Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Alaska adventure Lake Labarge and the Cremation of Sam McGee

Lake Labarge
Our Alaskan adventure was cut short when Celebrity Cruise lines had repeated problems with propulsion systems on their Millennium ship which has been transported to dry dock in the Bahmas for through repairs, stranding passengers on board and canceling all cruises on it for the rest of the season.   We  heard the news of the first  problems as our land  tour began. We learned later into our second week that the problems continued and there were about 2000 passengers in Ketchikan awaiting transport to Anchorage and Seattle to  return to their homes.  Consequently our 3 weeks were reduced to 2, our tour company, John Hall's Alaska handled everything perfectly, we will receive full refunds for the cruise and vouchers for a free one to be used anytime the next year. Anyone who has traveled extensively for business or pleasure knows that "stuff" happens.  We traveled 2700 miles by John Hall's coach all over and into the interior of Alaska and the Yukon.  Now we are home again in MN where it is just too doggone warm as the heat that plagued Anchorage Alaska  days before we flew there has moved eastward.  Tomorrow it begins to leave here and that is a good thing.  

I vowed not to take  too many photos because once home what to do with them, download to the computer while my attention span hangs in, but armed with my smart phone, tablet and digital camera there were many shots taken.  Now I am quite busy downloading, sorting, cropping, deleting. I have been absent from this blog for so long that I hope I have not lost my readers.  I am sharing just one brief moment from our journey.  

Alaska and  the Yukon are distinct areas, the Yukon is in Canada so we crossed back and forth into and out of customs along the journey.  Many people confuse them or think the Yukon is part of Alaska, it is not. Many are not aware of the distinction between the  Alaskan ports and their access over the mountains  to the Klondike gold strike of 1898, but it's knowledge I have embedded now. Today  I know more about the history  of the north lands than before even though I read Michener's "Alaska" and did extensive research for months prior to departure.  There is absolutely no way to prepare for the  sights, vastness and sheer awesomeness of that wilderness.  We have traveled all over this country, seen many wonderful sights, natural beauties in the past 40 years but still nothing compares. We have been all over Alberta and British Columbia and seen majestic mountains there still, grandeur in the Sierras, the Rockies, Glacier Park, Yosemite, Grand Tetons do not compare, to Alaska and the Yukon from the inside deep inside.  It is not visible from cruise ships, one must journey in land, far inland.  . 

 I don't know that I would repeat this trip of very early mornings and very long days in the coach,  nor that I would have chosen this had I really known the extent of the trip ahead of time, but I am glad we went.  Jerry knew,  but I live in my own world and despite looking at maps  did not get it through  my head that we would have many  hundreds of miles daily to cover, miles on muddy or dusty narrow dirt roads, very narrow switchbacks that left me in awe of our guide and driver, Caryn, a most capable young woman who is a converted Alaskan. Some in our small tour group of 38 had been to the Swiss Alps, to Austria, to Germany and all agreed Alaska tops that.  The scenery almost becomes redundant, vast miles and miles of trees, mountains, glaciers and lakes. In MN we are the Land of 10,000 lakes, Alaska has more than 100,000. Take your breath away moments abound.  Big city people and those who want  modern comforts might not enjoy it, many times we had neither cell phone nor internet reception, out into the wilds, but who cared? And yes,  I am a ciy girl, not known for roughing it anymore by choice these days.  Still on this nature offered the daily mighty,  the spectacular and the lack of people to contaminate the sights make it heaven in Alaska.  Our trip was not for the feeble or the slow.  The days could start at 5 or 6 o'clock and  continue until 7 or 8 at night.  Yes there were stops along the way, bu the pace was very tiring.  The following shows one day's journey in the Yukon from Whitehorse to Dawson and the wonderful experience of Lake Labarge. 

Lake Lebarge, 30 miles from Whitehorse, on some paved  road and some not is noted for it's strong and sudden storms lasting anywhere from several hours to all day. Because of the possibility of a sudden change in the weather and the size of the lake, 30 miles long and 2 to 3 miles wide, those who may choose to canoe or camp there must carefully set up.  How many people do you know who have stood on the shore of Lake Labarge and heard the "Cremation of Sam McGee" recited aloud.  We did.  It has been a long long long time since I heard that poem. But our guide, Caryn,  planned a stop for us along a campsite at Labarge.  We arrived about  9:00 AM and  unloaded as a camper was leaving.  The expression on his face at a busload of folks, descending  in front of him to the lake was priceless and even more so when he heard we were to hear a poem.  It is a sportsman's haven, fishing, canoeing, etc not  known for poetry reading and  certainly not the place where  a bus appears.  Dorothy from our group volunteered to read it aloud and what a job she did, she is a retired 9th grade English teacher from upper northernmost, Minnesota   When I told her it had been maybe junior high since I'd heard it, she acknowledged, "Yes, I taught that in 9th grade English." 

It is but one poem by Robert Service, the bard of the north.  I found this online:Service, a Canadian poet and novelist, was known for his ballads of the Yukon. He wrote this narrative poem which is an outstanding example of how sensory stimuli are emphasized and it has a surprise ending.  Robert William Service was born in Preston, England, on January 16, 1874. He emigrated to Canada at the age of twenty, in 1894, and settled for a short time on Vancouver Island. He was employed by the Canadian Bank of Commerce in Victoria, B.C., and was later transferred to Whitehorse and then to Dawson in the Yukon.  In all, he spent eight years in the Yukon and saw and experienced the difficult times of the miners, trappers, and hunters that he has presented to us in verse."  

Perhaps the opening lines are familiar to you, as they were to me, but here it is in it's fullness; making this one long blog post.  : 

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.

Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam ‘round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he’d often say in his homely way that “he’d sooner live in hell.”

On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn’t see;
It wasn’t much fun, but the only one to whimper was 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.”

Well, he seemed so low that I couldn’t say no; then he says with a sort of moan:
“It’s the cursed cold, and it’s got right hold till I’m chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet ‘taint being dead—it’s my awful dread of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you’ll cremate my last remains.”
A pal’s last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail;
And we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! he looked ghastly pale.
He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee;
And before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee.

There wasn’t a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,
With a corpse half hid that I couldn’t get rid, because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say: “You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it’s up to you to cremate those last remains.”

Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code.
In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load.
In the long, long night, by the lone firelight, while the huskies, round in a ring,
Howled out their woes to the homeless snows—O God! how I loathed the thing.

And every day that quiet clay seemed to heavy and heavier grow;
And on I went, though the dogs were spent and the grub was getting low;
The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in;
And I’d often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin.

Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared and the furnace roared—such a blaze you seldom see;
Then I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.

Then I made a hike, for I didn’t like to hear him sizzle so;
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow.
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don’t know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.

I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: “I’ll just take a peep inside.
I guess he’s cooked, and it’s time I looked;” . . . then the door I opened wide.

And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: “Please close that door.
It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear you’ll let in the cold and storm—
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.” 
Lake LaBarge, courtesy of internet search