Skagway legend Carlin “Buckwheat” Donahue died this week after a heart attack in Oklahoma. Donahue is survived by his niece Kelly and his grand-nephew Matt. And his namesake cross-country race will live on, too.
Donahue grew up in the Lower 48, but he arrived in Skagway on a ferry in early 80s —he told people he ended up there after getting drunk and sleeping through his stop in Juneau.
He spent more than three decades in Skagway and earned a reputation as a bon vivant, storyteller and long-time tourism director. Everyone called called him Buckwheat.
“He was an Alaska-size personality,” said Tom Morphet, a Haines resident who knew him as a friend. “He was kind of a walking ambassador for Skagway and for Alaska. I’m trying to think of a person who was better known throughout Southeast or more loved and I just keep coming up with Buckwheat.”
Buckwheat garnered national recognition after heart trouble prompted him to walk from Florida back home to Skagway. His plan was to raise money for the town’s health clinic—and better his cardiovascular health. Morphet remembers that those 5,000 miles didn’t have the full effect Buckwheat was after.
“He gained weight! Because people kept adopting him and taking him home or taking him to a restaurant and feeding him,” he said. “He was such a captivating enchanting person everybody adopted Buckwheat as kind of a family member.”
Buckwheat’s local legacies include several unorthodox footraces and a UFO convention. He helped found the more established North Words Writers Symposium and the Buckwheat International Cross Country Ski Race.
Adam Verrier is a former Olympic cross-country skier who lives in Anchorage, but would travel all the way to Skagway for the Buckwheat International and other events.
“I was kind of looking for excuses to hang out with that guy,” he said.
Verrier says Buckwheat helped inspire him to start his own ski race, the Oosik Classic. He said it didn’t matter what you did with Buckwheat, it was going to be a good time.
“He had so much, just so much warmth,” Verrier said. “I always came home from Skagway kind of inspired to go out and bring that kind of warmth to my own interactions with other people.”
Buckwheat was an avid supporter of KHNS. He underwrote shows, served on the Board of Directors and could be heard reading and reciting authors like Jack London and Robert Service.
Buckwheat left Skagway for more affordable healthcare last year. But Buckwheat racers and North Words writers will keep the Upper Lynn Canal ringing with his trademark howl.