Long Road Home
A larger-than-life character, Buckwheat Donahue
gives his heart to tiny Skagway
By Sherry Simpson
Buckwheat Donahue had been walking for 11 days when he reached Dawson in the dim Yukon dusk of a December afternoon. He had just finished the third stage of a 445-mile walk from Skagway. So he howled. That’s what Buckwheat does. His phone message concludes with a howl. His e-mails are peppered with phonetic howls: "Owooooooooooooooooh!” When he’s performing Robert Service, he warms up the crowd with a group howl. So what else would he do in that aging dame of a town but throw back his head and sing like a wolf? What else would the town dogs do but answer back?
Many memories were compressed into that joyful call. Those nights outside of Carmacks when the full moon struck a cold fire on hoarfrost coating the trees, and sometimes a light breeze sent new snow drifting and spangling around him. It was like walking inside a kaleidoscope, he later wrote his friends.
It was also the people he met along the way—power crews, Natives, teachers, prospectors, trappers, even a man with 3,200 laying chickens. The celebratory pleasure the previous night of not one, but two highly perfumed bubble baths in an iron-clawed tub at Bombay Peggy’s Hotel just outside of Dawson. “It worked, because the guy at the bar where I had dinner later said I smelled,” he reported.
But during his best moments on the road, he was alone, singing to himself, reciting ballads, thinking of first kisses, first loves, people now gone that he has known or wishes he’d known better.
People make journeys of the heart and journeys of the body. Buckwheat’s walk to Dawson was both, and preparation for an even larger purpose: crossing North America from Miami to Nome, an expedition that will require walking about 5,500 miles and paddling another 2,000. Seasons will pass, borders will fall behind him, and step by step he’ll collapse the distance between the moment his heart started dying and the moment he arrives home after an epic trek of gratitude and renewal. A man who performs classic poems about luck and fate in the north recognizes both when they happen to him, and he doesn’t waste time after that.
Buckwheat resembles a good-looking country-western singer: silver-haired, square-shouldered, big-chested, bearded. His perpetual smile says, “Hey, ain’t this fun?” He fills rooms with his presence and his voice, and dispenses hugs and howls. His friend Mike Sica calls him a human bellows, a “cross between Pavarotti and Rodney Dangerfield.”
He is not just Mr. Personality, he’s Mr. Personalities: entertainer, entrepreneur, do-gooder, closet intellectual, big brother to an entire town. His resume indexes a life more interesting than the average 53-year-old’s: sold concessions at Denver’s Mile High Stadium; performed in gold-rush melodramas; officiated at more than a hundred weddings; managed a bowling-alley cafe; offered advice in a newspaper column to Skagway’s lovelorn and perpetually puzzled (before being fired for excessive irreverence); recorded CDs of Robert Service and Jack London. He has roughnecked, doodlebugged, and bought and sold oil and gas leases; taught big-shot executives how to talk to regular folks; taken tourists hiking and paddling; and spent the past seven years as the tourism director of his beloved “Skagpatch.”
Those are just jobs. What he really does is tell stories—about Skagway, about the gold rush, about his own life. Ask why he moved to Skagway, and his well-practiced version explains how in 1982, while on vacation from Colorado, he got drunk on the state ferry, slept through Juneau and, next thing you know, he’s in Skagway. You have to hear this story in person to get the expressive eyebrows, the booming laugh and the wicked pleasure in his own blarney. Buckwheat doesn’t tell short stories. Don’t even ask about his name.
Long-time friend Jeff Brady says his ex-wife and her sister heard the ferry purser paging someone with the odd name of Buckwheat Donahue when they saw a lump in a sleeping bag stir. They persuaded him to visit Skagway, which is where Brady, editor and publisher of The Skagway News, met him. Buckwheat soon announced he would return one day. “And sure enough, he comes back,” buying a house and a grave plot, Brady says.
None of which quite explains how someone with a successful career in the oil patch became a true-blue Skagwegian. “People here often joke that Skagway is the center of the universe,” Sica says. “Buckwheat’s at the center of Skagway.” Perhaps that’s because he represents the town’s oldest story, the way the hurly-burly, down-and-dirty chaos of the Klondike rush drew thousands—many, like Buckwheat, interested in something beyond gold. Today, this community of 860 permanent residents still loiters on the outskirts of civilization, tending the past and cultivating self-sufficiency because they know they have only themselves and each other to rely upon. More than a century after the rush, Skagway remains a place where people can re-imagine their lives and embark on new ventures.
“Everywhere I looked, it seemed like there was opportunity,” Buckwheat said. “It’s not just the land. It’s the people. They have the confidence to say, ‘Yeah, I can do that.’” And that’s been Buckwheat’s response to almost everything: I can do that. His first job in Skagway was acting in a summer melodrama, though he’d never performed publicly before. Soon he was taking Robert Service poems learned from his grandparents and channeling them into stage performances, CD recordings, school visits and cruise-ship acts. Lots of people can recite “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” but Brady says Buckwheat becomes Service, guaranteeing that thousands of visitors will forever think of the legendary poet as that charming man who kisses ladies’ hands, not as Carlin Donahue, the tourism professional who tosses around marketing strategies and cruise-boat schedules.
“He’s certainly not all flash. He’s pretty down to earth,” Brady says. “But he’s got that showman side to him that works well. And people are drawn to him.”
Buckwheat’s love of the outdoors and affinity for group hilarity means he’s a bit like the town’s camp counselor—in charge of all the fun stuff. He and canoe partner Brady launched the Yukon River Quest, and he organizes the Alaska start of the annual Klondike Trail of ’98 International Road Relay, last year dispatching teams and then appearing for his own leg in Canada an hour late because he forgot to account for the time change. He’s most famous for founding the Buckwheat Ski Classic, an eccentric event cobbled up in barroom blather that he himself has skied just once in 18 years.
His easy-going nature means people are always clapping him on the back and hollering, “How ya doing, big guy?” He drove Martha Stewart’s RV while she was filming a show segment and reportedly was one of the few in Southeast Alaska who found her pleasant—and vice versa. “I admired her work ethic,” he says, claiming to have offered her stock tips, too. As a gesture of local hospitality, he hosted a crab feast for the cast of the upcoming film “The Great White,” and now he’s the only Alaskan who can describe the dilemma of discussing the virtues of New York City with Holly Hunter while Robin Williams performed comedy routines in his kitchen. He’s the kind of friend who arranges a special trip to the Whitehorse cinema to see “The Lord of the Rings,” calls with a joke, lends money, offers a shoulder to cry on and plays Santa at the Eagles’ Christmas Party.
“He’s an impressive person, but you never feel overshadowed by him. He doesn’t just give, he shares, whether it be the food on his table or the limelight that looks so good on him,” Sica says. “He’s the kind of guy who knows all these people, all these friends. You want to limit his circle of friends so he gets back to you more often than Halley’s comet.”
Because he’s so gregarious, Buckwheat believes most friends would be surprised that privately he’s contemplative, a regular church-goer with a curious spirit, and a serious reader who sometimes prefers to switch on the answering machine and stay home with a biography of Alexander Hamilton or a history of surveying. He’s also the first to say some people don’t like him because he’s made unpopular decisions in his job, because he’s too brash.
“He is loud,” says Sica. “Because of that, some people mistake effervescence with lacking humility.”
But when Buckwheat’s house burned in 1997, scores of people helped him rebuild, friends or not, because that’s what you do in Skagway, and that’s how you repay a guy who has done so much for others.
A Grand Plan
Buckwheat drives around his hometown giving an informal tour, offering gold-rush stories interspersed with tips about the best place to see feeding seals or departing cruise ships. In a way it’s a tour of his life, too. He points out the gravesite he bought years ago, adding, “That’s where they also put the indigents.” He adopts his tourism-director voice: “Move to Skagway. You don’t have to worry about burial. We’ll give you the plot.”
He’s not sure anymore that that’s where he’ll be buried. Maybe he should have his ashes scattered near the mind-blowing beauty of Laughton Glacier.
“It is a dilemma,” he admits. “Then, of course, some of my friends just want to put my body in a canoe and send it down the canal. Fill it up with fuel and then shoot flaming arrows at it. And I like that idea, too.” His will provides booze for the party, he adds.
He doesn’t have to say he has given death more thought than usual lately. While visiting Juneau in October 2003, he experienced three episodes of congestive heart failure and required a medivac flight to Seattle. If he’d fallen ill in Skagway, with its tiny medical clinic and limited transportation, the outcome might have been different. His larger-than-life
personality disguises serious diabetes, and at one time he really was larger than life, once working for a tourist attraction that advertised, “Visit the 100-pound madam, the 200-pound dog, and the 300-pound prospector.” That would be Buckwheat, when his job as a bartender earned him free drinks, and his life as a bachelor bon vivant was especially bon and maybe too vivant.
Anybody who has sneaked past death’s door might understandably seek a diminished life. Not Buckwheat. Recovery walks soon stretched into nine miles, then 12. “Then it was to the point that on weekends I was walking 15 to 20 miles and I didn’t want to stop,” he says. In March 2004, he didn’t. He walked 115 miles to Whitehorse, and in November and December completed the legs to Dawson. His doctors say his heart has recovered far beyond expectations.
Somewhere in those miles, he conceived a grand plan. This Oct. 1, the second anniversary of his medivac flight, he will begin walking from Key West on a connect-the-dots route to Washington, D.C., Chicago, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Whitehorse. Then he’ll paddle the Yukon River to the Bering Sea, hike the Seward Peninsula to Nome, fly to Whitehorse, and finish the Chilkoot Trail to Skagway by Sept. 1, 2006.
He intends to raise money to help build and equip a new medical clinic in Skagway and has already gathered substantial pledges from Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines and Tourism Yukon, among others. He hopes to raise awareness about diabetes and heart disease and, of course, he’ll act as an ambassador for Alaska and the Yukon. But he turns to a quote from Jack London to explain why he’s really doing this: “The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”
Buckwheat repeats, “I shall use my time. That’s what I want to do. I want to use my time.” This is where he loses his composure. “And I’d just like to share it with other people,” he says, voice faltering. “I’d just like to share it with other people.”
If you’re ever in Skagway, don’t be startled if Buckwheat yips at a buddy passing by.
“Howling, it’s like aloha,” he explains. “It means lots of things. You’re walking down the street and you see somebody and you just go, ‘Awhoo!’ He yelps eloquently. “It’s just a little short one. That means, ‘Hey, nice to see you, I’m happy, hope you’re happy too.’
“And then there’s the long, more mournful howl when you’re up in the mountains and you’re sitting next to a river where the salmon go and you’re watching the display of life in front of you, and you just howl in appreciation for all of that. It’s a way of saying thanks.” A long, resonant wail emerges straight from his barrel of a chest, the way his grandfather taught him around campfires in the Rockies.
Buckwheat has chosen a long road home, and he never fails to mention those helping him find the way. You know there will be times during his journey when he’ll feel the joy of heading north, when he’ll be so grateful for his strong heart, for all the friends he’s made and all the friends he’s missing that, now and then, he’ll throw back his head and howl into the sky.
And he’ll be pleased if you howl back.
Sherry Simpson teaches creative writing at the University of Alaska Anchorage and writes our Alaska Traveler column. She is the author of The Way Winter Comes: Alaska Stories, published by Sasquatch Books.
Originally published in Alaska Magazine