in lifelike form.

One of his projects, a walleye, earned a first place in the professional division in Iowa, a second place in the masters division in Minnesota, and third place in the world in the master's division.

"The walleye is my pride and joy," he said.

After a couple years of teaching taxidermy, Helget purchased a bait and tackle and taxidermy shop in Park Rapids. When he discovered his knack for carving after the storm, he sold the business. Wanting a warmer climate, he moved to Florida to pursue carving as a full-time career, working at an art gallery there.

After three years in Florida, Helget missed the change of seasons, so he moved back to Minnesota in 2004 and started Top Notch Artworks Taxidermy and Wood Carving.

"My friends say I'm crazy, but I missed the ice fishing," he said of why he came back.

Helget's talents extend beyond more than large chainsaw carvings out of tree trunks. He also does fine hand carvings, wood sculptures, relief carvings, carvings on antlers, and he paints on various canvasses, including antlers and emu eggs.

While the majority of his work since he has been back is focused on carving, Helget has recently begun to incorporate taxidermy into his business.

"What helps my carving is being a good taxidermist," he explained. "It really helps when you're carving to know the anatomy of an animal. It makes you feel good when you can carve a fish and they say, 'That's a beautiful mount,' and it's a wood carving. I get that a lot."

While his favorite art form is carving, taxidermy also brings him satisfaction on another level, and it's not just about the finished product. It's about the memory he has preserved.

"To be able to take a fish and mount it, give it life again for someone to enjoy and get it to look like it just came out of the water, that's the best," he said. They will remember that for the rest of their life."

Helget puts just as much effort into his carvings as well, and considers himself a "perfectionist." His carvings are all over the United States, including a northern "piking" - a purple and gold northern pike complete with Viking horns - that he carved, painted and gave to Red McCombs, owner of the Minnesota Vikings football team.

A few more of his notable carving accomplishments in the area include a 16-foot-tall bear at a private residence on Lake Carlos and two large eagles with their wings open, clutching a fish in their talons. He recently completed a Snoopy dog for a client and carves several bears, fish and birds (his work can be viewed on the website

"I specialize in customer satisfaction," Helget concluded. "When a customer comes to get [their order], just the look on their face, they are in awe. That's why I do it. That's what does it for me."