The term “beer garden” doesn’t quite suit the backyard of the Alaska Roadhouse Bar and Grill, but between the beer and the soft sound of trees looming over the high fences, it passes for one.
The garden isn’t what the crowd comes for Thursday nights anyway, nor even necessarily the beer. They come for four metal stakes nailed into the sandy ground and the imitation horseshoes that go with them.
A woman prepares to throw, positioning the horseshoe in front of her sunglasses with her eyebrows knit, focused. With the graceful step of a bowler, she swings her arm and flings the horseshoe underhand toward the far stake, 40 feet away. The metal U flies in a neat arc, landing with a nonchalant thud in the sand, a foot or so shy of the stake.
The two men nearest her target guffaw and saunter up to collect the horseshoes that she and the man on the other end have thrown. The other man, a white-bearded man in a baseball cap, had thrown a ringer — three points. The rest had landed close to the stake — one point each.
The two men take their turn, aiming for the perfect flip to land a ringer on the other pole. The first partnered with the woman on the other side; the others were a team. The team that reached 21 points first was declared the winner, only to play another round later in the night — the double-elimination method.
“We play double-elimination, so any team could come back from nothing,” said Brent Elkington, the owner of Alaska Roadhouse just north of Kasilof. “Even if you lose, you can fight your way back out of the loser’s bracket.”
The bar has been hosting the games for a few years now, and anywhere between two dozen and four people show up to play. The participants are split up into teams of two, and on busy nights, both courts will be going and there will be complex brackets rigged up, tournament style. The bar crowd also plays in a blind draw, so the teams are different every time.
“You’ve got some people who are really good, but the teams are different, so you’ve never got … one team that just beats everybody every time,” Elkington said.
At the end of the night, the winners split the $10 entry fees between them. The game is considered one of skill, not of luck, which is why it passes the litmus test for gambling, Elkington explained.
“There’s a certain skill to it,” Elkington said. “There’s some luck too, but some people can really figure it out and land ringer after ringer.”
Horseshoes is a community game elsewhere as well. The sport is represented nationally by the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association and by the Alaska chapter locally. Each year at the Southeast Alaska State Fair in Haines, competitors come from all over Southeast and the state at large to play in the Guy Hoffman Memorial Horseshoe Tournament.
Jessica Edwards, the executive director of the Southeast Alaska State Fair, said the tournament is named for a resident of Mud Bay who was known as a “colorful character.” A fixture in the community, he was known for music, art and playing horseshoes, she said. When he died in 2006, the fair named the tournament for him.
“Guy was in the hub of that Mud Bay community,” Edwards said. “He’d throw really big parties — horseshoes and beer and crab and was always doing that sort of thing for the community.”
Edwards said the Southeast Alaska State Fair offers a chance for Southeast residents to come together from their disparate communities, separated by water, and make, renew or enjoy ongoing friendships.
“In the horseshoe game, the older, more seasoned guys are playing against younger players,” she said. “People from Whitehorse and Juneau come over and play xx. …xxx … There is sort of a Southeast identity, but every community certainly is unique.”
On a smaller sale, it’s the same for the Alaska Roadhouse crowd — some come from the neighborhood, others from Sterling or Kenai. Elkington calls it a neighborhood bar — most of the regulars are from nearby and could walk home in a pinch. Not too long ago, the bar hosted a 90th birthday, he said.
On horseshoe nights, he said he’ll throw something on the barbecue — anything from hot dogs to fresh-caught king salmon.
“It’s a picnic every Thursday,” Elkington said. “We just want to take care of people, the neighborhood.”
Reach Elizabeth Earl at email@example.com.