In fact Douglas
included a photo of him in the book — but only an expert would
know since there’s no caption info to identify him. But, in the
National Archives of Canada, where George Douglas donated his
papers, it is noted that the photo of the man in front of the
trapper’s shack is Robert Service.
There, in this
one incredible instant captured by George Douglas in early July
1911, you have a man known for his fanciful phrasing of sawing
and burning frozen corpses; shooting and drinking in Malamute
saloons; coming face to face or rather nose-to-nose with the
true reality of a frontier trapper’s life. There is something
about the look on his face that one can read a whole story in
The scene is a
real life trappers cabin on the Salt River at junction of the
Mackenzie about 100 miles below Fort Wrigley. The bodies of two
trappers had been discovered a month earlier and the scene was
left undisturbed until the North-West Mounted Police inspector
could attend and he was on the Grahame with Douglas and
Service. It was clear that one killed the other and then took
his own life.
It was a grisly
scene infused with a ghastly stench of which Douglas spares few
details, including a photo of the nearly decomposing bodies. He
even quotes from the suicide note.
“Cruel treatment drove me to kill Peat . . . I have been sick a
long time I am not crasey, but sutnly goded to death he thot i
had more money that i had and has been trying to find it. I have
just killed the man that was killing me so good by and may god
bless you all . . .”
irony of this moment is that the man most responsible for
relating the often gruesome tales of trapper life in the far
north to the world is being shown its true harsh reality.
Service was not a trapper or skilled outdoorsman by his day’s
standards. He was a bank teller-turned-writer, who lived in
Whitehorse and Dawson and wove his tales from talking to people
who lived in that atmosphere.
photo Douglas took of Service in
his birchbark canoe in Outfit 113 was for that trip up the Rat
River and though MacDougall Pass. In fact, Service did not make
it too far before joining another party of five heading up the
Rat in a scow named Ophelia. He accompanied Bill McTosh,
a very colourful, hard-swearing character whom he later wrote
about in The Ballad of Blasphemous Bill.
just one newspaper article about his Rat River trip before
expanding on it in his 1945 biography Plougman of the Moon.
There, he dramatically sketches the hardships the party of six
had ascending the Rat and blends in other relevant historical
items of the era.
the Yukon in 1912, never to return. He became a war
correspondent and writer and died in 1958 in Monte Carlo. A long
way from the banks of the Salt River and the harsh realities of