Buckwheat Donahue arrived in Skagway from Colorado in the 1980s. “He made an immediate impact in the establishments on Broadway,” said William Brady, secretary of the Log Cabin Ski Society. “After a winter in town, he famously said he’d like to start a ski race to bring more women to town in the winter.” He succeeded, and 34 years later, the annual Buckwheat International Ski Classic has grown into a highlight of the winter calendar for many Yukoners and Alaskans.
The cross-country ski race typically draws around 400 participants, marking the end of the racing season in Alaska, Yukon and British Columbia. It features 10 km, 25 km and 50 km courses for the adults and a 5 km course for the kids. All take place on the groomed Log Cabin ski trails, north of Skagway. The race always has a theme, with participants strongly encouraged to dress in costume, along with a lot of extra fun including snow carvings and a banquet.
Donahue passed away last October, but not before leaving an indelible mark in the hearts of many across the North. “Buckwheat was one of those larger than life characters and the best thing we can do to keep his spirit alive is to keep howling at the event he loved most,” said Brady. Donahue’s trademark howl was a fixture in past races and no Buckwheat International Ski Classic would be complete without at least a few howls.
To honour Donahue’s memory, this year’s race will be dedicated to him.
“Usually we have a fun theme associated around a movie, book or character and there are hundreds of costumes,” said Brady. “This year, with Buckwheat passing away last fall, we will be honouring the man who made this all happen. But we still want it to be fun. We want everyone to wear their best costumes from past races, but we also expect a few Buckwheats and/or his old dog Leo out there. At the banquet we will be asking people to share memories about Buckwheat, in the spirit of celebration … participants can expect a howling good time.
“Only about 20 per cent of the 300 to 400 people who show up every year are really racing for the prizes. The rest of us are out for a fun day of skiing on the Log Cabin Cross Country Ski Trails. The central aid station is a Mecca of sorts. Once you finish your race, everyone heads back out there for the fun. The snow castle this year will have sculptures from Buckwheat’s past. Then we all head down to Skagway for a great meal and more fun downtown.”
Brady reflected on the very first iteration of the race.
“The first year, we started the race in Carcross and ended in Log Cabin,” he said. “This is before we knew what we were doing. We had Scott Home of Dyea camped on the ice of Lake Bennett. He was the aid station and all his orange juice was frozen. Anyway, I was Buckwheat’s accomplice, of course, and he planted me at the finish line while he buzzed off on a snow machine to see where everyone was. About an hour later, here comes Bob Boorman, the first of our 16 skiers, about three hours ahead of schedule. He was happy, but then he looked around and said, ‘Where’s Buckwheat?’ A few minutes later, here comes Buckwheat on the snow machine, embarrassed that he missed his first finisher. He never lived that down, but I don’t think Bob ever had to pay for a beer in Buckwheat’s presence ever again.”
If you would like to get involved in the event, but aren’t interested in strapping on a set of skis, Brady would encourage you to volunteer. Visit the website. The event needs aid station workers, timers, parking lot attendants and more.
“We have 125-150 volunteers annually, and they continue to make this race happen. We have a lot of Yukoners and Skagwegians and we thank them all,” said Brady.
The 34th annual Buckwheat International Ski Classic will be held on March 7. It takes place earlier in March than usual to avoid conflicting with the Arctic Winter Games later that month in Whitehorse. The race is a fundraiser for the Log Cabin Ski Society, based in Skagway, whose volunteers groom and set track on about 30 km of ski trails in the cross-country skiing recreation area managed by Recreation Sites and Trails B.C. The trails are located on the South Klondike Highway, 27 miles (43.5 km) north of Skagway. A link to the race’s Zone 4 registration site is available online on the Race Entry page at: BuckwheatClassic.com.