Article & photos by Jack Olson
“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.”
~ Robert Service
I had a beloved, eccentric speech teacher in high school who first enthralled me with thrilling tales of the Yukon. We always knew when he’d been out drinking with his buddies the night before and didn’t have a lesson plan. He’d tell “shaggy dog stories” that would last twenty minutes. He’d act out scenes from plays, playing all the parts with perfectly distinctive voices. But, best of all, we could count on him to dramatically recite The Cremation of Sam McGee. Right then, at age fifteen, I knew I had to someday travel to the Yukon. That was before the territory became a province and was then called simply Yukon.
I graduated from high school, then college. There was four year’s penance in New York City. I’d had enough. I quit my job and fled to Colorado. I craved mountains, lots and lots of mountains. I made many friends, and we tromped all over the state and the West, hiking, climbing, camping. A little more than ten years later RMOWP greatly expanded my friendships, experiences, and knowledge.
Years passed, thirty in all, and it seemed I might have tried about everything you could do in the outdoors. I’d even ventured into southern Canada a few times. But something was missing, and that Robert Service poem stuck in my memory. Then, the dream came true. My friends, Don and Joanne, invited me to meet them in Juneau, and we’d strike deep into northern Canada in their trailer. Oh, happy day.
After a few days in Juneau we took the ferry up the Lynn Canal to Skagway. The first night we camped at the edge of town. A rowdy bar nearby featured gritty entertainment for the summer tourists. We heard the twanging guitars and mournful songs of mining failures. A pause, and then—“There are strange things done in the midnight sun….” I thought I‘d died.
Could anything be better? Well, yes, we were still in Alaska. The next day we crossed White Pass into British Columbia. We camped by a big lake, just us, all alone. I could hardly sleep. The next morning we headed straight north, through dense, moody woods. But suddenly, with no fanfare, there was an unpretentious but nicely painted sign: YUKON. I honestly thought I would cry.
We took a side trip down to vast Atlin Lake in British Columbia so my friend could fish for grayling. I woke during the night, looked out the window and saw half the sky filled with the dancing aurora. I hesitantly woke my friends, and we stood outside to marvel at the flowing, colorful waves. The next day we drove back into Yukon and on to Whitehorse, the provincial capital.
Leaving Whitehorse we passed a sign for a road to Lake Lebarge, and I ached as we drove by. We pulled in to Haines Junction and made camp for several days. There was no end of exploration. We slogged up an outflow streambed, full of glacial-smoothed stones. Rusted machinery was scattered in the area, a remnant of the feverish construction of the Alaska Highway during World War II. Fireweed, Yukon’s provincial flower, was in full, deep pinkish bloom. At this latitude the aspen in August were a golden display.
All this was a prelude to the climactic day. Our goal was to climb 6,000+ foot Mount Decoeli. That’s like climbing a foothill out of Denver but here you start near timberline with over a 4,000 vertical foot ascent. A nice eleven-mile day hike. Don, afraid of heights, went fishing. Joanne, unafraid, accompanied me as we struck out bushwhacking through willows and bearberries into Kluane National Park and Reserve. A national park, and not another soul in sight.
We pushed ahead over ankle-breaker rocks up to the base of the mountain. Then began a slow trudge up a perfect angle of repose slope. You take a step, the rocks shift, and there’s a clunk below the surface. It seems as if the entire layer will slide however many thousands of feet it needs to. But it doesn’t. This is the point of climbing where trust comes in. Joanne had never experienced this before and was nervous. I pretended I wasn’t.
The top of the peak was gulp producing. Mountains were strewn in all directions, tops of the highest dusted with fresh autumnal snow. The air was crystal clear, and an enormous lake glistened far below. A small storm above it wrung out its burden and gave birth to a perfect rainbow. Oh my, oh my, my, my.
Then it was time to head down. At the base of the mountain we stopped in the tundra to have a late lunch. But we weren’t the only ones munching in the tundra. White Dall sheep, with their curling horns, paid little attention to us as they chewed their own meal. Great happiness.
It was time to get back and bushwhacking in the brush was slow going. The late afternoon sun lit the yellow willow leaves and red bearberries to a glowing ground cover. When I look back now over what has been a long life, this is one of those days in the outdoors that I will never, ever forget. And it started with a high school speech teacher who’d been out drinking.