Tag Archive > robert service

Same story, twice told

I have been simultaneously reading two novels about the Klondike gold rush. “The Trail of ’98“, by Robert Service and “Smoke Bellew” by Jack London. Published only 2 years apart, in 1910 and 1912 respectively, I’m amazed how differently two authors can approach pretty much the same plot line: young dilettante heads north over Chilkoot Pass to try his luck in the gold feilds – along the way meets attractive young lady and various characters, encounters various hardships and adventures…etc. Service’s story has the melodramatic twists and turns of a silent movie (in fact it eventually became one). His damsel is in great distress under the oppression of a wicked uncle, while London’s headstrong young frontier lass beats the protagonist to in the claim gain even as she is starting to admire his cheerful cheechako fortitude. Service’s character has a remarkable uneventful trip over the pass and down to Dawson, while London details the physical trials of a greenhorn office boy from the city learning to eat raw bacon and pack 100lb loads with the native packers, not to mention the harrowing boat ride across icy lakes and through deadly rapids racing the winter freeze up. Probably you can tell I prefer London’s fast-paced action adventure to the sappy melodrama of Service, but it’s quite an educational contrast and worth reading both side by side.

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The Cremation of Sam McGee

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.

Robert Service
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. 

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