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 was once described as the “Bard of the Yukon.” In fact, we discovered while in Dawson City that he was the best- selling poet of the century. Jody and I in 1990 worked for a couple of ladies who were restoring Alaska Nellie’s homestead just south of Moose Pass, Alaska. It was a great place to spend time given the commercial fishing season was slow that year. Kenai Lake took a 90-degree turn right where Nellie’s homestead was located so you could look down two sections of the lake. Nellie was a colorful character herself but that is a different story.
I had not read Jack London at that time and she was surprised by that. I guess it wasn’t required reading at Bettendorf High School. By the time we left for home she had introduced us to Jack London, Robert Service, Nellie Neal Lawing and Bill Watterson. How do you not respect a woman who appreciates Calvin and Hobbes?
I was twenty- three at the time and didn’t really appreciate poetry at that time. Reading Service was fun though. It didn’t feel like poetry and most poets from that period would have agreed. The fact that I was reading it while spending a Summer in Alaska made it all the more appealing. Many of the more classically inclined critics thought his work was crude and even “comical.” He captured the essence of the rough and tumble Yukon life. He, in fact, did not refer to his work as poetry but as “verse.”
I enjoyed his poems but the one that I like the most is the Spell of the Yukon. It is a long poem but the last stanza captures the Klondike, gold rush and rugged nature of the land up there. Here it is.
“There’s gold, and it’s haunting and haunting;
It’s luring me on as of old;
Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting
So much as just finding the gold.
It’s the great, big, broad land ’way up yonder,
It’s the forests where silence has lease;
It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.”
It’s a great poem and if you appreciate the beauty and vastness of Alaska or the Yukon you should read it in its entirety.
In 1907, he wrote a collection of poems and stories and sent it to his publisher. The publisher published it under “Songs of a Sourdough.” It was later renamed The Spell of the Yukon and other verses as the publisher believed it might sell better in the US. We decided to create a music playlist for our trip. Everyone submitted around twenty to twenty-five songs. We borrowed “Songs of a Sourdough” for the playlist title.
Although Robert Service did not grow up or live in Dawson City very long it was in that cabin where some of his most inspired work took place. It was great to be able to stop by and see if before we took off for the Top of the World Highway later that day.