Lange: Spell of the Yukon

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(HOST) Commentator Willem Lange is tired of hearing all the gloom and doom reports on the economy so he’s been practicing a little escapism – and thinking about the time when the U.S. got carried away with Gold Fever – and why.

(LANGE)  You know what it’s like in the Yukon wild when it’s sixty-nine below;
When the ice-worms wriggle their purple heads through the crust of the pale blue snow;
When the pine-trees crack like little guns in the silence of the wood,
And the icicles hang down like tusks under the parka hood…
In 1867, Secretary of State William Seward negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia, for about $7 million.  Denounced variously as Seward’s Icebox or Andy Johnson’s Polar Bear Farm, the image of Alaska stirred few imaginations.

Then in August of 1896, five Canadians were fishing for salmon and prospecting near the mouth of Rabbit Creek, a tributary of the Yukon River, when they discovered rich placer deposits of gold.  Word of the strike spread rapidly, and reached the United States the following year when a ship arrived in San Francisco carrying some very happy prospectors with bags of gold.

The United States went crazy.  Men and many women threw over everything and headed for the Yukon.  Most thought it was part of Alaska (a misconception that still grips a majority of Americans), and that gold lay everywhere in the sand, just waiting to be scooped up.  The nation’s romantic imagination turned feverishly toward the North. 

About the same time, Robert Service, a bank teller in Whitehorse, Yukon, submitted for publication a few verses about the gold rush and the untamed wilderness north of 60 degrees.  They were instant bestsellers.  Suddenly wealthy, Service left the Yukon and never returned.

My mother gave me books of poetry at every birthday.  I became familiar with Dan McGrew, Salvation Bill, Sam McGee, and Blasphemous Bill MacKie.  And I burned to visit the mystic North.

In 1985 a friend and I skied the Alaska Marathon, 200 miles through the bush on the old Iditarod Trail.  Swamps, willow thickets, and lakes spread out around us forever.  Moose blocked the trail; we skied around them.  We skied at night by the light of our headlamps and the aurora.  On the Skwentna River one evening, something made us turn around,  There, bathed in a brilliant purple alpenglow, reared the great peaks of the Alaska Range.  My eyes teared up – and instantly froze.  The temperature dropped to 26 below.  We skied all night, stopping once at a checkpoint to dine on fresh, warm doughnuts and hot tea loaded with cream and sugar.

This evening, as I sit in the parlor between the hot stove and the dark windows, sipping eggnog and Jamaica rum, those brilliant white days and aurora-haunted nights come back to me.  The Gold Rush may be over, but the fantasies that Service inspired remain as strong as ever:
The snows that are older than history,
The woods where the weird shadows slant;
The stillness, the moonlight, the mystery,
I’ve bade ’em good-by – but I can’t.

This is Willem Lange in East Montpelier, and I gotta get back to work.

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