‘We have a beautiful community’: Athletes come together for highland games
Wearing a kilt speckled with ironed-on patches, Anchorage athlete Rob Moody picked up a large burlap cube with a pitchfork and faced a tall gate. The 16-pound projectile— known as a sheaf — was one of many flying through the air at Karen Hornaday Park last weekend, at the Kachemak Bay Highland Games.
Moody threw the sheaf higher than the other athletes in his age group and, Saturday afternoon, went for a field record, at 33 feet. He just narrowly missed the mark, getting the height right, but not quite nailing the placement.
Still, teammates cheered him on enthusiastically from the sidelines.
“When this starts, at the beginning of the event, none of us know each other’s names,” said Homer athlete Travis Ogden. “And probably two events in, we all know each other’s names and everybody cheers each other on. It’s kind of nice.”
In their twelfth year, the Kachemak Bay Highland Games bring together athletes, vendors, Celtic musicians and spectators to celebrate feats of strength and Scottish culture.
Palmer hosts games every year, as does Homer. On Saturday, coordinator Renee Krause said this year’s games seemed particularly busy.
“There seems to be a lot more people coming through, and a lot more people from out of the area, too,” she said from behind a ticketing booth.
Krause attended highland games as a kid in Florida. She helped get the Homer games started in 2011, as part of the city’s parks commission.
This year’s games were dedicated in memory of her daughter, Rhiannon Wistrand, who was the artist for the Kachemak Bay Scottish Club and died of cancer last year.
Today, the Homer games bring up judges from Idaho for events like the caber toss and Kilted 5K. Homer puts its own local spin on some events, too, including a halibut tossing event.
Krause said athletes hail from as far away as California and, in one case, Australia. She said sometimes tourists who are just passing through will see the games and sign up then.
Many athletes seem to stumble across the sport. Chehalia Walsh, of Anchorage, started competing three years ago.
“It was my ‘yes’ year, and my boss asked me if I wanted to do this,” she said. “And I said, ‘Yes.’ And then I said, ‘What is it?’”
Rob Moody, the sheaf thrower, said he grew up down the street from where games used to be hosted, in Eagle River.
“It started about the time I was born, in the early '80s,” he said. “And I kind of watched it as I was growing up, and I knew ‘One day I’m going to do this. I really want to do it.”
He said he took to throwing like a duck to water. Today, the games take him to competitions around the continent.
“I like to throw. I’ve always liked to throw,” he said. “What makes it fun is all these people. These guys are like another family.”
The games also draw a wide range of spectators, donning traditional Scottish attire and other medieval garb. Tim Keck, of Soldotna, watched the sheaf toss from beneath a shady tree, sporting knee-high leather boots he bought at a Renaissance festival.
“I have what’s called a modern kilt,” he said. “This is the tartan of Clan MacNeil. My grandmother was a MacNeil, from the island of Barra.”
Keck said he comes back to the games because it’s a chance to be outside and enjoy the culture.
But Scottish ancestry isn’t a requisite. Gabriella Rinehart, of Anchorage, started throwing in 2021. She said it was a throwback to her track and field career in high school and college.
“We have a beautiful community,” she said. “I’m African American, I’m not Scottish. And I was welcomed immediately. So just open your mouth and say ‘Hey I want to try this, I want to do this.’ And we’ll welcome you in too.”
To those who are thinking about getting involved next year, she said to just do it. You might take to it like a duck to water, too.