In memory of Jeff Harrist: The Return of Donkey Kong Forum

Jason Bennett,

May 8, 2022 3:06 AM

After the tragic passing of its founder, the DKF community rallied to carry on his legacy

If you visit Jeff "JC" Harrist's YouTube channel, you'll immediately notice two things.

JC loved fishing near his home in Anchorage. He uploaded several videos as a testament, like the one where he reeled in a monster Arctic char. Hoisting it into the camera's view, he relished the chance to cradle his Alaskan catch before turning to the side of the boat where he held it in the frigid water a moment longer before it slipped away.

JC was also a true metalhead with an affection for reprising Iron Maiden instrumentals like the Ides of March. But he didn't just record himself playing lead guitar - he recorded all the guitar lines separately before sitting down to combine them into a singular metal opus.

And if you were looking closely, you may have noticed a t-shirt that displayed his third passion - Donkey Kong Forum, an on-line community he established in 2013 for fellow "Kongers" who were still hooked on the Nintendo classic decades after its arcade debut.

JC performs Iron Maiden's "Ides of March" [Image source: Jeff Harrist Youtube]

How much longer one can watch videos of JC in the great outdoors or leaning into a guitar solo has become an open question. In February, JC unexpectedly passed away at the age of 53. While the fate of his channel in an ever-changing social media landscape is unclear, JC's tragic passing had an immediate impact on his website.

Due to a painful convergence of factors, JC's ownership of the website domain lapsed and with it the entire DKF community - nearly 10 years of high score achievements, tips, strategies, and exchanges among dozens of members - went off-line. When the domain went to auction several weeks later, early hopes that it could be reclaimed were dashed when it was sold to a third party. It appeared that a decade of work would be erased with the click of a button.

That is, until Donkey Kong Forum went live several hours later at a new home -

The return of DKF is the story of a community that, while grieving the sudden loss of its founder, rallied to save his legacy. Buoyed by behind-the-scenes determination as well as happenstance, two prominent members defied the odds and led the charge to restore the forum when many feared that all was lost.


In the months leading up to his passing, JC had made some quiet changes to the Donkey Kong Forum that in retrospect were the key to its survival. One can also argue that the site was saved because of the changes he didn't make.

In early August of last year, one of the site's moderators, Jeremy Young, discovered that JC had granted him full administrator rights over the forum. Normally the granting of such rights would be a feather in one's cap. But by this point, it was a month since JC had actively participated on the DKF site.

At first glance, that wasn't necessarily strange since the ebb and flow of the hobby naturally resulted in periods of increased or decreased activity, and JC was no exception. In the years that followed his first forum post on January 23, 2013 formally welcoming "players of all skill levels," JC would ramp up activity around specific events like the Kong Off and step away when work or other priorities pushed to the forefront.

But even in that context, the unannounced granting of admin rights gave Jeremy pause. JC had done this without telling him.

"I only discovered that I was an admin by chance," Jeremy recalled. "[It] was obviously a concerning development, so I immediately made an initial backup of the site on August 9."

Over the next five months, concern for JC and the future of DKF grew. No one had heard directly from JC since July and his last log-in at DKF occurred in early October. His public participation on Facebook had also become quiet, but his personal activity provided a small but tenuous reassurance - the message app confirmed that JC was at least reading his Facebook messages, and in one case he responded with a "thumbs up" when he was asked if he was okay.

As the calendar turned over to January, Jeremy had to consider the impact of an approaching deadline - January 23, the date that the site's dot com domain was due for renewal. Out of an abundance of caution, Jeremy made what would turn out to be his final backup of the forum.

With no word from JC, the renewal date finally arrived - and then passed.

The site remained on-line.

The fact it remained accessible suggested that perhaps JC had taken some unannounced action. A week later, the WHOIS registry seemed to bear this out as it appeared that the domain was either auto-renewed on JC's credit card or he did it manually himself. But JC's situation was still far from normal.

"There [was] obviously still some serious concern about what's going on," Jeremy confirmed.

Then on the afternoon of February 3, DKF disappeared from the web. The initial hope that the site was in the free and clear proved misplaced. Jumping into action, Jeremy reached out to the host company to see if they could accept a third party payment.

"I explain that I'm an admin and the other admin/owner is unreachable," Jeremy shared. "However, I don't have the credentials to access either the site management panel or the site email account, so they're unable to verify who I am or let me pay."


News of the site's disappearance made its way through emails and Discord chats while others learned the news first-hand when they were greeted with the "parked domain" placeholder instead of the Forum's usual splashpage. Renewed attempts to reach JC proved fruitless.

Two weeks later, forum talk was supplanted by news of a heartbreaking development - the community learned that JC had passed away. He was found on the morning of February 14, with authorities later estimating that he died over the prior weekend. Police located his aunt in Texas and from there the aunt reached out to JC's Facebook friends. Jeremy was eventually put into contact with her.

"My communication...was mostly to help answer questions about JC's state of mind, which unfortunately I couldn't do," Jeremy explained. "He had basically withdrawn from friends and family for months, so it's a big mystery."

As family grappled with the news, Jeremy and the larger community wrestled with JC's death and their own questions.

"What could we have done?" Jeremy wondered. "Did we do enough? What was he going through?"

As the days wore on, grief gave way to determination and a belief that the community would not compound the tragedy of JC's passing with the erasure of the site he enthusiastically kicked off nearly 10 years earlier.

JC Harrist (center) enjoys some stage time with Richie Knucklez (left) and Daniel Desjardins (right) at Kong Off 5 [Image source: William McEvoy, photographer]


Among the many community members who were moved by the news of JC's passing was former Donkey Kong world record holder Wes Copeland.

Wes had made a name for himself as a top flight competitor and had racked up an impressive number of milestone achievements in pushing the high score into new point territory. Though retired from active competition, Wes wanted to pitch in and went straight to work with Jeremy's final DKF export.

"There were plenty of technical challenges," Wes remarked. "The forum software's DB export feature is a one way trip. There is no 'import' feature that allows a brand new forum deployment to ingest an export, so all of this had to be done manually and painstakingly by hand."

Being able to work with a site export was itself a fortunate turn of events. Wes shared that the developers of Simple Machines Forum had removed the export feature altogether in a future software update, but JC had earlier decided against being an early adopter and maintained the older version.

"It's interesting to consider that if DKF had been running a more modern version, Jeremy's export wouldn't have been possible," Wes noted.

On February 22 after a few days of intensive work, Wes was able get a working but broken version of the site restored. While this was a critical development, much more tedious and technical work lay ahead. As an example, every custom aspect of the site was lost so every graphical detail had to be remade or retrieved from copies of the page crawled by the Wayback Machine. This was on top of working through the export coding itself to try and get a site that bore a resemblance to the functionality of the original.

And then there was still the big question mark about the original dot com domain.

After being parked, the host would allow a grace period for the domain's renewal before putting it up for registration by a new party. By Jeremy's rough calculations, the domain would probably become publicly available by early April. But given that Jeremy and Wes couldn't be sure that everything would fall their way, they decided on a back-up plan and acquired a dot net domain for DKF by late March.


Given both the sentimental value and historical connection with JC's original dot com registration, there was hope that the domain could be secured at a reasonable cost.

The first signs of trouble appeared when the domain was transferred to DropCatch for a 3-day auction given that multiple parties had put a backorder on the name. For the first two days, the auction itself was fairly uneventful with a snail's pace increase in the highest bid that was still below a hundred dollars.

But on April 18, the final day of the auction, things got out of hand as the final hour approached.

Really out of hand.

For a site whose annual renewal fee was under $40, the price exploded from the hundreds of dollars to the thousands as the clock ticked down.

"[It was] an auction shitshow," Jeremy recalled.

With a stipulation that the auction would be extended an additional 5 minutes for any bids placed in final moments, the bidding went deep into extra time.

When the dust finally settled, the original DKF dot com domain sold for an incredible $19,000.

And that was just the start of it.

Within hours, the new owner - a site that snatches up domains and sells them at generously inflated prices - had put up a placeholder page that included DKF's original banner and a template to submit a bid with prices starting at $30,000.

A couple of hours after that, the minimum bid was raised to an eye-opening $50,000.

If you were momentarily unsure what one could do with a domain called donkeykongforum after putting down 50k, the page included some helpful suggestions like "reestablish the Donkey Kong Forum" or use it to host "a directory for all things Donkey Kong records."


"Once the auction started to skyrocket," Jeremy said, "it was apparent what was going to happen."

Jeremy and Wes were going to be ready for .net or .com to go live within a day or two of the auction ending, but the astronomical price lit a fire.

"We got it done that night," Jeremy said, with an estimated downtime of 74 days, 8 hours, and 27 minutes. "If we had any inkling that .com would go for $19k we might have spun up .net much earlier."

For Wes, his work in restoring the site at was an expression of thanks and paying it forward.

"I'm happy to have been able to donate time to a community that has helped open a lot of doors of my life," he shared, looking back at the years of Kong Off competitions and media attention that his world record pursuits garnered. "I only consider myself a temporary steward."

For the current squatters/owners of the old DKF domain, perhaps they underestimated the resiliency and efficiency of the community. Their landing page has since scrubbed any mention of minimum bids, and the owners even reached out to Wes to offer the site at $20,000 - a 30k "discount" - with the suggestion that the community could get behind a fundraiser to buy it back. Wes must have relished setting the record straight.

"With our site now restored, the dot com isn't worth thousands of $ to us," he replied. "We would simply redirect it to the dot net domain for convenience."

And so JC's original concept of bringing together like-minded Donkey Kong players and other retro gamers lives on. With several hundred dollars worth of donations from community members and coding optimizations that reduced the site's hosting costs to less than one cent an hour, the future of the DKF looks secure.

Visiting DKF today, nearly everything appears just as did back when JC first shared videos about fishing on Sand Lake or playing Iron Maiden instrumentals: the memorable Donkey Kong Forum logo framed by Mario, the list of gamers live-streaming their latest high score attempts, the listing of the top 10 Donkey Kong players in the world, and the shoutbox where members can drop in to share the topical and the mundane.

The one change is the addition of a small but poignant tribute to a man who took a simple idea and inspired a community:

"In memory of Jeff Harrist."

Additional links:

Jeff Harrist: Sand Lake Monster Arctic Char

Jeff Harrist: Iron Maiden - Ides of March (Cover)

Donkey Kong Forum:

Update 2022-05-08: the auction page for the old domain has since returned to soliciting a minimum bid of $50,000


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