When the signal came Saturday, the file of orange-shirted men in LeClaire rushed backward, all pulling the thick rope that connected them to the opposing tug-of-war team in Port Byron across the Mississippi River.
As many hundreds of pounds of humanity flexed and struggled, the drifting, slack curve of gold-brown rope floating on the river suddenly skated across the water like a skipped stone, straightening beneath the teams’ opposition.
The Iowa team’s motion slowed as the resistance on the other end increased, but the men continued pulling, their boots stomping and digging furrows into the dust and their upper torsos straining as they worked their way backward.
Tugfest 2021’s signature contest had begun.
“Hopefully we are going to see an Iowa win,” Kari Long, president of the Iowa side of Tugfest, said just before the contest began. “Our guys and girls have been practicing very very hard.”
Both sides work hard to make the event happen, and Saturday was all about the teams, she said.
There were 11 three-minute bouts scheduled, and the side who carried the most of them (Illinois by an 8-3 count, according to their Facebook page) takes home the trophy and keeps it for the year. That trophy is an alabaster eagle statue.
The results of Saturday's contest are available on the Tugfest websites and Facebook pages.
When that time had elapsed during the first, the team in LeClaire settled on the ground over which they’d just struggled.
“The hardest three minutes of your life, I’m not gonna lie, but it’s well worth it,” Devin Allbee, captain of that first Iowa team, said afterward.
Allbee, of LeClaire, said participating in the event was a great, fun experience.
“The nice thing is, it’s the only event in the country that gets a major river shut down for three hours,” he said. “So it’s a one-of-a-kind event, so it doesn’t hurt to ever try to say you’ve done it.
A short time earlier, children had a go at the contest. Though smaller in scale, the effort was no less. The kids shouted and grimaced as they fought for every inch of ground.
They were encouraged from the sidelines, just as the adults would be a short time later: “Go! Go! Go!” “Give it all you got! Give it all you got!” “Pull!”
Emery Flockhart, 8, of Davenport, said her first bout was kind of easy. The second, though, was tougher — her team’s opponents made it feel as if there was an adult pulling on the rope.
Matt Kuberski, of the Muddy River Tug Club, refereed the junior contests.
He said he was hoping to get youth interested in tug of war. It’s a fun, healthy fitness sport.
There were other activities at the event Saturday — carnival rides, music and food.
“We have had a phenomenal weekend so far,” Long said.
She said she was not sure how many people had visited the 2021 event as of Saturday.
“But this levy has been jam-packed both Thursday and Friday night,” she said. “We’ve had record crowds.”