Kassi Johnson, a competitor from Kenai, prepares to toss the caber during the women's portion of the 2011 Alaska Scottish Highland Games, which were held June 25 at Eagle River Lions Community Park. An crowd estimated at more than 5,000 showed up for the games and Gathering of the Clans at the 30th annual Scottish athletic and cultural festival. Johnson placed third in the women's overall competition.
STAR PHOTO BY MATT TUNSETH
With an ever-present mist draping the surrounding mountains, this year's Alaska Scottish Highland Games caused one Celtic visitor to marvel at the similarities to home.
"What better day to be here than today?" asked Irish ambassador Michael Collins, a special guest who spoke during the opening ceremonies of the 30th annual event.
Collins was among thousands of people who turned out in drizzly weather for the state's biggest showcase of the best piping, drumming, throwing and heaving this side of Edinborough.
"You are at the best Highland games in America!" announced Anchorage car salesman Rick Morrison, the special guest emcee for the event.
Though Morrison's boast could be challenged by Outsiders (a couple annual games in the Lower 48 typically draw far more fans than the estimated 5,000 who showed up in Eagle River), his enthusiasm was genuine. And when judged by the caliber of athletes in attendance, his comments could not be more on the money.
That's because among the participants in this year's event were five giants of the sport, including 2010 International Highland Games Federation World Champion Larry Brock (6-foot-3, 285 pounds) and the world's best caber man in Daniel McKim (6-5, 300). They were joined by Andrew Keedah Hobson (6-4, 265), Gregory Bell (6-3, 305) and Harrison Bailey III (6-3, 290).
McKim turned in an awesome performance, winning all eight individual events to take the overall pro title (see story, page 18).
The professionals weren't the only tough guys or gals walking around the athletic fields on Saturday. The big boys were joined by amateurs of all ages and sizes, with competitions in open, amateur, master's, novice and children's divisions.
As always, the traditional games drew big crowds as athletes took turns doing their best to make large weights travel as far (or in one case, high) as possible. In the men's pro, open and master's classes, eight events made up the overall competition, with each athlete given points based on his ranking in each individual event. The professional men's events included two "stones" (the open, a 20-pounder thrown with a moving approach, and the Braemar, a and 22-pound stone thrown from a standing position), two "weights" (28- and 56-pound weights attached by a short metal chain to a handle), two Scottish hammers (16- and 22-pound metal balls attached to a long wooden or plastic stick), the weight for height (in which a 56-pound weight must be heaved over a crossbar) and the caber toss, in which a giant Sitka spruce log must be turned end-over-end as accurately as possible. The events are basically the same for the men's open and master's classes, while the women only throw one stone and their implements are a bit lighter. Novices only throw four events.
The games were a constant source of laughter and cheers as athletes and fans alike urged each other on. McDonald, who trains at his home in Kenai, said the event is more about getting together with longtime friends than taking home glory.
"The camaraderie among athletes is better than any sport I've found," McDonald said.
Slippery conditions didn't seem to be much of a problem for competitors, although a couple of the heavy, unwieldy objects did get loose. Once, a hammer slipped from a participant's hand and gave a couple judges a good wake-up call. Another time, a competitor launched a weight over the perimeter fence and crashing toward scattering fans.
"That is why we stay on our toes," remarked the public address announcer.
Things didn't get too slick, and the rain actually held off most of the day as lines of fans streamed into Eagle River Lions Community Park, where most of the grounds were devoted to the festival. A sizable contingent of laddies in attendance and many of the lasses wore kilts, while others came decked in festive hats or simple, colorful dresses that made the park look like a miniature Brigadoon.
"It's just like Scottland," remarked Games chair Chris Anderson.
The event also served as the annual Gathering of the Clans, an opportunity for people from the various familial groups from Shaws and Morrisons to Grahams, Campbells and Scotts to reunite and celebrate their ancient heritage.
Wasilla's Jeff Graham (clan motto: "Ne oublie, or, Do not forget,") marched in the opening ceremonies at the front of his clan, and later sat at a booth playing the fiddle and meeting with other members of his far-flung tribe.
Graham said more people have been showing up at the Gathering of the Clans as folks get in touch with their ancient roots through online genealogy research and the social networking.
"With the age of the Internet, we are able to re-form the clans," he said.
Anchorage's Kerry Aldridge said she was born in Scotland, and enjoys coming to the games each year because of the haunting, traditional folk music that seems always to be playing in the background.
"I love the bag pipes," she said.
Aldridge and other Scottish music lovers were in the right place, as this year's event also included plenty of piping, as bands of pipers and drummers squared off in what is essentially the Super Bowl of Scottish music. Five bands competed in this year's competition, including Captain Cook's Own Alaska Highlanders, the Anchorage Scottish Pipe Band, the Crow Creek Pipe and Drums, the James J. Coyne Memorial Pipe Band and Alaska Celtic Pipes and Drums. Crow Creek took home the pipe band championship. Other musical winners on the day included Piper of the Day Conor Hlazinka of Anchorage, Side Drummer of the Day Brandi Larson of Fairbanks and Tenor Drummer of the Day Christopher Larson of Fairbanks.
Each band brought its own unique style to the competition, and pipers and drummers could be seen practicing their intricate routines which usually included twirling drum sticks and tightly-choreographed marches on the outskirts of the festival before their turn to play.
Eagle River High freshman-to-be Chase Newbrough, 14, is a tenor drummer with the Alaska Celtic Pipes and Drums group. Newbrough said the bands practice most of the year in order to be at their best every year when the last Saturday in June rolls around.
"It's a lot of work," Newbrough said.
Though many of the pipers and drummers had more salt than pepper in their hair, Newbrough was among a sizable group of players still on the upward side of the hill. That's not by accident, said Dan Henderson, a member of Captain Cook's Own Alaska Highlanders.
"All bands are constantly recruiting," Henderson said.
Though the bands are competitive, Henderson said his favorite part each year is the closing ceremonies, where all the bands come together for a group performance.
"The mass band is what I enjoy," he said.
Hugh McMillan, who grew up in Scotland and still returns regularly, said the games reminded him a lot of home.
"Aye, it's pretty good," McMillan said.
The Scotsman said the popularity of the festival shows how big of an influence his small country's people have had on the rest of the world.
"It's amazing, the Celtic heritage is all over the world," he said.
The games and music, he said, are the perfect way to gather Scots and those who love them together to celebrate that heritage.
"It's a family thing, aye," he said. "Which is what they're meant to be."
Contact Matt Tunseth at 694-2727 or email@example.com
This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, June 29, 2011.