No ordinary loppet

Yukoners cleaned-up at the Buckwheat Classic cross country ski race at Log Cabin over the weekend.

Yukoners cleaned-up at the Buckwheat Classic cross country ski race at Log Cabin over the weekend.

The race’s namesake, organizer and some might say its soul, Buckwheat Donahue, says it’s “a race organized by Americans for Canadians to win.” He says Alaskans win the race only when they secretly change the distance of the course.

Yukon males have come first in the 50 km category roughly 50 per cent of the 28 years of the race’s existence. Females from the Yukon, meanwhile, only win in that category, said Donahue. And it’s by design, he maintains.

Donahue delivers his characteristic belly laugh and proclaims, “I was horny!” to explain why the race came into being. He says he wanted some of those Lycra-sporting females he’d seen in pictures to come to Skagway. The first year the road between Skagway and Whitehorse was open year-round was the first year of the Buckwheat Classic.

Donahue says the inaugural race had 14 contenders; the eight Skagwegians were hung-over and wore fat powder skis. The three male and three female racers from Whitehorse wore Lycra and skinny skis.

These days, the Buckwheat Classic has become a different event altogether. This year, Donahue attended the pre-race pancake breakfast, shook hands, talked about the weather and speculated on who would win the best costume award.

Every year, the race is themed. Some skiers do wear Lycra, while others get into the spirit with costumes. This year’s “life is a circus” theme meant contenders included clowns, bearded ladies, and Siamese twins. Sunshine Giesbrecht of Whitehorse dressed-up as a rocket girl and won the best costume award.

At the start line, Donahue howled as each category started the race.

Roughly three kilometres into the course, skiers found a snow palace. Volunteers handed out orange slices and chunks of milk chocolate. The most popular man at the snow palace wore a kilt and a fanny pack filled with a variety of Scotch. Volunteers would yell “emergency!” as a racer who didn’t want to stop passed the palace, and the man in the kilt would run out to administer a swig of Scotch on the fly.

Some participants’ races ended at the snow palace. Stacks of skis, poles and backpacks were lined-up outside. Racers lounged in the sun, drank beers and ate the hamburgers that were barbecued inside the palace. Donahue says this year’s weather is the best they’ve seen in eight years. “If you’re a Yukon virgin and were introduced on a day like this, yeah baby!”

Some racers were allured from afar by the Buckwheat Classic. This year 328 skiers registered. They came from the Czech Republic, Germany, Pennsylvania and Ontario. There were more racers from Juneau than from Skagway – the only male in the 50-km category not from Whitehorse was from Juneau. He finished seventh out of seven. About 60 per cent of the racers were from Whitehorse.

Janelle Greer won the 50-km race. There were only five females competing, all from Whitehorse. The 21-year-old says she’s been skiing since she was tiny, and she thinks the race is popular for Yukoners because cross-country skiing is such a strong sport here.

As Donahue awarded Dave Brook with his trophy for coming first in the men’s 50-km category, he said Brook had an advantage because of nationals: All the young racers were away.

Brook is 45-years-old and says Donahue is probably right. “It’s the only reason we are getting awards.” But Brook says the race has changed over the years. He’s been in Whitehorse on-and-off for 25 years, and says before there were way more people competing in the 50-km category, just for the sake of the race. Now, unless something is ultra-competitive, he says it doesn’t seem important for people to try to win.

Donahue says the neighborliness of the Buckwheat Classic may be his favourite element of the race these days. He says the race has been “a catalyst for tremendous relations” between First Nation governments, Parks Canada and BC Parks, who all work with Donahue to organize the race.

Juneau resident John Staub says he’s been to “four or five” Buckwheat Classics. He says he enjoyed the sun as he competed, slowly, in the 10-km category this year. After the race he planned to continue down the pass to Whitehorse with his wife, to go to the Takhini Hot Springs and try the different espressos in town.

Brook says the Buckwheat Classic gives people a chance to see what they can do. “Irrelevant of your finishing position, you go to the starting line and you want to see what your body can produce.”

Donahue, meanwhile, says the ski race has become such a success, “I don’t even have time to flirt!”

Meagan Deuling is a

freelance writer in Whitehorse.