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  • Writer's pictureRobert Gidley

The Cremation of Sam McGee

Aug 6, 2022 (Sun)

Gini says:

“When I was about 22, my Presbyterian church sent me on a Summer project through the National Board of Missions. I was sent to Southeastern Alaska to work on a mission boat with girls from all over the United States.

“We traveled from logging camp to cannery to small town, putting on Vacation Bible School for children, many of whom were First Nation children--specifically, Tlingit.

“At the end of our stint, my parents flew up and met me in Juneau and we toured Alaska. While we were in Juneau we went out on the Mendenhall glacier. That was exciting.

“We got on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry and got off in Skagway, where we watched a slide show of the gold rush era. Then we went on the narrow gauge railroad from Skagway to Whitehorse and got to see where the gold rush seekers had gone up these steep mountains to the gold fields.

“In Whitehorse, we spent the night and had the opportunity to see Larry Beck perform. He came out to an empty stage and sat down on a chair, dressed in old clothes with an old hat and proceeded to recite The Cremation of Sam McGee, The Shooting of Dan McGrew, and The Ballad of the Ice-Worm Cocktail, all by Robert Service.

“I was totally mesmerized.

“When I got back home, I did a unit on Alaska with my fifth graders and taught them about Robert Service. Half of the parents were upset because of the ”language” in the Robert Service poems and the other half were enraged that people wanted me to change the language.

“We ended up putting on a play of The Cremation of Sam McGee and The Shooting of Dan McGrew in the cafeteria and did the play two times, so everyone in class could have a part. The auditorium was packed.

“After the show, the Principal told me he’d like to hire me to come to PTA meetings since our program was so well attended.

“Years later, my daughter, Kellie, learned The Cremation of Sam McGee and had an opportunity to recite it at a talent show up in Alaska while on a church service project cleaning up a First Nations graveyard. The locals very surprised that someone from California would know their lore.

“I gave my Larry Beck records to my friend Joan, and she did a unit with her 7th graders on Robert Service.”

12:00 noon Whitehorse, YT

Well, here we are in Whitehorse and the narrow gauge railroad between Skagway and Whitehorse isn’t running. Because it crosses the US/Canada border, there is a lot of delicate negotiations and the railway couldn’t make it happen this year, but 2023, for sure!

Robert Service (1874 to 1958) was a poet who lived in Canada and Alaska and is often called “The Bard of the Yukon,” because he wrote poems about local tales. He was enormously popular during his life and continued to write (and make money) for the rest of his life. He wrote his two most popular poems while living in Whitehorse and is still very famous here.

Gini has managed to track down a local recital of The Cremation of Sam McGee at the MacBride Museum in downtown Whitehorse.

Gini outside the MacBride museum

We sit outside in chairs, next to Sam McGee’s original cabin. The name used in the poem was a real person, but almost nothing else about him was true. As the reciter began, after the first paragraph, he took on the character of the real Sam McGee and pointed out all the discrepancies.

Then he got back to reciting the poem, which is a delightful and fun poem: The Cremation of Sam McGee

Outside Sam McGee's cabin, sits the reciter in period-appropriate hat

The reciter was also the ticket taker at the front desk and Gini told him her story and he was so enchanted that he agreed to read The Ballad of the Ice-Worm Cocktail for us (“One of Service’s more overlooked poems,” in his opinion).

We were happy to come full circle and let Gini hear a piece of her youth.

12:30 pm MacBride Museum, Whitehorse, YT

Robert has been wondering for the last week or so: “What did the First Nations people eat during the winter? When everything is covered in piles of snow, it doesn’t seem like it would be very easy to run out and grab dinner, you know?”

The MacBride Museum has the answer! There’s a whole exhibit on First Nation peoples and their way of life.

For starters, things were pretty easy up to about 4,000 years ago. Climate was moderate, lots of bison, and the living was easy. Then things got colder and wetter and there were fewer bison ad more moose and elk. So, like people everywhere, the First Nation folks adapted.

They caught bunches of salmon during the spring and summer and smoked it so it would keep. They would wrap berries in animal grease (to keep them fresh). All this food, plus supplies got stashed in caches around the area that they could stop by and use. There was even an honor system about the caches—if you really needed food or supplies, you could borrow them from a cache that wasn’t yours, but you were obligated to replace it as soon as you could.

There was also a lot of copper in the area, and the First Nation people learned to turn it into useful tools and weapons, so they weren’t trying to wrestle a moose with their bare hands.

Robert feels better knowing all this.

An early version of Harvey--note the lack of a refrigerator

2:00 pm Whitehorse, YT

Getting to listen to Sam get cremated again wasn’t the only reason for stopping an extra day in Whitehorse. We also needed to get some laundry done. When you’re living shoulder to shoulder with each other, hygiene gets important!

You know it's time for laundry when this is the only T-shirt left...

There’s a laundromat here at this campground (“Five bucks a load!”), which is right next to the gift shop. While Robert is washing clothes, Gini cleans out the refrigerator and finds a number of food items that have outlived their usefulness, and now we have lots of room for more local jam!

Of course Robert bought this pair of underwear

By the numbers

(Nothing changed in the distance numbers, because we didn’t go anywhere. But just wait until tomorrow!)

Miles traveled so far: 1,711

Estimated Percentage of total road miles: 50% (Halfway!)

Days so far: 13 days

Estimated Percentage of total road days: 42%

Gini & Robert

Harvey Staff

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