By Aly De Angelus –
I had heard about Buckwheat Donahue and briefly met him during my summer 2018 internship at The Skagway News, but nothing could have prepared me for the complete experience at the 34th annual Buckwheat International Ski Classic — not even his favorite Kaitaia hot sauce, which was a race-day delicacy imported all the way from Carl Johansen’s New Zealand friends.
This year’s event March 7 was the first since Donahue died Oct. 14 at age 68.
On March 4, my first day as a ski classic volunteer, I hitched a ride on the back of a snowmobile in a toboggan with our youngest volunteer Julius Thole and we floated through the evergreens in the middle of a snowstorm. It was 10 degrees below and there, in the epicenter of the aid station, I saw a tall block of snow and a man with a tape measure directing shovelers at the base of what was soon-to-be Buckwheat’s face.
Buckwheat was howling, just like he used to do every year as the racers would come through the aid station for orange slices, chunks of dark chocolate and cups of water and Gatorade.
Pete Lucchetti, the man holding the tape measure, was the lead snow carver. He instructed volunteers how to shape the snow sculpture’s rock wall, though I later took to shoveling when I went to chisel a rock and created a crater the size of a breakfast bowl into the back wall.
Lucchetti politely pointed out that carving wasn’t for everyone and I was the first to agree. I meandered over to the trenches to drop snow into the sled so it could be blown into the wooden frame for the front wall of the rock castle.
Throughout the day I watched some of Skagway’s trailblazers transform a vacant lot of snow into a winter wonderland for 262 skiers on race day. One by one skiers would come up to talk to the snow-carved Buckwheat. Decades of Miss and Mr. Buckwheats with their jeweled crowns and sashes would rub his head and pose with larger-than life-smiles. Others would walk up pushing back tears, like it was a statue of remembrance.
But nothing more truly captivated the presence of Buckwheat at the ski classic than Skagway’s “Whiskey Man” Jeremy Simmons, who was dressed in Scottish attire complete with a kilt and country hose, sprinting from one aid station to the next with a backpack of booze from various Scottish regions. Ever since he first volunteered and wore this outfit, racers have expected him to make an appearance.
Many years ago, Don Corwin was one of first people roped into volunteering for the Buckwheat ski classic. He used to ski out to Lindeman and man the station there in the early days of the race when few people showed up on the course. He said Buckwheat would be proud to see his legacy live on in the trails.
“My first literal description of Buckwheat would be to say that he was Skagway’s ambassador,” Corwin said. “He was a very flamboyant character. He was very gregarious and outgoing and always making friends with people wherever he went and inviting them to come here and take part in this. He was always trying to get people involved.”
Like any good Buckwheat memory, Corwin’s favorite involved alcohol and questionable decision making.
“Buckwheat was going to paint his house and he somehow had the brand new paint in the back of his fairly new pickup truck,” Corwin said. “He got sidetracked down there at the Red Onion and had his truck with the new paint in it. He had a whole group of people and they were all lying on the sidewalk with their mouths hanging over the edge of the curb and he was walking down the street pouring shots in their mouth from a bottle of Schnapps and it wasn’t too long after that they decided to paint his truck.”
Buckwheat was “all about the howl,” as was the theme of this year’s ski classic — and the wolf pack was there at every meaty moment of the race. When you felt the essence of Buckwheat come over you, you howled. When you swore by a 10K and turned it into a “Tequila 10K,” you howled. When you felt happiness that couldn’t be put directly into words, you howled, and I imagine this is how Buckwheat felt every day of his life.
Knute Johnsgaard landed first place in the men’s 50K with 2:45:37, just nine seconds faster than runner-up Colin Abbott (2:45.46). For the women’s 50K, Emilie Stewart-Jones (3:31:21) beat Jane Hollenberg. All the top finishers for the 50k were from Whitehorse.
25K male racer Finn Morley (1:30:36) was the only top scorer from Juneau and had a six-minute edge against Whitehorse skier Christian Schmidt (1:36:36), who also won the Log Cabin Ski Society Member Award Drawing at the post-race banquet. The award was a pair of Atomic skis from The Mountain Shop. Sonjaa Schmidt of Whitehorse (1:36:36) skied to a 23-minute lead over second-place finisher Lois Johnston (2:00:02).
There was stiff competition for the 10K male category, as Sasha Masson (31:26.0) won by a three-tenths of a second margin against Derek Deuling (31:26.3). Constance Lapointe won the female 10K at 40:48.2.
11- and 12-year-old male 5K racers Nicolas Giangrande, Fin Bradford and Heron Land-Gillis took first, second and third with only 90 seconds between each finisher. Micah McConnell (31:51.2) took the 10-and-under male 5K win.
11- and 12-year-old female 5K racer Minty Bradford (25:42.8) smoked the competition with an almost 15-minute lead. 5K racer Niamh Hupé (35:29.5) won the 10-and-under category.
Other award winners included Carl Johansen of Terrace, B.C., recipient of the John Briner Award for most inspirational skier. He brought two friends from New Zealand with five bottles of the late Buckwheat Donahue’s favorite Kaitaia hot sauce. The Des Duncan Volunteer Appreciation Award went to Andy Beierly and Si Dennis Jr., the Skagway breakfast cooks known for their big pancake platter before heading up to the Log Cabin. Eva Mandeville of Skagway was crowned Miss Buckwheat 2020. Best costume went to Amanda Mouchet of Whitehorse, who sewed together several Buckwheat International Ski Classic shirts into a full body suit. Stuart Brown was the highest bidder at the fundraising auction, taking home a handmade quilt.