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Magnetic North - January 10 with Vicki Biggs-Anderson

Magnetic North 1/10/18
Sam McGee and Me
Welcome back to Magnetic North where winter warmed up just in time for the Beargrease sled dog race. Not that subzero double digit windchill ever stopped mushers or their dogs. Lack of snow is the real deal breaker for the race. This year, we have snow aplenty. Perfect weather for a great race. And as a would-be adventuress in the far north since the age of ten, I am thrilled for the mushers, the dogs and the volunteers. But I’ll cheer them on, as always, not at any of the frozen checkpoints, but from my warm and comfy couch, an old book of verse in my lap.
This fantasy of living in the far north, dependent only on my dogs and my wits, began when I graduated from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island to the poetry of Robert W. Service. For some reason, Service’s verses swept me out of my suburban Philadelphia home and into a life of adventure, tragic heroes, breathtaking natural beauty, plus the tantalizing hope of finding gold in a land where others would find only frostbitten fingers.
I blame my DNA for this. I just found that my DNA proves that I am of 98 percent British ancestry. A slim connection, you say, to Robert W. Service, who was actually born in England. .But we share  a taste for Robert Louis Stevenson’s writing poetry at a young age, and choosing a path less travelled. In Service’s case,  he left England in the late 1800’s to be a cowboy in the Yukon Wilderness, later writing his way to the title of Bard of the Yukon. About a hundred years later, I too took a detour from the predictable and ended up here, surrounded by forests and snowscapes, with a fellow of 100 percent Norwegian ancestry.
The Beargrease race always leads me back to the book Paul and I both loved, The Spell of the Yukon. I still have the same calfskin edition I read as a kid, a collection of Service’s greatest poems, nuggets of the purest gold panned from the icy streams of the land he loved. While others stand shivering at race checkpoints, I curl up in front of the fire and turn, as always, to my favorite Service saga that surpasses all others, The Cremation of Sam McGee,
You probably know the first lines.
“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.
The narrator goes on to explain how his buddy, Sam, who hailed from the state of Tennessee, succumbed to the cold on the trail while mushing on the Dawson Trail. One night, Sam asks his friend for a very creepy favor.
He turned to me, and "Cap," says he, "I'll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I'm asking that you won't refuse my last request."
Well, he seemed so low that I couldn't say no; then he says with a sort of moan:
"It's the cursèd cold, and it's got right hold till I'm chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet 'tain't being dead—it's my awful dread of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you'll cremate my last remains."
Well, old Sam did die that night and the poor sap telling the story mushers on, weighed down with dread and a promise. The whole ordeal drove him a little nuts. But, judge for yourself....
“The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in;
And I'd often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin.
Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the "Alice May."
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum;
Then "Here," said I, with a sudden cry, "is my cre-ma-tor-eum."
Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared, and the furnace roared—such a blaze you seldom see;
And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.
Then I made a hike, for I didn't like to hear him sizzle so;
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow.
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don't know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.
I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: "I'll just take a peep inside.
I guess he's cooked, and it's time I looked"; ... then the door I opened wide.
And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: "Please close that door.
It's fine in here, but I greatly fear you'll let in the cold and storm—
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it's the first time I've been warm."
So there you have it. The poem that foreshadowed my calling this place home. Not with a sled dog team, but for 22 years with a man, who also fancied the Bard of the Yukon. It’s true. If, as Jane Austen’s Darcy claimed, poetry be the food of love, The Cremation of Sam McGee was the first course in Paul’s and my courtship. On one of our first dates, sitting in a Perkins restaurant drinking coffee, Paul admitted that he too was taken with Service’s poetry and launched into “There are strange things done in the midnight sun...”  But he knew only the first stanza. I recited all the rest, learned by heart so long ago, reeling the stunned man in with every weirdly wonderful line. And the rest, dear friends, is history.
For WTIP, this is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North.