PALMER — The 2019 Alaska Scottish Highland Games brought in professional athletes from the Lower 48 along with skilled locals to test their might and skills in a series of traditional competitions from the iconic stone and caber toss, to the uniquely Alaskan salmon toss and newly added sheaf toss.
There’s another tradition at this enormous, annual event that’s open to anyone.
“Anyone can do it. You just have to have the right team to win,” participant Jake Reynolds said.
Like most of the traditional games, the tug-of-war is simple to set up, just requiring a rope and teams to pull against one another. The key to this event is working unison, getting the right rhythm going on your side and trying to break the opposing team’s rhythm.
Richard Shulz from Anchorage team Tug and Chug has been doing the tug-of-war at the Highland Games since 1999. He said that it’s the kind of event groups of friends can look forward to without worrying about taking the competition too seriously.
“It’s fun. It’s laid back,” Shulz said.
Shulz explained that every team needs to have a front and back “anchor,” meaning two of the heaviest and strongest team members at the beginning and end of their side of the rope. It’s common for the back anchor to tie the rope around their waist.
Tug-of-war has been described as a fan favorite at the Highland Games, drawing in numerous participants and spectators with its popularity. Anyone can create a team. Only eight people can pull at a time, but teams are allowed to have 11 members and a non-pulling coach.
Four different teams participated this year and communities from around the state were represented. Shulz said that it’s normally been just three teams in the past so he was excited to have more participants this year.
“It’s exciting to have four teams. More competition is better,” Shulz said.
The event took over an hour-and-a-half to conclude in a double-elimination face-off. Children of all ages got to form impromptu teams and pull the rope several times between matches so teams could briefly rest and hydrate.
Temperatures spiked to the upper 80s on Saturday, adding an extra level of intensity to the athlete’s toils.
The Masters of Iron was the only Valley team this year. Owners Jana and Wesley Powell rallied stocky, muscular members of their gym together to try their might on the rope. This was their third year in a row.
“It’s just fun… we just pull,” Wesley said.
Wesley said that two years ago, their team didn’t walk away with a win but they did set a record for the most consecutive pulls in one tournament. They pulled 13 times that year.
While many participants have said it’s a more laid back event to be enjoyed for its own sake, it’s still a test of strength, both physically and mentally.
“It’s exhausting,” Wesley said.
Jake Reynolds pulled with his wife Carleigh Reynolds on the Masters of Iron Team. Carleigh said she was the first woman to join their team.
“I told Wesley, I said, ‘watch, you’re gonna’ have the first female on the pulling team and we’re gonna’ win,’” Carleigh said with a laugh.
Jake said this is a very open event that calls for a unified team that pulls to the same rhythm.
“It’s not one individual person,” Jake said.
Wesley said that he has deep Scottish roots and he has a detailed family tree mapped out, going back many generations. He noted that he only wore his kilt for the Highland Games.
“I just love Scottish heritage,” Wesley said.
Everyone on the team wore kilts but they were army green instead of the traditional plaid. Jake said that he doesn’t have any Scottish heritage but had fun throwing on a kilt and pulling for the team.
“I have no Scottish in me, just playing the part,” Jake said with a laugh.
It all came down to a sudden death match between the Masters of Iron verses the Straphangers. The Masters of Iron managed to get a solid rhythm going in the final bout, pulling off their first tug-of-war victory ever.
“I almost cried,” Wesley said.
After shaking hands with the Straphangers, the Masters of Iron team rejoiced and embraced each other, posing for a group picture after the match.
“This is all family. This is great,” Carleigh said.
Wesley said the Straphangers were a tough team to beat. He said the Highland Games is a tradition for the gym and they will be back next year.
“We’ll do it every year- win or lose,” Wesley said.
Contact Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman reporter Jacob Mann at firstname.lastname@example.org