While in Alaska last month I had the opportunity to visit with a very interesting lady who was running the Klondike National Park's museum store in Skagway. She had been a park ranger in the area years before, and after retiring from the park service had jumped at the chance to return to Skagway to run the little shop. While there, I picked up two small books of poetry by Robert W. Service. I am a longtime fan of this particular poet, and have two other volumes of his work in my home library. But these little books that I bought in Alaska are special - because they come from the cold frontier made famous by the poet.
Mr. Service, who was on the scene during the famed Alaskan gold rush of 1898, recorded many of his observations in rhyming verse, often employing his sharp wit as he sketched comical vignettes of the characters who came to Alaska seeking their fortunes. His "The Cremation of Sam McGee" and "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" are American classics. Both examine the unique quirkiness of prospectors who roamed the cold hills and riverbanks of Alaska seeking riches.
Service's "The Spell of the Yukon" looks at the activity of the gold rush, but then overlays that adventure with the real treasure in Alaska - the beauty of the land itself.
The Spell of the Yukon
by Robert W. Service
I wanted the gold, and I sought it;
I scrabbled and mucked like a slave.
Was it famine or scurvy - I fought it;
I hurled my youth into a grave.
I wanted the gold, and I got it -
Came out with a fortune last fall, -
Yet somehow life's not what I thought it,
And somehow the gold isn't all.
No! There's the land. (Have you seen it?)
It's the cussedest land that I know,
From the big, dizzy mountains that screen it
To the deep, deathlike valleys below.
Some say God was tired when he made it;
Some say it's a fine land to shun;
Maybe; but there's some as would trade it
For no land on earth - and I'm one.
You come to get rich (damned good reason);
You feel like an exile at first;
You hate it like hell for a season,
And then you are worse than the worst.
It grips you like some kinds of sinning;
It twists you from foe to a friend;
It seems it's been since the beginning;
It seems it will be to the end.
I've stood in some mighty-mouthed hollow
That's plumb-full of hush to the brim;
I've watched the big, husky sun wallow
In crimson and gold, and grow dim,
Till the moon set the pearly peaks gleaming,
And the stars tumbled out, neck and crop;
And I've thought that I surely was dreaming,
With the peace o' the world piled on top.
The summer - no sweeter was ever;
The sunshiny woods all athrill;
The grayling aleap in the river,
The bighorn asleep on the hill.
The strong life that never knows harness;
The wilds where the caribou call;
The freshness, the freedom, the fairness -
O God! how I'm stuck on it all.
The winter! the brightness that bills you,
The white land locked tight as a drum,
The cold fear that follows and find you,
The silence that bludgeons you dumb.
The snows are older than history,
The woods where the weird shadows slant;
The stillness, the moonlight, the mystery,
I've bade 'em good-bye - but I can't.
There's a land where the mountains are nameless,
And the rivers all run God knows where;
There are lives that are erring and aimless,
And deaths that just hang by a hair;
There are hardships that nobody reckons;
There are valleys unpeopled and still;
There's a land - on, it beckons and beckons,
And I want to go back - and I will.
They're making my money diminish;
I'm sick of the taste of champagne.
Thank God! when I'm skinned to a finish
I'll pike to the Yukon again.
I'll fight - and you bet it's no sham-fight;
It's hell! - but I've been there before;
And it's better than this by a dam site -
So me for the Yukon once more.
There's gold, and it's haunting and haunting;
It's luring me on as of old;
Yet it isn't the gold that I'm wanting
So much as just finding the gold.
It's that great, big, broad land 'way up yonder,
It's the forests where silence has lease;
It's the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
It's the stillness that fills me with peace.