The rite of spring
Taking in the Buckwheat, Skagway style
Story and photos by Andrew Cremata
For some the Buckwheat Ski Classic is an opportunity to test their cross country skiing skills, endurance, and stamina in one of the most beautiful settings on the North American continent. For this endeavor, there is a need for Lycra clothing, expensive skis and poles, and an assortment of waxes for a variety of weather conditions. Training is key, and the competitor seeking success will push the limits of the human body in the days and weeks leading up to the event in the hopes they can best an opponent, or even their own fastest time.
On the drive back from the 23rd annual Buckwheat Ski Classic on March 28, it occurred to me I have absolutely nothing in common with any of these people. First of all, I have no desire to ever strap on a pair of skis and labor across windswept snowdrifts for distances from five to 50-kilometers. I have no general concept of exactly how long a kilometer might even be, but Im sure 50 of them are way too many.
I know nothing about the gear needed for such a pursuit, much less wax, or when to wax and why its even important. And no one would be happy if my wardrobe consisted of Lycra or any other stretch-fitting space-age material.
In Skagway, I am not alone. There are many locals who consider sitting in a chair with a fishing rod in their hand, or maybe even a walk to the bar, a good days exercise. I can vouch for the fact that there is nothing wrong with that. To each, his own.
In all honesty, if it had not been for the need of getting a story on the yearly happenings of the Buckwheat I most likely would never have braved the cold and wind for this yearly ritualistic enterprise. And when something like this goes on as long as it does, it becomes a ritual, possibly even a rite of passage. In this case the passage is one which leads to the chaos of summer, and we all know that mess is just around the corner.
One thing is certain, there is a dichotomy between the Skagwegians who Buckwheat and those who dont. There are many longtime locals who will never glimpse the ragged mountains surrounding Log Cabin set upon by tempests of blowing snow. They will never witness the hoards of skiers, volunteers, and slack enthusiasts descend upon this place a reunion of sorts, a tradition that marks Skagways yearly rebirth.
Now that Ive been a Buckwheater for a half-dozen years, there are a few things Ive come to expect. For me, they are fond expectations, like the best part of your favorite movie you already know all the words to, but still manage to laugh out loud to anyway. And there are always a few surprises.
Jeremy "Single Malt" Simmons, Dancing Don Corwin, and Cory "Hightower" Thole with Buckwheat.
If you are one of the locals who have never driven up the pass for a day at the races consider this a small window into that scene.
Jeremy Simmons is a hero dressed in a kilt.
This distinction may have only been associated with William Wallace, and its entirely possible Wallace carried around a homemade gun-belt outfitted with bottles of fine scotch, but history bears no mention of this particular feat.
One thing is certain, year after year, the smiles on the skiers faces as they approach Simmons speak volumes. They too expect his presence at the aid station, and what better aid for the weary competitor could there be than a shot from a bottle of aged scotch whiskey.
Don Corwin can dance.
A common element of the ski race since before my time is Corwin serving the common good in some capacity. Here is another familiar face that on one year might be working the grill and on another passing out cups of Gatorade to thirsty racers.
By Corwins side is his trusty radio, fully equipped with an assortment of tunes from an era where music had meaning. It is during the interludes between clusters of racers where Corwin exemplifies the joys of a day in the great outdoors by busting a move on the snow-strewn dance floor of Log Cabins outback. Anyone who calls themselves a Skagwegian can relate to dancing to the beat of their own drum.
Wear the right shoes.
Being born and raised in Florida, living in Alaska has always been a bit of a challenge for me. I like to think Ive become accustomed to life in the north, but at this years Buckwheat I made a crucial error.
I have always worn my waterproof winter shoes to the race. Snow is cold, and standing on it all day will lead to ice-blue feet. This year, in my hurry and morning incoherence, I accidently put on a pair of Merrell loafers. This is not appropriate footwear for a day on the snowpack, and when you find yourself in those soft spots where sinking is inevitable, snow and ice fill the shoe causing a great deal of discomfort.
Stopping at the aid station will affect your race.
For serious racers, the ones dressed in stretchy material, a quick reach for a cup of water is all that is necessary to refuel for the continuation of the race. They will never even slow down, just grab and go, drinking in full stride, tossing the cup aside when they are done.
For all the other racers, a longer detour at the aid station could result in an extended stay filled with conversation, laughter, and indulgence. There are a few diligent ones who will leave the creature comforts of the station and complete the race, but these are few and far between. For most, the lure of smoked sausage and cheese washed down with a homemade margarita is too strong to resist. After all, there will always be another chance to compete.
There are many roles to fill, and when someone is missing, its noticeable.
The familiar faces I expected to see at this years race seemed to all be in place. Mike Korsmo was making runs to and from the aid station on one of the snow machines. Alex King was already there, along with Lara Labesky and Mary McCaffrey, making sure the beverages stayed thawed. Paul Reichert had his trusty microphone/radio, intermittently conducting faux interviews with racers and pumping techno beats into the snow-filled air.
There were many more, and some new faces like Kaitlyn Surdyk learning the routine. What was most noticeable was the face that was not there.
For all my years at the race Dean Anderson, or Deano, has been one of the happiest, smiling faces encountered during the day. Anderson has been a longtime member of the trail crew and race-day volunteer.
Its possible he was somewhere else along the trail lending a helping hand, but I never once heard his infectious laugh echo up through the canopy, so I have my doubts. Fortunately, there is never a shortage of locals willing to lend a helping hand, but one can only hope Andersons cheer graces the trails next year.
Buckwheat Donahue is extremely busy during the race, and somewhat of a madman.
I used to snowshoe out to the aid station, but during the last couple years I have discovered the lazy joy of catching a ride back and forth on a snow machine. This year I caught a ride for the first time with Buckwheat.
This was on the return trip. Earlier that morning I watched Buckwheat putting the pieces together for the start of each of the races, staggered at 15-minute intervals. There were the usual jokes and laughter, the familiar howl, and an occasional hug from a seldom seen acquaintance.
He makes it all seem so laid back, but inside there must be a great deal of stress. Consider the fact that the safety of hundreds of racers and volunteers is at stake. And make no mistake; this is the wilderness, anything can happen.
Just before boarding the snow machine I had learned of a racer who required rescue due to a dislocated shoulder. This unfortunate occurrence may have weighed heavy on Buckwheats mind as we zipped through the woods at speeds approaching that of warp, factor 3. I felt a mixture of thrill laced with dread; I havent spent a lot of time on fast moving, motorized, tundra vehicles.
The fact that I survived this event only proves there is another race on the horizon. Spring is in the air. I know this because the weather has warmed slightly, but I also realize it because the yearly ritual is finished, another Buckwheat is in the books.
There were people there who raced and competed. There were some who supported the event by volunteering. There were many who stayed home and watched reruns on cable or passed another day through the regular routine filter. For them, there will be another chance to enjoy the ritual next year.
After all, it is a rite of passage.