By Melinda Munson

The North Words Writer Symposium typically sells out. This year, the popular 40-person retreat will take place over Zoom instead of Skagway’s historical gold rush district.

William (Jeff) Brady, one of the symposium’s founding members, described the symposium as “an intimate gathering where you get to know everybody … you’re working directly with authors.”

North Words is typically held in May, before the rush of cruise ship passengers descend upon Skagway. Due to COVID-19, the symposium was postponed until August, then eventually converted to a virtual format.

“It’s a fun little group … we’re going to try to create that vibe the best we can,” Brady said.

While faculty and participants will remain home, the Zoom conferences will originate from the usual locations, including Skagway Library, the Arctic Brotherhood Hall and the Red Onion Saloon.

Started in 2010, North Words was the idea of Robert Carlin Donahue Jr., better known as “Buckwheat” Donahue. He contemplated creating a writers symposium while walking from Miami to Nome, a health journey and fundraiser for Skagway’s medical clinic. He enlisted his friends, Brady (owner of Skaguay News Depot & Books) and Daniel Henry, a teacher from Haines. 

As Skagway’s tourism director, Donahue was appropriated $20,000 from the Assembly to start the symposium. According to Brady, Donahue’s other ideas, such as a paranormal conference with a sasquatch expert, weren’t as well received.

“That didn’t take,” Brady said.

The symposium’s motto is “exploring the frontiers of language.”  

2019 Keynote Susan Orlean

In a 2010 interview with “49 Writers” Donahue said, “We hope this works for people interested in open space, wild things, survival, independence, surprises, experimentation and living on the edge.”

The 2020 theme, decided on before the emergence of COVID-19, is “writing at a time of a threatened natural world.”

The keynote author, Bill Streever, is a biologist and award-winning author. His books include “Cold and Heat” and “Soon I Heard a Roaring Wind.” Writers Bryan Allen Fiero, Caroline Van Hemert, Eva Holland, M Jackson, Heather Lende and Nicole Stellon O’ Donnell will also be in virtual attendance.

The symposium is scheduled for August 2-4. The cost, normally $395, has been reduced to $98 for all three days or $35 per day. Registration and information can be found at

The Skagway Arts Council offers scholarships for Skagwegians who have been residents for at least a year. Visit