The race, which now includes a 50K, 25K, 10K and a Kids 5K, began 33 years ago as a way for people to gather and have a little winter fun. The "classic” label was a bit of ironic humor.
But 33 years later, the Classic has become an annual Skagway tradition.The race is held every year on the fourth Saturday of March on the Log Cabin Ski Trail. The Classic marks the unofficial end of winter in Skagway.
The event, named for local raconteur Carlin "Buckwheat” Donahue, now attracts more than 400 skiers every year, a remarkable increase from the handful of hardcores who showed up in the first few years.
"Early on there wasn’t a lot of participation,” said Tim Bourcy, owner of The Mountain Shop, a local outfitting company, who has assisted in organizing the race for the past 25 years. "There was very little support or structure back then, but over the years it has evolved from a race that was just 40 or 50 people to a race of about 450. Now it’s a big deal. It’s highly competitive, but it’s also highly uncompetitive.”
Buckwheat Ski Classic near Skagway, Alaska
It wasn’t exactly skiing that brought the event into being, though.
"Buckwheat was in the Eagles Hall 33 years ago, and he and his friends were sitting around drinking beer and trying to figure out how to bring attractive women to Skagway, so they started a race,” Bourcy said.
Buckwheat himself confirms Bourcy’s version of the race’s origins, saying, "there was an extreme shortage of women in Skagway back then, and I was reading those cross-country skiing magazines showing women who looked really cute in their leotard outfits, and we wanted more women in Skagway, so we created a race. It worked.”
The race is taken seriously only by a few, however, Buckwheat said.
"Our motto is, ‘It’s a race designed for the lazy, the infirm and the few who are fast,’” he said. "But it’s become one of those events where you wonder why some people aren’t on the Olympic team. In fact, in the past we’ve had a few Olympians.”
Buckwheat Ski Classic near Skagway, Alaska
Buckwheat got his nickname as a young boy on his family’s farm when he spilled 15 bushels of wheat during harvest. He said the men working with him decided to call him Buckwheat as a result of his mishap.
"Even though I fought it for several years, by the time I got out of grade school even my parents were calling me Buckwheat,” he said. "You don’t give yourself a nickname, someone else does and it sticks. I really wish I had a funnier one but I could never come up with a better one myself. Now the only people who don’t call me Buckwheat are the Social Security Administration and the IRS.”
The Buckwheat Ski Classic got its name in much the same way.
"They tried to name it a few other things, but nobody thought the race would be that popular in the first place,” he said. "I said, ‘We can call it the Eagles Classic’ after the Eagles Club, but they said, ‘Buckwheat, this isn’t going to happen, so why don’t you name it after yourself?’ Naming it after myself was not part of the plan.”
But a classic had been dubbed.
The Classic, which has grown in part due to sponsorships from cruise lines and other businesses, has a different theme every year. This year’s race features a James Bond theme, complete with an ice-carving competition designed to create sculptures with a Bondian look. Last year’s theme was "Oh, the Places You’ll Ski,” a nod to the Dr. Seuss classic "Oh, the Places You’ll Go.” In the past the race has also featured elaborate "Lord of the Rings” sculptures.
"They created 14-ft.-high domed towers for that one,” Buckwheat said. "A couple years ago they featured sculptures celebrating all the different religions, Buddhist temples, Jesus, all sorts of things.”
Snow forts at the Buckwheat Ski Classice near Skagway, Alaska
Bourcy explained that the ice sculptures were added about 15 years ago and were designed as way stations to provide shelter from the harsh environment.
"Back in the day there was just a pile of snow to protect you from the wind,” Bourcy said. "Now it has evolved so there is a snow sculpture that is massive in scope and scale. It gets carved into a way station to serve skiers with hydration and some caloric items for them so they can keep going.”
Awards are presented to the skiers with the best costumes in keeping with each year’s theme. In addition, the ice sculpture is part of the event. Buckwheat said the Skagway ice-sculpting team has won awards in competitions around the U.S., China and Japan.
"They got their start at the Buckwheat,” Buckwheat said proudly.
So 33 years after it began as a bit of a joke, the Buckwheat Ski Classic is thriving.
"And no one thought it would last a year,” Buckwheat said.