Story last updated at 3/20/2013 - 11:05 am
When you're in the office of Buckwheat - the Buckwheat of Southeast Alaska, a regional celebrity of sorts, you don't decline a diet Mountain Dew. Why not? Clearly you haven't met the guy if you're asking.
It's because you have to drink every ounce of the charisma that oozes out of Robert Carlin "Buckwheat" Donahue's zone, and he's always in a zone of some sort or another.
Spoiler alert: "Buckwheat" is not located on Donahue's birth certificate, but he's a fixture known as "Buckwheat."
Buckwheat received his nickname around junior high.
"It's just one of those things," he said. "I wasn't really popular, and if you weren't cool, you were buckwheat. They were fighting words. It was just one of those things my friends from the Coin and Stamp Club and the Archeology Club held on to."
Buckwheat is the man responsible for the Buckwheat Ski Classic, an annual race held on the Log Cabin Ski Trail system just north of the Chilkoot Trail between Skagway and Whitehorse. The race was devised with either mischievous or sympathetic intentions.
"The ski race was started to get women into town in the winter," Buckwheat said, bluntly.
He had never put on skis before, but he had seen spandex, and he wanted that stretchy flashy fabric in a higher quantity in his town of choice. He knew skiers tended to wear Lycra, and there were skiers around the Southeast region of Alaska as well as White Horse, so he started a race, with the single ploy of getting more women in tight clothes into Skagway. It worked. The 27th Annual is coming up on Saturday, March 23.
"14 people showed," Buckwheat said, of the race's first year. "Six from Whitehorse and eight from Skagway. It was the only year that Americans have outnumbered Canadians. They all showed up with Lycra and skinny skis. The Skagway folks only had Carhartt's and fat backcountry skis. We learned a lot. .. It's a race designed by Americans for Canadians to win."
Though the race idea stuck, other Buckwheat brainchildren haven't. Like his idea for National Hippy Week.
Part of what's appealing about Skagway is that the same man that hatches these ideas also holds a serious job. Buckwheat is the city's tourism director.
"I thought I'd keep the job for about five years, but it's now been 13," he said.
From where he spoke, at a desk on the second floor of the AB Hall in downtown Skagway, it was clear Buckwheat has been around for a long time, before using computers was an everyday task. He sat at his desk hunting and pecking at the keys, sipping his Diet Dew, peering straight down at his fingers. Then he'd look at the screen, put his hands down, check his typing, and then make changes. It was tedious, and frankly difficult to watch, but in a fun way. Buckwheat is, after all, mostly about fun.
"I came up here on a holiday," Buckwheat said about his first trip to Alaska. "I got drunk in between Sitka and Juneau. I was supposed to get off in Juneau. I slept through J-town and woke up outside of Haines. I started talking to people and decided I'd visit Skagway. I just fell in love with this place."
He means it. His eyes glaze over when he talks about how magical he thinks Skagway is.
"When you get to the top of a mountain you can look around in every direction and see wilderness," he said. "You know there are little towns and villages, but they're so insignificant it doesn't change. And that hasn't changed in 30 years. You get two blocks out of down town and its quiet. After seven it's deserted."
But before he was climbing mountains he was sobering up from his journey and staring at the bulletin board in the local post office. He had a background in the oil and gas industry, which didn't promote career opportunities at the Skagway mail center.
"I saw this sign that said, 'Try outs for the Days of '98 Show.' I thought 'What the hell?' I always wanted to be a star."
He tried out for what he thought was the understudy for Frank Reed, the murderer of the infamous Soapy Smith of the Gold Rush days. He got the part. The real part. The director told him he got casted because he'd be easiest to direct as he was the only person who knew to pause after commas.
"It made me feel like calling up Mrs. Ross, my third grade teacher in Denver at Cherry Hills Elementary and thank her," he said.
Buckwheat also tended bar at the Red Onion Saloon, then got into performing ballads by Robert Service while working at a gold panning camp. He also started performing stories by Jack London.
Around 1992, Buckwheat founded Packer Expeditions, an outdoor guiding company that took people on day hikes to local glaciers and multi-day hikes along the Chilkoot Trail.
"Packer Expedition hikes were popular with the gay community," he said. "Back then, we had hiking sticks for everyone that said 'Klondike Trail.' Before the Internet, I got a photo from one of the female hikers. (In the photo) I was leaning down on one knee, and the (group members) had the 'Klon' hidden with their hands."
When reciting Robert Service on such trips, Buckwheat said he'd change the pronouns.
"They loved it," he said. "I changed the he's to she's, the hises to hers, Dan McGrew to Lily McGrew."
Buckwheat also started the outdoor clothing store The Mountain Shop in 1997. Both businesses have been sold, in order to accommodate his busy life as the tourism director.
"Every now and then I get an award," Buckwheat said. "I don't know why. Then I'm like 'Oh, this would look good in an obituary.'"
Buckwheat pointed to the Denali Award for Excellence in Tourism sitting in his office.
"They give this award to people when they're at the end of their career," he said, smiling. "It's like, 'Thank you guys, I really appreciated it,' but at the same time, I'm like, 'What am I going to do with this?'"
Keeping in line with his morbid humor, he explained how he was swindled into buying a grave from a guy in a bar. Great, since he has his obituary figured out.
During the end of the interview, Buckwheat dialed one of his staff members who was working a floor below him.
"It's me, from upstairs," he called into the receiver, (he's the only one who works up there).
He put his legs up on his desk.
"I'm having the symptoms of low blood sugar shock, do you have any sugar?"
A woman named Rain walked in with a box of chocolates. Buckwheat scoured them, with his hunt and peck fingers.
"You took the best ones," Rain said, retreating.
"Yes, that was my opinion," Buckwheat responded.
For more information on the Buckwheat Ski Classic, visit www.buckwheatskiclassic.com.
Amanda Compton is the staff writer for Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at Amanda.firstname.lastname@example.org.