Photo Essay: The Buckwheat Ski Classic

First posted in March, 2005

When I moved to Skagway this past November and began meeting people, the question would invariably arise: "Will you be wintering here?" And I would reply that no, I was being furloughed over the winter and was planning to spend the time in England, but that I'd be back in the spring. Often, their eyes would widen in concern: "When? What day will you be back?" When I said sometime around the first of March, their eyes would return to normal, a look of some relief would cross their face, and they'd say, "Well, that's good. You wouldn't want to miss the Buckwheat."

It is the event of the year for Skagway, and people from Whitehorse and Juneau and places farther flung come in for the event. The idea orignated in Skagway nearly twenty years ago, the idea of Buckwheat, who is a bit of a local (living, and very nice) legend. It's evolved to become a little bit of everything: there are 50K, 25K, and 10K ski races, a 5K snow shoe race, and, well, one big party that lasts for two days. There's a dinner the evening before the event, a pancake breakfast the morning of the race, and a post race awards dinner followed by a dance with live entertainment. All of those things take place in Skagway, but the race itself takes place just across the Canadian border, near Log Cabin, Yukon Territory, where the snow is just perfect for this sort of thing.

I didn't really get the full concept of all that was involved until really close to the event, and due to varied financial obligations decided not to register for all the events this year ($50). But I did go to Log Cabin, and I snow shoed in just to see what all the fuss was about. Next year, though, I'll probably take full advantage of all that's offered.

I realize that nearly half of the (excessive number) of photographs in this post are merely of the drive to Log Cabin, but the cliché that getting there is half the fun is at least ten percent true (that figure would be higher if there wasn't such a party going on once you hit Log Cabin) and, at least at present, I am the one on dialup, so if I can take the time to upload them over my connection, interested parties can stand to download them:

I love the stratigraphy of the snow along the left.
On the right you can see one of the guides that helps
you (and the plow trucks) to see the edges of the
road when, after a storm, everything can be white.

Sun penetrating clouds.

And again the sun fights to be seen.

A cloud sits atop a peak, sun falling through
the clouds lights the downhill slope.

The final - and my favorite - photograph from the drive.

And so we arrived at Log Cabin. The 50K skiiers had
already been going at it for a bit when I arrived.

I had never really snow shoed any distance before. Fortunately, I found
some other people in the same boat, and we decided to take the trek together.
Here, we get one of the people with even less experience than I had shoed up.

We snow shoed through the forest, occasional peaks visible...

...and through open meadows. There's actually a pond in this photo, I think.

It was lovely weather. Surprisingly warm, with no real wind at all of which to speak. I walked most of the journey wearing just a capilene shirt, with my two spare fleece pull overs and retro-x jacket tied about my waist.

One of the women with my group had done the race before in previous years, and so we followed her lead on which trails to take. Fortunately or unfortunately (I didn't really care), we took a wrong turn. Keep in mind that they have trails set so that they accomodate several different lengths (50K, 25K, 10K, 5K). We were supposed to go 5K total, but as it turned out we went went a bit more than that, possibly 7 or 8K. I didn't mind in the least, of course.

Show shoeing is far easier than I remembered it. It's not entirely unintuitive. I did notice that my calves were working a bit more than normal, though I really couldn't at the time figure out why. They're a bit sore today as a result, but nothing that can't be worked out at the gym (or at the masseuse, where I'm headed after the gym today). As it turns out, this morning I read an article on walking using poles for upper body toning, and it said that if you use poles you not only strengthen your arms and upper back, but as you swing the poles forward for the next step, your calves pump harder, you walk faster, and you end up burning 20% more calories than you would otherwise. So maybe that's the reason I'm still a little sore through the calves today.

At any rate, after weaving our way through the woods and meadows for an hour or so, we arrived at the infamous aid station, where people can get some electrolytes as they work on the longer races. I hadn't been going for speed, and therefore had my own pack with refreshments and food, but I was keen on seeing the aide station because I had heard there was a giant snow sculptured sphinx, not to mention a bar-b-que and some merriment going on.

Characters in kilts and Hawaiian shirts are ready to refuel the skiiers.

Some of the group gathered for a picture in front of the sphinx.
All of these people are lined up along the inside of its front legs,
which I thought gave a pretty good idea of scale; the thing is
really, really big. I am in the middle, right below the face, wearing
the incredibly dorky (but very warm) black cone-head hat.

Note to self: Do not wear that hat in photographs ever again.

A detail of the sphinx's face.

The rope on the right is the cord to his iPod...

I was particularly impressed with the detail: here are the sphinx's claws.
It took volunteers five days to carve him before the big event.

A lateral view. The point along its back is actually the top of
a nearby snow obelisk. All of this stuff is incredibly strong; I saw
someone climbing the obelisk, which was probably fifteen feet tall.
The sphinx itself is hollow and contains a passageway!

You enter the sphinx though a small door just below its face.

There is a ladder to climb, which leads out onto its shoulders.
Here I stand atop the surprisingly sturdy sphinx.

From there, a snow slide runs through the sphinx's back.
Here, a child descends the slide with a beach ball.

It was more than big enough for adults, and I had a go.
Unfotunately, there were a lot of comments about how
it was like being born, and the rather unfortunate phrase
"spincter of the sphinx" was tossed around liberally.

I should also probably mention that there was a lot of free food and alcohol. A surprising number of people actually just stop their race here, with no concern for finishing. Others finish, then ski the 3K from the finish line back to the aid station for the party, adding another 6K to their day.

Not only was it the first time I'd snow shoed any distance, but it was also the first time I'd snow shoed about 5K, eaten steak and polish sausage, had a few Rolling Rocks, a margarita, and a couple shots of Jägermeister, then snow shoed an additional 3K.

Much fun. Looking forward to next year.