The Journal of Canadian

Wilderness Canoeing

  FALL 2003











In this issue

Front Page


Labrador Tragedy

Robert Service

Fall Packet


From the Editor


Back page




Robert W. Service

Douglas' photo captures Service at a real Door of Death, the kind he so often wrote about


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;

These now famous words mark the beginning to The Cremation of Sam Magee, a modern epic poem that many American canoeists often recite by heart. Which is a bit odd considering it was written about an event that happened in Canada’s Yukon Territory by a transplanted Englishman who became a Canadian war correspondent.

Robert W. Service, the Bard of the Yukon, was a burgeoning talent in 1911. He had lived in Whitehorse for four years and a further three in Dawson. The former bank teller became a popular poet with his tales of the frontier and its heady mix of wilderness mingling with the raw edge of civilization.  He didn’t begin writing full time until 1909 though his first book Songs of a Sourdough was published in 1907.

In 1911 he headed south to visit U.S. publishers and went to Cuba before returning back north that summer by the back door route to the Yukon via the Rat and Porcupine rivers.

That’s when Robert Service crossed paths with George Douglas and party who were beginning their year long trip to Coppermine country. The route north in those days began in Edmonton where a stage coach ran to Athabasca Landing. From there the famed Athabasca Brigade, a collection of large scows, made their way north down the Athabasca River  to Fort McMurray where the HBC steamer Grahame continued further north still to Smith’s Landing. Following a 16 mile portage the voyage resumed with the steamer Mackenzie River at Fort Smith.

On Page 13 of Douglas’ classic narrative Lands Forlorn, he

  noted, “Our own little party had been joined by Robert

     Service, who was making a journey to the north with the

       Hudson Bay Co’s. transport, and who like ourselves, had

        been surprised by the unexpectedly early departure of

        the brigade.”

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 itself about.

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 . . .”

The incredible 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.

The 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.

Service wrote 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.

Service left 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 the north.

 Fall 2003         Outfit 114 

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