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," Robert W. Service
The tour bus had left Whitehorse, in Canada's Yukon Territory, and we were headed even more northward, farther into the wild Yukon and toward Dawson.
It was midsummer, but the driver had the vehicle's heater going and it was cozy. I might have dozed blissfully, if I had not been so smitten by "gold fever." Dawson, that legendary lure of the Klondike past and present, was at the end of that graveled highway.
Dawson was the world capital of riches and excitement in 1899 and into the early years of this century. The quest for yellow metal is still the main addiction there, alongside the mighty Yukon River. It's so close to the Arctic Circle that Mother Nature shuts the town off from the rest of the world nine months of the year. And by high noon, I would be there to see and do it all. Nope, I wouldn't--couldn't--sleep.
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 . "
The bus roared over a rise in the utter vastness and a sizable body of ice water sprayed toward the horizon on our immediate right. Mists rose from the frozen matter that covered much of it at a time when, back home in Mississippi, they would be removing watermelons from refrigerators to help cope with the July out-of-doors.
"Is that a lake?" I asked the driver.
"Yep," he said offhandedly. "Lake Lebarge."
"Lake Lebarge!" I fairly shouted, waking a couple of fellow passengers who apparently hadn't been as wide-eyed as I over the prospect of what was ahead. "You mean the Lake Lebarge of 'The Cremation of Sam McGee?' "
The driver looked me over in his rear-view mirror before answering. "Yeah, that's right. The Lake Lebarge."
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 thelashes froze till sometimes wecouldn't see;
It wasn't much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee .
My head was swimming. It was all coming back to me. Years, decades even, were fast falling away and I was back around a Camp Kickapoo campfire listening to a Boy Scout leader's recitation of by far the most stirring, most spine-tingling, yet ultimately most humorous poem I've ever been moved to memorize: "The Cremation of Sam McGee."
The poem was long and haunting and pure magic. Still is, always will be. Robert Service wrote it, along with hundreds more of the kind that even non-poetry lovers can enjoy. He, too, first saw Lake Lebarge on a trip from Whitehorse to Dawson, but his sighting came during the incredible heyday of the Klondike Lode Rush.
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 .
"Where are you going to stop?" I asked the driver.
"Hadn't planned to, this side of Dawson," he replied nonchalantly.
"What!" I bellowed. "Not stop for Lake Lebarge? For Sam McGee! For Robert Service! For Henry Forrest Fleming and Frank Gwin Jr.!"
Those last two were my old Scout leaders, neither of whom had ever been any closer to the Klondike than via Robert Service's masterpieces. But the addition of their names to my plea seemed to have a catalytic effect toward my request.
The driver relented, quickly pulling the bus to the side of Highway 2. As soon as he handled the lever that opened the door, I was out and on the very marge of Lake Lebarge.
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 . "
Unlike the disappointments of the Colosseum in Rome, which I had imagined would be as colossal as Hollywood's suppositions of same, and the countryside of Costa Rica, which I found not to be the "Garden Spot of Earth" as advertised, Lake Lebarge was everything I had envisioned so long before.