By Jeff Brady
Skagway’s Buckwheat Donahue, a man larger than all of us in size and spirit, journeyed around the bend on Monday, Oct. 14, at age 68.
He was born Robert Carlin Donahue Jr. on Aug. 16, 1951 in Oklahoma City, and ironically died in the city of his birth, after spending much of his life in Skagway.
At a young age, Buckwheat’s family moved from Perry, Oklahoma, to Denver, Colorado. One of his early jobs was hawking hot dogs at Denver Bears baseball games, near where Mile High Stadium would rise for his beloved football Denver Broncos. He was a life-long fan.
He graduated high school at St. John’s Military School in Kansas, and studied history at Western State College in Gunnison, Colorado, and also at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
As a young man, he found himself working as a “land man” for independent oil companies in Wyoming and other western states, where he would buy up or lease subsurface rights. He eventually started his own Buckwheat Oil and Gas, based in Denver.
Along about 1984, Buckwheat and a friend decided to come up to Alaska. For a month they painted houses in Cordova, and then journeyed to Sitka where they boarded a ferry. It was a wild night in the bar, and the next morning Buckwheat found himself asleep in the solarium, waking to two women hovering over him as the boat cruised by the mountains lining Lynn Canal. He said he thought he had gone to heaven.
Then, one of the women said, “You must be Buckwheat, they’ve been calling your name for hours.”
“Where are we?” he said.
“Almost to Haines.”
“Haines?! What happened to Juneau?”
The two women talked him into coming on to Skagway with them, and his northern legend began. He stayed in the old Bunkhouse, participated in several Fourth of July events, and after a few days declared that he would be back some day to buy a house. He had fallen in love with Skagway.
Nearly a year later, after his mother’s death, he came to Skagway and was true to his word, purchasing a home in the middle of town. With his dog Leo, who had a hot dog tab at the popcorn wagon, they joined the cast of characters on Broadway. He moved his business north as well, but also found work as a bartender and pizza cook at the Red Onion Saloon, and as a summer entertainer.
He played Frank Reid and other roles in the Days of ’98 Show at the Eagles, where he became worthy president, and then got a job as a gold-panning balladeer at Liarsville Gold Camp. It was there that he started reciting Robert W. Service poetry, and became so good that he eventually created his own show, “Buckwheat At Your Service,” initially at the AB Hall, and later at the National Park Service auditorium.
He punctuated each show with a long howl, welcoming the audience to join in. He also produced two CDs of Service verse and Jack London stories.
In the winter he was popular with Elderhostel groups coming through town, and he also landed on several Alaska-themed TV programs. He once spent a week driving Martha Stewart around Alaska and the Yukon in an RV. He also toured western states, opening for John McEuen, founder of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Delbert McClinton.
He loved the outdoors and was an avid hiker and paddler. He co-founded the outfitter Packer Expeditions and paddled many Yukon rivers with friends.
His biggest legacy is the Buckwheat Ski Classic, started in 1987 as a “way to get more women to come to Skagway in the winter,” he famously said. It drew many men as well and has grown to host around 400 cross-country skiers annually on the Log Cabin Ski Trails, which are maintained by Skagway volunteers.
Buckwheat himself was awarded the Helen B. Clark Award for volunteer service in Skagway. He also co-founded the Dyea to Dawson Centennial Race to the Klondike, which ran in 1997 and 1998, and evolved into the annual Yukon River Quest. He was also on Sport Yukon’s organizing committee for the Klondike Road Relay, and its official starter in Skagway for 20 years. Each race began with a howl.
His involvement in these events helped propel him to seats on the KHNS and Skagway Convention & Visitors Bureau boards, and eventually to the job of tourism director in 1999. He tried a few other events which didn’t stick, like a fall Paranormal Festival, but the Skagway Marathon and the North Words Writers Symposium were very successful and carry on to this day.
He served the community in the tourism job for 16 years. He received the Denali Award from the Alaska Tourism Industry Association in 2010, but he was even prouder of organizing a Guinness World Record Egg Toss on July 4, 2008, with 1,162 tossers. The record still stands.
More than anything though, he loved to give, in small and large amounts, to people in need, whether to a group building a skating club warming hut or to a family down on its luck. The community responded by coming together for him in his time of need, after a fire, gathering to rebuild his house.
Then came this. In the middle of his tourism job tenure, he received permission to take a year-long sabbatical to raise money for Skagway’s Dahl Memorial Clinic, an ambitious journey by foot and paddle across the North American continent. Buckwheat was a diabetic and had suffered a heart attack about a year prior to the trip. He had stopped smoking and rarely drank any more, and he wanted to get healthy and do more good.
He started out from Miami, Florida, on Oct. 1, 2005 and walked 4,600 miles, reaching the Teslin River in the Yukon on June 8, 2006. From there he paddled down to the Yukon River and out to Kotlik, Alaska, another 2,200 miles, reaching the Bering Sea in early August. After a flight to Nome, where he walked some more, and another flight to Whitehorse, he set off for the final leg.
On Sept. 8, 2006 he walked into Skagway. The newspaper stopped the presses, the school let out early, traffic halted on a busy summer day, and all the children howled and followed him down Broadway to the AB Hall. After 327 days on road and river, he was home. His shoes were bronzed and hung in the entryway of the new clinic building, for which he raised nearly $75,000.
Several friends joined him on parts of the journey. You can still follow the nearly day-by-day blog at www.buckwheat.info.
Buckwheat retired from the municipality in May 2015. His post-retirement journey took him north for a while last year to the Anchorage area, and eventually to his original home state of Oklahoma. He moved there at the behest of friends and family who tried to get him in an affordable assisted living situation due to his failing health.
Just as he was finally getting settled in September, his health began to further deteriorate, and his journey took a turn toward that final bend. He passed on peacefully.
Buckwheat is survived by his niece, Kelly Sterling Cunningham, who followed him to Alaska, and her son Matthew Cunningham, both of Juneau; cousins Barbara Bigham of Oklahoma City, Maudie (and Mike) Kuns of Edmond, Oklahoma, and Kristen Kuns, of Oklahoma City, and Leslie (and Bill) McFarland of Houston, Texas; and sister Sara Donahue of Idaho Springs, Colorado.
He was preceded in death by his parents, Robert Carlin Donahue and Eileen Seevers Donahue.
Privately, Buckwheat considered himself a quiet lover of life, of books and art, and in love with the wilderness around him.
This past summer in a text to me, he wrote an epitaph, should that day come soon: “By God, he loves the mountains, and by God he loves Skagway, and he loved the Yukon just like he loved Skagway, and by God what a powerful river.”
Family and friends will be planning a series of memorials for Buckwheat in the future. As he closed every correspondence, “Take care and keep on howling!”