“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.
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!