Consider the caber.
By “caber,” we mean “big log.” Its girth is that of a telephone pole, slightly tapered on one end. It’s about 20 feet long and can weigh 100 to 140 pounds.
Now consider giving it a hug and a heave.
By “heave,” we mean a calculated upward and outward thrust, so that the caber turns over its end. If the log lands straightaway from the thrower—a “12 o’clock” in caber-toss parlance—it’s considered a perfect toss. We’re aiming for accuracy here, not distance.
Do all this dressed in knee-high socks and something many people mistake for a plaid skirt, and we have the signature event of the upcoming Highland Games at Grandfather Mountain.
The “we” here encompasses the dozens of kilted clansmen who put the sport into the annual gathering that takes place in one of Western North Carolina’s most picturesque settings. This “we” denotes a shared heritage, a coming together for fun and games. And it captures the unique brotherhood of men who compete in the caber toss and six other events that make up what’s known as the heavy athletics portion of the Highland Games.
The Highland Games have always focused on sport. There’s a marathon, now in its 41st year. There’s a 5-mile racecourse that climbs 1,568 feet in elevation. There’s a 65-mile bike race that forces riders to climb 7,000 feet over its course. (Anybody who competes in all three gets a special prize, as well they should.) And don’t forget the dancing, piping, drumming and harp competitions.
But we all know that the real heart of the Highland Games lies in tossing the caber, turning the sheaf and throwing around very large chunks of rock and metal. That’s where guys like 40-year-old Larry McCandless of Jonesboro, Tenn., come in.
“I discovered these games back in 2002, and I wish I had discovered them a lot earlier,” says McCandless, a track-and-field athlete through college who competes in a top amateur class of the Highland Games. For him, the games afford a chance to challenge himself among an elite group. “It’s not like golf, where a lot of people can go out and do it. It’s something a lot of people don’t even know about.”
That doesn’t mean rookies aren’t welcome.
“The first time I went to compete, I had three or four guys who worked with me all day long who took time out to instruct me on the finer points,” McCandless says. “We always take time out to help each other out. We’ll coach each other. We’re all out there trying to better ourselves.”
So what, exactly, are these guys doing? McCandless offers a quick overview:
• The “stone of strength” throw: It’s similar to a shot put, using a 16- to 18-pound river stone.
• Heavy-weight throw for distance: Similar to a discus throw, an athlete picks up a 56-pound block of iron with a ring and small chain attached. A good throw is 20 to 40 feet.
• Light-weight throw for distance: The same throw, but with a 28-pound weight.
• Scottish hammer throw: The weight is a 22-pound metal ball at the end of a 36-inch-long rattan handle. An athlete grabs the handle with both hands and, with feet planted, spins it over his head for a throw. A good throw is 80 to 110 feet.
• The sheaf toss: The weight here is a 16- to 20-pound burlap sack jammed full of twine and tightly sewn. Using a three-tined pitchfork, the thrower tosses the sheaf up over a bar. For a 16-pound sheaf, 32 to 34 feet has been the maximum height, McCandless says.
• The 56-pound weight toss for height. It’s basically the same weight as the heavy weight described above, but with a shorter chain. An athlete throws it, one-handed, over his head. A good throw is about 14 feet.
Finally, there’s the caber toss, or “turning the caber.” It’s the marquee event, the one most associated with the Highland Games. It typically draws the biggest crowds because it’s so unusual, says McCandless. That, plus the danger factor.
“Most other events you can do pretty much as a rookie and not risk too much harm to yourself,” he says. “This one here, you can really hurt yourself. People have broken collar bones, cracked skulls.”
Eric Frasure, a competitor in the professional ranks of the Highland Games, knows a thing or two about turning a caber. The 23-year-old East Carolina University student, who grew up near Charlotte, has taken the Highland Games circuit by storm during his young career. He’s broken 13 records and holds eight in various events. He says the caber-toss event has it all.
“I think the most appealing thing is that you have very large, very intimidating individuals wearing kilts,” Frasure says. “Then you see someone throwing a shaved tree, and you watch to see if that guy gets crushed. Then you see some guy finesse it and flip it and everybody goes wild. It’s just a staple of the games.”
Just like McCandless, Frasure notes the friendly fraternity of throwers and says he picked up some good advice once from champion Ryan Viera. “He told me you have to think about pushing a truck with your shoulder.” The athlete has the caber on its end in front of him, Frasure explains, then hoists it up to get his folded hands beneath one end. Then it’s about visualizing the truck push.
“You lower your shoulder, take short, choppy steps and drive through. You build up speed and get your hands up over your head and pray to God it doesn’t hit you,” he says.
Frasure credits his father for getting him into the games, and adds that longtime Grandfather Mountain announcer Larry Satchwell and top thrower Tom Blythe helped him along the way. Still, he doesn’t take himself, or the games, too seriously.
“You have to be humble about the sport. You’re never going to get famous doing it.”
It all comes back to a brotherhood born of a shared heritage coupled with a love of the Highland Games and everything that surrounds it.
“It’s by far the most attractive sport I’ve ever been a part of,” Frasure says. “You make friends from age 3, who like big guys throwing trees, on up to 85-year-olds who like to watch and drink a scotch. It’s the crowd, the friends you make, the good beer you drink. That’s what it’s about.”
who: 53rd annual Grandfather Mountain Highland Games and Gathering of Scottish Clans
what: Aside from the sporting events, there’s a Celtic Jam Friday night and the Celtic Rock Concert Saturday night, as well as dancing demonstrations, bagpipe parades and sheep-herding demonstrations featuring Scottish border collies.
where: MacRae Meadows and various venues near Grandfather Mountain (near Boone)
when: Thursday, July 10, through Sunday, July 13 ($25-$10; $5 children under 12; children under 5 admitted free. www.gmhg.org or 733-1333)