Fergus Scottish Festival president knows the challenges and benefits of annual event

Call Warren Trask a traditionalist.

The president of the Fergus Scottish Festival and Highland Games for this year is also the defending champion in the Masters division of the Heavy Events.

He has been competing since 1985 and trained the same way as many Scots from years gone by did – by farming.

“I always did farming labour in the hardest way I could,” he said in an interview. “I tried to work to the extreme – rather than do it smart.”

And with 20,000 to 25,000 bales to bring in each year, his muscles grew quickly. He also remembers that when it came to another traditional farming task, picking stones, everyone, including him, expected he would tackle the biggest rocks. He said while some carried one feed bag, he tried to carry two or three. Feed bags in those days were 100 pounds each.

It was excellent training for his entry into the Fergus Scottish Festival, which in those days was called simply, the Fergus Highland Games.

The Heavy Events were a huge part of that, and they are based on tasks that an ancient Scot would have been expected to do in everyday living. They now include the Fergus Stone, two different-weight hammer throws, a sheaf toss, two different tosses of weight for distance, the caber toss, and a competition of throwing weight for height. That last one would have helped see bales tossed up into the mow.

When Trask was 20, longtime festival worker Pat Mestern encouraged him to attend a school being held in Fergus for the Heavy Events. She thought he might do well.

“I went over and gave it a try. I was hooked,” said Trask. “I threw a couple of Games that year. I did ten Games the next year … It was a pretty quick start.”

Trask has built a number of memories over his 27 years of competition, but he particularly recalls – and people still talk about – his legendary Fergus Walk at the old Victoria Park venue off Tower Street.

The World’s Strongest Man competition was part of the show that year, with competitors from all over the world. Trask remembers other competitors “jabbing at me all week” over the Fergus Walk.

That competition might sound like a walk in the park, but in reality it means competitors have to pick up two steel bars with weights on them, and walk with them. The record distance going into that week was 410 feet – and considering each bar weighed 200 pounds, that distance seems impossible.

Trask remembers the event very well. Five of his fellow competitors surpassed 400 feet, and then it was his turn.

“I kind of ran out of spots to go,” is how he describes his route.

Trask grabbed the weights, walked the length of the park that was surrounded by cheering fans, and headed across the field to the exit.

He walked right out of the venue – and the crowd went bananas. He got even louder cheers when he turned around and walked back to the centre of the field before setting down 400 pounds.

That muscular feat has taken on the status of myth. Trask, laughing, said, “I’ve heard stories that I walked right downtown.”

But, he will concede, “It is one of my most memorable walks.” He said it was particularly difficult because of the slope leading out of the field. It is not easy to keep one’s balance while carrying 400 pounds.

He noted, too, that in the past three sets of Heavy Events, the Fergus Walk has returned, albeit late on the Saturday. Trask explained that it takes nearly all day for the Open Heavy Events to be completed and the idea is to give everyone a chance to take part. He said, though, it is tough carrying those weights across a field that is pitted with holes from the caber toss.

Executive position

While Trask has been involved with the festival for nearly 30 years, not all of his involvement has been with the games. He also takes part on the organizational side.

This year he is the president of the event, and he chuckled when asked if it is easier to perform in front of thousands of people, or to speak in front of them. He said his mother always encouraged him in public speaking, but the two are quite separate. He explained one is mental and the other physical, but, “They’re both quite challenging.”

He plans to enjoy both, but, “I have a huge passion for throwing … Speaking is more of a challenge.”

His job as president, though, does leave him in a bit of an awkward spot. He can recall no other president who is a defending Heavy Events champion. He said he hopes to compete this year, but his presidential work will have to come first.

Trask is looking forward to the festival this year. The Canadian Tug O’ War championships are returning for a second year, and he expects to see more teams than ever taking part in that popular event.

And, he noted, “There are more dancers in Fergus than at any other Games.” It will take two days of competition to decide all those winners.

There will also be musical entertainment in a huge number of venues that will be running all weekend.

Trask is looking forward to the downtown parade on Aug. 11, and noted the Toronto Rock will be part of that, with the National Lacrosse League trophy the team recently won. On Aug. 12 at the traditional Tattoo, John McDermott will perform and there will be fireworks, too.

Lt. Governor David Onley will be part of the Aug. 13 opening ceremonies. There will be 70 competitors in the Heavy Events, and popular author, Diana Gabaldon will be back.

Trask said it is the 20th anniversary of the publishing of her Outlander series, and the company has published a special set of her books for the Scottish Festival. Fergus is one of the few Highland Games she attends, Trask noted.

There is more to attract people at each festival, too. There is a genealogy tent, an Avenue of the Clans, Avenue of Artisans, food vendors galore, many of them featuring Scottish treats, heritage tents and a huge selection of events for the kids. The festival is truly a family event.

Statistical references

Last year, officials with the Scottish Festival and Highland Games did a survey of visitors and they found some surprising things.

For example, 28 per cent of the people attending the Fergus Scottish Festival and Highland Games are local.

Trask said he was not surprised, but he is pleased to see so many locals taking part.

“I used to say everybody in Fergus left town when the Games were on. That’s turned around now. They’ve embraced it so much in the last ten years,” he said.

The statistics show more than that.

Total spending at the festival is $1.57-million, and it creates 19 full-year job equivalents. It also provides $306,800 in taxes for the federal government, $258,100 for the provincial government, and another $3,200 for Centre Wellington Township.

The survey indicated non-local visitors spend $122 per person for their trip to the festival, and that includes $9 per person in restaurants outside of the Sportsplex venue.

Trask said he has noticed there is more traffic in downtown Fergus in the last few years, and he sees that as a big benefit.

“When you get a couple of dollars from each person … In that way, it’s a very beneficial festival. I think it’s a tremendous benefit to the community,” he concluded.

For tickets and more information about the Fergus Scottish Festival and Highland Games, visit www.fergusscottishfestival.com.