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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.”
The Cremation of Sam McGee, by Robert Service
From “Songs of a Sourdough

There is no Lake Lebarge anywhere in Canada. There is, however, a Lake Laberge. Robert Service used poetic license in order for it to rhyme.

It was in late April of 1973 when my friend Larry and I camped in the campground at Lake Laberge.

labergeAlamy Stock Photo

The Northern Lights

Have you ever seen them? “Those bright dancing lights that are the result of collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere.” (Northern Lights Centre)

I had first seen them in Anchorage, and then in Fairbanks. But here, with the sound-absorbing three-foot layer of snow, I could actually hear them crackling and popping. I had always thought them to be silent, but “there on the marge of Lake Lebarge” I learned otherwise.

Larry, sound sleeper that he was, slept through the whole show. When I woke up the following morning, he was gone! Sleeping bag, back pack—everything. He had packed all of his gear into the car and left a note on the windshield saying we was restless and decided to hike along the (Haines Highway) road we were following.

So I packed my gear, collapsed the tent, and headed down the road. I caught up with Larry after about 5 miles. I’ve never seen anyone so glad to get in out of the cold!

We continued on into Haines (Alaska), only to find that the border crossing was closed. No barricade or anything, just a big sign that we would be committing a felony if we entered our own country without checking in with Customs. Even back then, it was harder for a U.S. citizen to re-enter her own country than it was to enter a foreign country. So after weighing the pros and cons, we decided not to take any chances. We parked and waited the 2 hours it took for the Customs dude to show up.

I don’t know what his problem was, but he wanted to know just about everything about me. Where I was going, where I was coming from, why had I been in Canada, did I have a job in the US, and just about everything but my shoe size. Larry (who was a Canadian citizen), just had to show his driver’s license and was waved in. I wondered if the fact that both Larry and the Custom guy both had short hair and smoked a pipe had something to do with it while I, a citizen by birth—and with long hair, a beard, and smoking a cigarette—was put through the wringer.

So On To The Ferry

Once you enter Haines, the highways end. There are no connecting roads to the rest of Southeast Alaska. The only way to go any further is by boat or by airplane. And that meant the Alaska Marine Highway System. You’ll forgive, I’m sure, when I admit that as I write this, some 45 years later, I can’t remember which ferry we took.

After a stop at Juneau, we continued down to Petersburg, our destination. Larry later left to go commercial fishing, while I found a job, got married, and had my first daughter.

I never saw the Northern Lights in Petersburg, but I do remember snowshoeing across the muskeg by the light of a full moon reflecting off the snow.

Thanks for reading!

White Pass: The Dead Horse Trail

“The inhumanity which this trail has been witness to, the heart break and suffering which so many have undergone cannot be imagined. They certainly cannot be described.”
~ Clifford Stifton, Canadian Minister of the Interior, 1897.

The White Pass was advertised as an easier trail than the Chilkoot. Although it was longer, it was said not to be as steep, and therefore a better route for pack animals. The reality, however, was that the trail was narrow, rocky, and marshy in some places.

So many horses died along the trail in the winter of 1897-98 (about 3,000 horses) that author and prospector Jack London named it “Dead Horse Trail.”

Eventually, a wagon road was constructed, followed by the building of the White Pass & Yukon Railroad, which is still in use today.

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The White Pass Trail, ca. 1898

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The White Pass & Yukon Route Railway, shortly after construction

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The White Pass & Yukon Route Railway today

If you hike the Chilkoot Trail today, you’ll end up at Lake Bennett. From there, the best way back to Skagway is by train. But don’t worry about the fact that you’ve just spent the better part of a week without washing and so probably smell like a bear after a long winter’s hibernation: the railroad officials load all hikers into their own car at the end of the train!

There’s Gold In Them Thar Hills!

A few blocks walk from the hostel brought me to the headquarters of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park – Seattle Unit. As the Park Service explains,

This park is unlike many other parks in the National Park Service. Our “park” consist of a single building in Seattle, located within the Pioneer Square Historical District. It has no outdoor components, but the visitor center has indoor exhibits and displays. You can also find brochures and other information about surrounding national park sites located throughout western Washington.

The Seattle Unit is housed in the former Cadillac Hotel, where many of the Klondikers (as the prospectors were called) actually stayed on their way to the gold fields of the Yukon Territory.

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The Cadillac Hotel

The Klondike Gold Rush resulted in about 100,000 prospectors heading to the gold fields on the Klondike River—and the vast majority of them came by way of Seattle. The result? Seattle became a major city almost overnight.

And while the Klondikers headed north with visions of gold nuggets dancing before their eyes, the folks who made the most money during the gold rush were the Seattle merchants. That’s because the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP, or the Mounties), wouldn’t let anyone into Canada without a year’s worth of provisions—nearly 2 tons of supplies!

The Chilkoot Trail

The Chilkoot Trail was the most common route into the gold fields. Starting at the town of Dyea, it followed an old Tlingit Indian trade trail over the pass.

Chilkoot Trail

The “Golden Staircase” over the Chilkoot Pass

The trail over the Chilkoot Pass consisted of 1500 steps carved in the ice. In order to ferry all their goods, most of the prospectors made 30 to 40 trips up the “Golden Staircase,” as it was called. (When I led a group of teenagers over the trail in the ‘80s, we called it “hell.”

The Scales

The Scales

The last resting spot before the climb over the pass is The Scales, so-called because this is where the Canadian Mounties had set up their scales to measure the weight of each prospectors goods. This was done to prevent the miners from starving over the fierce winters.

It is said that if a man stepped out of line on the Golden Staircase, it could take hours for a break in the line to let him back in.

White Pass Trail

Another route that many of the miners took was the White Pass Trail. More on that in another post.