The Marge of Lake LaBerge

“I wonder where Lake LaBerge is,” I said.

“What?”

“Lake LaBerge. I’m pretty sure it’s in Yukon.”

“What’s Lake LaBerge?”

I looked at my traveling companion Laurie who was focused on the road ahead. We had recently crossed the border from British Columbia into Yukon, and had just pulled back onto the road after watching mountain goats on a steep mountainside. The light snow we drove through in BC was behind us, and early evening sunlight lent extra mystery to the jagged landscape. I was quickly becoming entranced by Yukon.

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Mountain Goat Above the Klondike Highway

“Lake LaBerge… you know.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Sure you do…

“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.”

“Oh, yeah. I didn’t remember the name of the lake.”

“But you remember the story.”

“Sort of. Not really”

“Well…

“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 ’tain’t 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.”

“Remember?”

I was hoping she would remember the story because, although proud of how much I had just recited, I was nearing the part of the poem I always forget if I haven’t brushed it up in a while, and it had been a long while.

“No, I don’t remember. somehow he ended up in a furnace, right?”

“Yeah. Well, Sam ends up in a boiler, because of a promise…

“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.”

I had reached the point at which I knew if I kept going, I would start mixing up lines in the next two verses and likely end up in an endless loop of mumbling about cursing the cold… or was it the load? Loathing and singing, and cursing…

“Anyway, it’s a long poem,” I said. “He carried around his dead friend Sam for while until…

“…I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge,
And a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice
It was called the “Alice May”.
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit,
And I looked at my frozen chum;
Then “Here,” said I, with a sudden cry,
“Is my cre-ma-tor-eum.”

“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;
And 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…

“I don’t remember exactly how it goes from there,” I said, for the first time admitting I couldn’t recall the whole poem. “But eventually, after he returns from his hike to the Alice May and opens the door to the boiler…

“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.

“Then the poem repeats the first verse…. So… I was wondering where Lake LaBerge is.”

“Look in the Milepost.”

“Great idea!”

I reached behind the driver’s seat, pulled the thick guide book out of the pocket, and turned to the index.

“Let’s see… There it is. Holy Crap! We’re headed right to it. It’s on the Yukon River.”

“Let’s go see it, then.”

“I think we must. In fact, we are staying very close to it tonight. The resort is just a stone’s throw from the southern end of the lake. Let’s hit it in the morning before we head south to look for Lynx.”

“Okay.”

We stopped in Whitehorse for a nice supper, then drove 30 kilometers out of town to Sundog Retreat. The retreat center was not our first choice of places to stay, but the hostel was full, and Sundog was the only place we found far enough out of town for our liking, with an available room. Being in town would have lessened our driving the next day, but if there was any chance of an aurora we wanted to be far from city lights.

After lugging our stuff through the snow, and checking to see what the hours were for the hot tub, we sat down to discuss our plans. We had all day to wander. The drive was only about 90 miles along the Alaska Highway from Sundog to Haines Junction where we had a reservation for the next night.

It was quickly decided that we would first find the marge of Lake LaBerge where we would look for a certain derelict of note, take a couple pictures, then drive south of Whitehorse to explore Fish Lake Road where wetlands gave hope for good birding, and where we heard there was a chance of seeing lynx.

After a hot tub, showers, and a few test shots showing no trace of the aurora, we hit the sack.

I slept well enough that night, woke without an alarm the next morning, and was eager to get moving.

As we ate breakfast, Laurie asked me if I knew how to get to Lake LaBerge.

“I think we continue out Policeman Point Road,” I said, reaching for the Milepost.

A quick look at the map, told us we needed to head north on the highway a few kilometers for a lake access road.

“It’s not that far.”

“We should go,” she said.

“Yeah… I guess… you know, there won’t be a derelict there.”

“What?”

“The Alice May. It won’t be there. If we go, there will be no Alice May—no boat with planks missing from the floor, no coal lying about, no greasy smoke. That stuff is fiction, and even if it wasn’t, it was written around the turn of the nineteenth century. There won’t be a boat there now.”

“But don’t you want to see the lake, anyway?”

“I don’t know. It will just be a lake. I guess we might find a sign that says Lake LaBerge, but even if there is a sign, it won’t be spelled right. Robert Service changed LaBerge to LeBarge, I guess to rhyme with marge. No. Let’s take it off the list. We have a lot to see today.”

“Okay. Then we’ll start with Fish Lake Road.”

“Fish Lake Road, it is. Let’s go find a lynx.”

We did not find a lynx, or very many birds along Fish Lake Road, just a single muskrat, and soon we were back on the Alaska Highway headed for Haines Junction, driving slow and looking for wildlife.

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Muskrat

Along the way we watched a huge bull elk bugle and mate, saw several hawk owls, and more golden eagles than we could keep track of.

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One of several Hawk Owls along the Alaska Highway

A coyote loped across the road in front of us carrying a very large meal we surmised might have been a snowshoe hare. We saw mountain bluebirds, trumpeter swans, ducks, a rough-legged hawk, and a northern shrike. Pine grosbeaks were plentiful foraging seeds in the tops of snow-covered trees.

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Mountain Bluebird
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Mallard Ducks Taking Off in Front of a Family of Trumpeter Swans

 

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Rough-legged Hawk Hunting Near the Takhini River

Oddly, in the midst of all the magnificent wildlife, a rusty blackbird hopping along the Takhini River excited us as much as anything. Rusty blackbirds breed in muskegs and other wetlands across Canada and Alaska, and winter in wetlands in the eastern half of the U.S. Although widespread, their populations are in rapid decline so sightings are special.

That night we stayed in a nice house in Haines Junction and while Laurie was in the bath, I took advantage of a good wireless signal to look up The Cremation of Sam McGee.

I searched several sites with little luck, then turned to Wikipedia.

Apparently, Sam McGee was a road-builder whose name Robert Service found on a bank form, and who gave permission to Service to use his name. But McGee was just a name. The poem was inspired by a Doctor Leonard Sugden who used the boiler of a derelict called Olive May to cremate the body of a miner who died of scurvy. The Olive May was wrecked some fifty kilometers downriver from Lake LaBerge. Curiously, a boat called the Alice May did sink on Lake LaBerge a decade after Service published his poem.

William Samuel McGee died of a heart attack in 1940 and was buried.

Perhaps, with some research, some remnant of the Olive May to the south, or the Alice May on LaBerge could be found. Perhaps the location of the wrecks are noted in some record. Perhaps I could stand in those places, but to what end?

I have been reciting that poem—when I can remember it—for a decade, and when I recite it, I see LeBarge the way Service’s words engrained it in me. Visiting the shore of Lake LaBerge would forever change that for me, and I don’t want that. There is a time for fact, and a time for personal truth. In this case I have my truth and, queer as it might be, I don’t want any facts taking it away from me.

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.

2 thoughts on “The Marge of Lake LaBerge”

  1. I know this poem well as it was one of my mother’s favorites; however, my father was the one who always quoted it. When he was dating my mother, she mentioned she liked the poem. Dad memorized it for her immediately. It was just one of the many sweet things he did to win her heart. They were married for 56 years and had a true love affair. I believe Robert Service would have been pleased to know Sam McGee, in his homely way, kindled a flame of love that burned forever in their hearts.

    Like

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