Competitors go medieval at the Kootenai Highland Gathering

by WILL LANGHORNE
The Western News | July 24, 2020 8:37 AM

In front of him lay a 56-pound kettlebell weight. Above him, a horizontal pole hung suspended 12 feet off the ground. His goal: to generate enough momentum by swinging the weight between his legs to lob it clear over the bar.

And he had to do it all while wearing a kilt.

Spenser Jessop, 22, squatted down over the kettlebell, grabbing its handle with one hand and placing the other on his thigh for support. He swung the weight once, twice before throwing his shoulders back and sending the kettlebell soaring. With only inches to spare, the weight cleared the bar and Jessop let out a whoop, celebrating a new personal record.

“It felt really good, after spending so much time in the weight room, coming out to PR,” he said afterward.

For Jessop, a resident of Pinesdale, Mont., the Kootenai Highland Gathering was the first competition of its kind that he had been able to attend in 2020.

The gathering, essentially a mashup of a renaissance fair and a CrossFit competition, was held at the River Bend Restaurant Field off state Highway 37 on July 17 and 18. Burly athletes sporting flat caps and kilts came from as far as Florida and Alaska to compete in nine events which all boiled down to who could lob, fling or pitchfork a weight the farthest.

Dee Teske, one of the directors of the Kootenai gathering, said highland events are normally held across the world, but most have been cancelled in recent months due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Because of these unusual circumstances, the Lincoln County event drew 85 competitors, more than double the number Teske usually hosts.

All the newcomers she had talked with, from novices to world class amateurs, told her they were thrilled to test their strength along the Kootenai River, surrounded by the pine spotted peaks of the Purcell Mountains.

“Most of these athletes are used to competing on football and track fields,” Teske said. “One guy told me ‘I’m at a highland game with my feet in the river. This is great.’”

Along the sidelines, vendors from across the northwest sold everything from Celtic stamped pottery to reindeer skins from Norway. Chieftains of Scottish and Irish clans, who boasted of battles their ancestors fought against Norse raiders over a thousand years ago, completed the scene with their proprietary tents, banners and tartans.

When the games began on the morning of July 18, even the weather seemed to be playing along with the highland theme. A low hanging mist roiled over the slopes around the field as Mandi Vorhees, 38, of Eaton, Ohio, warmed up for the sheef toss event. Like the weight over bar competition in which Jessop set his personal record, the sheef toss involves slinging a heavy object over a strung pole. The two distinctive flairs of the event are that the weight is a 12-pound burlap bag and the flinging implement is a pitchfork.

To shouts of “let’s go girl,” Vorhees, ranked 25 among amateur women nationwide in the games last year, stepped up and sunk the tines of her fork into the bag. She began her throw by dipping her shoulders down as if she intended to ram the pitchfork into the turf like a shovel. Vorhees then lifted the bag up in an arc and flung it skywards. Whirling end over end, the sack flew over 22 feet into the air and flopped over the bar.

Across the field, Mike Lanegan, a competitor in the 50 and over category from Pendleton, Ore., was trying his hand — and the rest of his body — in the caber toss event.

The caber toss, perhaps the most eccentric highland game event, requires contestants to lift what is essentially a tree trunk from its base, carry it for a minimum of three steps and flip it once over itself. For Lanegan’s category, the trunk or caber, was 18 feet long and weighed 80 pounds.

With the caber standing vertically on one end, Lanegan squatted down, wrapping his arms around it and balanced its weight against one shoulder. After collecting his breath, he heaved the hunk of wood up and slid his hands under its base.

“Caber up,” a judge shouted and Lanegan began trundling down the field.

Having built up enough momentum, Lanegan lifted his arms up over his head and launched the base of the caber in an arc. For a moment, it spun like a Goliath-size throwing axe. After completing half a rotation, one end of the caber struck the ground and the trunk crashed to the field like a felled tree.

“The most important thing is balancing,” Lanegan said, explaining his technique.

At a far end of the field, past the weight for distance ranges where 56-pound balls sliced the air like silent mortars, was the hammer throw event. A distant cousin of the discus track and field event, the goal of the hammer throw is self-explanatory: how far can you lob a stick with a weight on the end of it?

Waiting for his turn to throw, John Van Beuren, 25, of Boise, Idaho, helped measure the distance of his competitor’s attempts. Van Beuren, who placed second at last year’s All-American Highland Games in Wichita, Kan., did not expect to be competing in Lincoln County this year. The very weekend of the Kootenai Highland Gathering he had planned to be over 4,000 miles and an ocean away representing the U.S. in the International Highland Games in Vinstra, Norway.

While disappointed to have missed the international games, which were canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Van Beuren said he was enjoying the competition in Lincoln County. Working with young novices on their technique at the gathering had also been rewarding.

“It doesn’t matter how bad you throw, it’s awesome to have new people out,” he said.

Even in the world-class amateur level that he competes in, Van Beuren has found that athletes are always willing to give each other pointers. It’s this spirit of camaraderie that has kept Maddie McClain, 17, of Boise, Idaho, coming back to the games for nine years.

“Basically everyone here is family,” she said, looking around the field at her opponents.

Although she plans to play volleyball in college, McClain said she intends to continue competing in highland games and hopes to eventually launch a professional career in the sport.

In addition to drawing athletes, the atmosphere of the Kootenai gathering also attracted a few of the vendors. For David Clark, a chiropractor and potter from Bonners Ferry, Idaho, the event provided the perfect venue to sell and demonstrate the making of his stoneware. Beneath the shade of his tent, only yards away from where athletes were shot-putting 20 pound stones, Clark spent most of the day molding clay on his potter’s wheel.

“I’ve always loved playing with clay. I started by playing in mud as a kid” he said hunched over his wheel with his hands fussing at an amorphous lump.

From the age of 14, Clark dedicated himself to the craft. He went to summer art school and apprenticed for four years with a potter in Pennsylvania.

“But then life got in the way,” he said as he sculpted the walls of a drinking vessel out of the clump.

While he now spends more time molding backs than clay, Clark relishes weekend getaways with his wife, Cheryl to farmer’s markets and highland games where he can continue exploring his first passion.

For Jason Jones, of Spokane Wash., the Kootenai Highland Gathering provided an escape from the shackles of modern life.

“I love the fact that there is no cell service out here,” Jones said while gesturing at the surrounding mountains.

For a few short weekends a year, Jones is able to don a kilt or other period wear and fully embody the persona of a pre-industrial tradesman at renaissance fairs and highland games. In keeping with his character, Jones said the majority of the wares that his company, Full Moon Tradesmen, offers were acquired by bartering.

Running his hands over his stock, he pointed out knives from Tacoma, wolf pelts from Alaska and reindeer skins from Norway. In a corner of his stall, stood a rack containing a small armory of imported axes and swords. While the white canopy tents he used at the Kootenai gathering were relatively modest, Jones said he would bring out large medieval and viking A-frame tents for some events.

“Sometimes we do beer gardens where we offer homebrewed beer,” he said. “People love that.”

As the games wound down, two competitors decided to make attempts at the men’s amateur world record for the weight over bar event. Like Jessop, the men would be lobbing a 56-pound kettlebell. The bar they would be throwing at, however, was hung a daunting 18 feet and 7 inches off the ground. And for one of the competitors, a kilt was not the only article of clothing that threatened to hamper his performance.

In a sobering reminder of the state of the world outside of the gathering, Justin Clifford, 33, of Spokane Wash., never once took off his mask while competing or making his attempt at the weight over bar record. Clifford, who is a physical therapist, said he made this choice because he felt it was his professional and social responsibility to do what he could to avoid spreading the virus.

Both Clifford and Carter Comito, 29, of Colfax, Wash., made three attempts at the record, each of which fell short by inches.

With highland games canceled across the country, Clifford recognized that it might be a while before he would get another chance at the record. Nevertheless, he intended to bide his time and keep training.

“I might take a few more swipes at it,” he said.

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A traditional Celtic dance is demonstrated for attendees of the games. (Will Langhorne/The Western News)

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John Van Beuren of Boise, Idaho, competes in the caber toss. (Will Langhorne/The Western News)