Buckwheat Donahue to trek across America

Odyssey to raise money for Skagway Medical Clinic

Posted: Friday, August 05, 2005

Last winter, Buckwheat Donahue walked 330 miles in two weeks, from Whitehorse to Dawson, Yukon. It was 30 to 40 degrees below zero on some days, but the people he met on the highway kept him going.

"There were a couple times where people drove by on the highway and asked me what I was doing," Donahue said. "The next thing I knew, they were walking with me for two or three hours and giving me apples and hot tea and cool things like that."

Donahue stands to meet a lot more people on his next journey, a cross-country, human-powered sabbatical he's undertaking to raise funds for the Skagway Medical Clinic.

His journey will include a months-long walk from Key West, Fla., to the headwaters of the Teslin River in the Northwest Territories, a 2,050-mile canoe trip to the Bering Sea and two more walks from Norton Sound to Nome and Whitehorse to Skagway.

All told it should be about 5,500 to 6,000 miles of walking. Donahue starts Oct. 1 and hopes to finish sometime in August 2006.

Donahue's journey across the country

Starting date: Oct. 1.

Starting point: Key West, Fla.

Finish point: Skagway.

Miles on foot: 5,500 to 6,000.

Miles by canoe: 2,050.

Time it will take: Almost one year.

Fundraiser in Juneau: 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 6, at the Thane Ore House. Donations at the door.

"Then I'll call it good, and that will be my grand-life adventure," Donahue said. "We'll see what the rest of life is going to be like, and hopefully it will be healthy."

Donahue will recite poetry and talk about his walk during a fundraiser at 7 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 6, at the Thane Ore House. Donations will be accepted at the door, and there will be a dessert auction.

Donahue has more fundraisers planned in Southeast Alaska and a few others already set up in the southeastern United States. He also hopes to attract the interest of corporate sponsors.

"It would be nice to raise several million dollars, but I know that's not going to happen," Donahue said. "If we could get into the $100,000 to $200,000 range, that would be very cool."

Donahue suffered a series of heart attacks in September 2003. Fortunately, he was in Juneau and able to rush to Bartlett Regional Hospital. But the doctors informed him that Type II diabetes had left his heart severely enlarged. One doctors even gave him a year to live.

In the aftermath, he decided to get fit, change his lifestyle and do something for Skagway, his home since 1985.

There, he's known for reciting Robert Service poetry for tourists, and he started an outfitting-guiding company that he later sold. He's a promoter, he organized the Buckwheat Ski Classic, he's the announcer for the start of the Klondike Road Relay, and he accompanied Martha Stewart on her tour of the Yukon. In Juneau, he was once a short-order cook at the old Channel Bowl Cafe.

Donahue now works for the Skagway Convention & Visitors Bureau, which has given him a year off for his walk. His doctors have approved his plan.

"Our city government has secured the land and funding to build a new clinic, and we need a little more to get momentum and training and equipment," Donahue said.

"I just want to help out, and this seems like a good way to do it," he said. "It's a way of saying thanks to the community. One of the things I like about living in Skagway is it doesn't matter who you are. Anybody who gets sick and has challenges, the town works together to help you out."

He will fly to Florida in late September, leave Key West in October and head north 509 miles up the east coast of the state to Jacksonville. From there, he will head to Savannah, Ga. He hopes to be there by Nov. 1.

Donahue walks four to five miles a day, mostly on his treadmill when it's raining. He figures he will average 17 to 18 miles a day at the start of his journey, then build up to 25 to 26 miles per day three or four weeks into the trip. That's eight to nine hours of walking a day, including three to four 10- to 15-minute breaks.

He will start with a 25 to 30-pound backpack, filled with a few days worth of clothes and light rain gear. As he heads north, he will have boxes sent to him. A New Balance shoes distributor has agreed to provide all the shoes he needs. He will take a day off every week or 10 days to re-energize.

From Savannah, he will continue on U.S. 17 into South Carolina, then grab U.S. 15 north through North Carolina and Virginia, where he already has a few fundraisers planned. Eventually, he will hit Frederick, Md., 46 miles west of Baltimore, where he will hook left and begin his march west into southwestern Pennsylvania. If all goes as planned that will be sometime around Dec. 1.

U.S. Highway 30 will take him through Ohio and Indiana and along to U.S. Highway 6, which curls into South Chicago. He will walk through the Windy City, along Lake Michigan to Wisconsin, then left on state Highway 173 and over state highways 12 and 14 to Minneapolis, then Fargo, N.D., and due north to Winnipeg.

"That's where it opens up into country," Donahue said, "and there's more than 20 miles distance between communities."

Canada's Highway 16 will lead him through Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Edmonton, where he will finally find the Alaska Highway. Eventually, he will reach Johnson Crossing, 100 miles east of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.

There, a friend will meet him with a canoe, and they will begin paddling down the Teslin River, hooking up with the Yukon River and continuing to Dawson City, Yukon. Skagway News publisher Jeff Brady will help him paddle to Circle, east of Fairbanks. Donahue's friend, extreme outdoor enthusiast Larry Gullingfrud, will help him for the last 1,100 miles to Norton Sound on the Bering Sea.

Donahue will exit the canoe, kayak through Norton Sound, walk over part of the Seward Peninsula to Nome, fly to Whitehorse and walk back to Skagway on the Chilkoot Trail. He's due back at the convention and visitors bureau on Oct. 1, 2006.

"I think it will take less than a year," Donahue said. "I hope to be back in Skagway by Labor Day. I might be done in August. I'm not too worried about it."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.

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