There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.
The Cremation of Sam McGee
When I was growing up, my family always took an annual summer backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada. We swam in dozens of cold alpine lakes, baked ourselves brown on warm granite slabs, scrambled over giant talus on our way to high passes, encountered a few persistent black bears, and generally had an all-around good time. Part of the fun was we went with 2 other families that had kids around our age so there was plenty of chatting and story swapping on the trail and in camp. One particular tradition that developed was the reading of Robert Service. Our friend Andy would bring along his favorite volume of poems. Once the trout were cooked and eaten and the dishes rinsed, the bear bag hung carefully off a high limb we would all settle around the campfire and Andy, in his booming bass voice, would read The Cremation of Sam McGee.
And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow,
And the dogs were fed, and the stars o’erhead were dancing heel and toe,
He turned to me, and “Cap,” says he, “I’ll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I’m asking that you won’t refuse my last request.”
There’s something about the ballad-like meter of Service that draws me into the poems and conjours up outlandish, tall-tales that could only occur in a far-away place surrounded by whirling clouds of snow. After reading Berton’s history of the Klondike, these poems take on new life. The frozen riverboats on the Yukon, the green Southerners making the death-march through mid-winter cold and darkness, a partner’s last request when he knows he won’t survive this grand adventure; all these things were a part of gold rush history. Perhaps Sam’s fate is not so far-fetched as I thought.
Read the full poem here.
Nearly every Canadian at some time in his life has felt a shiver of awe and loneliness which comes to a man when he stands alone in the face of untamed nature; and that is why we are a sober and essentially religious people.
I think some Alaskans might take issue with this one…
It could be reached only after a thousand foot climb up a thirty-five degree slope strewn with immense boulders and caked, for eight months out of twelve, with solid ice. Glaciers of bottle green overhung it like prodigious icicles ready to burst at summer’s end; avalanches thundered from the mountain in the spring; and in the winter the snow fell so thickly that it could reach a depth of seventy feet. This forbidding gap was called the Chilkoot Pass…
Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush
My sister recently started working for Klondike Goldrush National Historic Park as a ranger. She just got back from her first trip on the trail. She says: “It’s snowy. Didn’t get over the pass…but it is doable. Avalanche gear & snowshoes for the next 2 weeks are a must.”
Being a backcountry skier, I have a healthy respect for avalanche terrain. Back in 1898, on Palm Sunday, stampeders began to evacuate the Scales as several snow slides and a heavy spring storm hinted at greater instability in the snow pack. As they were retreating down Long Hill, the snow on the upper mountain gave way and thundered down the mountains. The roar of the avalanche was heard several miles away in Sheep Camp and 1,500 stampeders dropped everything for the next four days to assist in the rescue and recovery. An estimated 70 people died that day, some buried up to 50ft beneath the snow.
I have just over 3 weeks before I start my journey. The trail officially opens this week, despite the snow. To all my fellow Chilkoot travelers, stay safe out there on the trail as that midnight sun starts doing it’s work.
A bit more about the tragedy along with some video images are on the park website:
Palm Sunday Avalanche – 1898
In all the Americas ours is the only country that did not separate violently from its European parents… If this lack of revolutionary passion has given us a reasonably tranquil history, it has also, no doubt, contributed to our well-know lack of daring. It is almost a Canadian axiom that we would rather be safe than sorry; alas, we are sometimes sorry that we are so safe.
Preface to Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush
Opinions? Let’s hear from some Canadians.