The Good Life – Dorian Amos

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I have written about The Yukon sixteen months ago whilst reviewing some of the poetry of Robert Service and that also included some of my photographs of my time there in June 1995 with a friend paddling along the Yukon river from Whitehorse the same as Dorian and his wife Bridget would do four years later almost to the day. The difference is that Dave and I were doing it for fun and would leave Yukon by the end of the month, Dorian and Bridget were aiming to live there and had no idea how they were actually going to do this. It truly is wilderness, The Yukon Territory is 186,272 miles² (482,443 km²) which makes it big enough to fit in continental European countries Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark together with room to slot in Cyprus. In all that space only 35,874 people live there (2016 census) of which 25,085 live in the capital, Whitehorse. The next biggest place is Dawson (pop. 1.375) and that is where Dave and Bridget were heading.

The book starts in 1998 in Polperro, a pretty coastal town in Cornwall, England, which is heavily dependent on tourism and fishing for its local economy. Dorian had a shop selling his pictures called Amosart and Bridget was a newly qualified psychiatric nurse, life was finally becoming easier after years of study and hard work building up a viable business, but Dorian was becoming bored and longed for some adventure in his life. Then a few months later, over an evening meal of fish and chips.

I heard her sigh “I’m sick of this shit” and I sat up with heart pounding. “Are you?” I said. “We can make a change you know.” Bridge looked at me in away she had only started to do after qualifying as a psychiatric nurse. I took the plunge and told her about my now overwhelming urge for adventure.

When I’d finished and slumped back into my chair, she said “if you think about something too much, you just talk yourself out of it and never do it. We are only here once. Let’s go get some action! Can you pass the salt please?”

Six months later Dorian was on his way to Canada, chosen mainly as they had relatives there so could get help with choosing where they wanted to be. Bridget was to follow four months after when her contract finished. The one practical thing they had done in the meantime was take a week long course on woodlore and bushcraft with survival expert Ray Mears but as he says in his introduction to the book

If I’d known then what Dorian and Bridget had in mind. I would certainly have advised further tuition in bushcraft, pointed them at expert canoe coaches and a host of other instructors.

However ignorance is bliss.

Soon after arrival in Canada Dorian purchased a truck which he nicknamed Pricey, not because it cost a lot of money but the repair bills certainly did, and started to accumulate items needed to exist in the wilderness but on a very tight budget. This meant that as tents were expensive he bought canvas to make his own and soon discovered why tents were so expensive. He also bought a dog called Boris partly as a companion and partly to protect Bridget and himself from wild animals, something that Boris proved many times over the coming months and years that he was incapable of, being more likely to hide behind them if any animals approached, assuming that he woke up anyway. Dorian writes with self deprecating humour regarding their travails in the wild open Canadian countryside and their total lack of preparedness. The trip up the Yukon after Bridget had joined him showed just how wild the country was and how much they had to learn, for example to avoid having to live on soup they were carrying with them they really needed to go fishing but neither of them had ever fished and despite buying the equipment didn’t know how to go about catching anything. The passages describing their fishing attempts are really funny and you feel their elation when weeks later they finally catch something much to their own surprise.

After getting to Dawson they turned back and explored the possibilities of living by one of the thousands of lakes closer to civilisation but found that these were already inhabited or were the play areas of people from the nearby towns so eventually decided that Dawson was the place for them. This time Bridget would go on ahead and get settled and a job whilst Dorian would stay at Bridget’s relatives and get a job there to pay for much needed repairs to Pricey and get some more equipment.  Eventually the two are together in Dawson, or at least on either side of the river as they eventually found a plot to build a cabin on opposite the town so whilst Bridget stayed in Dawson working as a waitress then as a support person for pregnant women, Dorian tried to build a cabin.

I won’t say any more about how this goes except that as you can imagine building a home from scratch when you have never attempted anything like this before, in a freezing Yukon winter (minus 20 degrees is a warm day) , on your own, largely in the dark as days are short that time of year was not a simple task. The book is full of details as to how they get along and amazingly they not only survive but thrive and Dorian is good at describing a scene so that it is easy to visualise.

The book was published by Eye Books who seem to specialise in first time authors, especially with stories to tell like this one and whilst looking to see if this book was still available found that Dorian has written a follow up where he gets ‘gold fever’ and I’ve no doubt that it is a funny as his first.

The Best of Robert Service

THE SPELL OF THE YUKON

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.

So begins the opening poem of this selection; I fell in love with Service’s verses and the land that inspired them at the same time over twenty years ago. Robert Service was an English born poet and novelist who emigrated to Canada at the age of twenty one and ended up in Whitehorse, Yukon nine years later in 1904 working as a bank clerk. Although he had been writing verse since before he left England it was the environs of Whitehorse and the gold prospectors that he would meet there that inspired him to write his most famous works and it was these that first introduced me to Service. Although “The Best of Robert Service” includes works from several of his books I want to concentrate on the ones that were taken from his first book “Songs of a Sourdough”, this is for two reasons, firstly I bought the book in Whitehorse before setting off to kayak down the Yukon river in 1995 following the trail of the gold prospectors from Service’s day and secondly I want to cover another of his books in a later blog as it has an interesting structure.

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So why write about this book now? Well this is the 50th essay I have written for this blog so that brought the subject of gold to mind and frankly I’ve been meaning to write about it for some time. Songs of a Sourdough was an immediate hit, Service had intended it to be a small privately printed volume which he was going to give to friends and family but the printers that it was sent to loved it so much that they wanted to publish it properly and it went to numerous editions within the first year. He would eventually make over one hundred thousand dollars (more then two and a half million today) just from his first book and he became one of the richest authors of his day. Service can justifiably be compared to Rudyard Kipling, like him he was enormously popular but the critics of the day were rather sniffy about his work as they regarded his verse as little more than doggerel.  His most famous work is probably

The Cremation of Sam McGee

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.

Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam ’round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he’d often say in his homely way that “he’d sooner live in hell.”

On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn’t see;
It wasn’t much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.

And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow,
And the dogs were fed, and the stars o’erhead were dancing heel and toe,
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.”

A pal’s last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail;
And we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! he looked ghastly pale.
He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee;
And before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee.

There wasn’t a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,
With a corpse half hid that I couldn’t get rid, because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say: “You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it’s up to you to cremate those last remains.”

Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code.
In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load.
In the long, long night, by the lone firelight, while the huskies, round in a ring,
Howled out their woes to the homeless snows— O God! how I loathed the thing.

And every day that quiet clay seemed to heavy and heavier grow;
And on I went, though the dogs were spent and the grub was getting low;
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.”

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.

After three years in Whitehorse, he was transferred to the bigger branch in Dawson City which had been the centre of the gold rush, here he got to know more of the veteran prospectors and gained more tales to feed into his poetry. The Cremation of Sam McGee was based on a real incident that he heard about and apparently he composed the work that night. After a year the bank wanted him to move back to Whitehorse as manager of the branch but by now he was earning a good living as a poet so quit and became a full time writer from that point on. Service was not only a poet, he wrote several novels and lived most of his life in France after moving there as a journalist in 1913. After the war he enjoyed the high life as a wealthy author around Paris The book that features in this essay was published in Canada by McGraw-Hill Ryerson who sound like a character from one of his works and there are 101 poems featured giving a good overview of his output.

Sadly Robert Service seems to have slipped from the public conciousness nowadays, certainly I had never heard of him before picking the book up as something to read around the camp fire on the trip Dave and I made all those years ago, so just to give a feel of the beauty of the place where we went several days without seeing another human I’ll finish with some of the photos we took starting with me paddling at the front of the kayak. You can see why the place inspired Robert Service.

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On the shore of Lake Labarge

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More Lake Lebarge (it’s a very big lake)

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Bald Eagle by the Thirty Mile River

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Trappers hut at Hootalinqua

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Cyr’s dredge, an abandoned gold dredging machine, when it broke it was just too expensive to fix or take back from the river so it has sat there for decades.

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