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Robert W. Service never witnessed the Klondike Gold Rush.
In 1898, thousands of goldseekers were sailing to Alaska by steamship, hiking over the Chilkoot Trail, paddling rickety rivercraft up the Yukon River and cramming into tent cities in Dawson City. Wild West-style gunfights were erupting in coastal Alaska. Red-coated Mounties were risking death and dismemberment in the harsh northern wilderness. Grizzled prospectors were striking it rich under the maddening midnight sun.
The Bard of the Yukon, meanwhile, was here in British Columbia’s Cowichan Valley – milking cows, shoveling manure and swatting at mosquitoes. “They say he was in plays, but he wasn’t very good,” says a clerk at the Cowichan Valley Museum in Duncan, B.C.
It was a far cry from the tobacco-chewing, pistol-packing cowboy life Service had expected. In 1896, the 22-yearold former Scottish bank clerk boarded a steamer to Canada with a pistol, a sombrero and visions of Buffalo Bill-style glory. A cringe-worthy photograph from the time shows Service striking a gangsterish pose with a clay pipe.
But as soon as his train crossed the Ontario border, Service found himself horrified by the barren landscape stretching out around him. At each dusty prairie town, Service saw once-joyous European peasants disembark wearing faces drawn with disappointment. “I began to be afraid,” wrote Service, who sold most of his possessions to fellow passengers just to have enough money to make it over the Rockies.
Once in British Columbia, Service discovered a still-developing land of back-breaking farm work, oppressive heat, grey skies, never-ending mosquitoes and snooty colonists. “They regarded me with such patronizing sufferance I felt it was a privilege to endure them,” he wrote. Nevertheless, save for a brief sojourn to California, Service would call the B.C. wilds home for the next seven years.
As he picked up odd jobs in forestry and farming, the small-statured Service quickly nurtured a hatred of manual labour, calling it his “nemesis of toil.”
“My future was as hopeless as the sodden grey sky that overhung me … ground between the jaws of toil, I saw myself as a poor devil, unfit and unfound in the fierce struggle of existence,” he wrote in his 1945 autobiography, Ploughman of the Moon.
While working as a farmhand on the farm of George Corfield, Service was almost killed after mishandling a bull, prompting Corfield to reassign him to the less dangerous job of clerking his country store. “How glad I was! . On Monday, I was hustling 16 hours a day. On Thursday I was watching others hustle and getting the same pay for it,” wrote Service.
But even the leisurely duties of a clerk soon found ways to irk Service. In his autobiography he writes sulkily about the “sordid commercialism” of the job (“As an ex-socialist I disapproved of the profit motive in industry”), he cringes at his duties as a butcher (“I feel I should suffer the tortures of hell for all the innocent life I have taken”) and he consistently refers to the local First Nations by the derogatory term “Siwashes.”
“On the whole I regret this period as wasted time,” he writes.
The dislike is mutual. Among the many places Service called home throughout his life, the Cowichan Valley is the only one that has gladly forsaken him.
Kilwinning, Scotland, Service’s hometown, has a large gaudy cairn to their famous son. Lancieux, France, the site of his death, named a street after him. In the Yukon, the territory’s 30,000 residents harbour a near-religious reverence for Service. Dawson City’s only school bears his name. His typewriter is kept under glass at the town’s visitor centre. Each summer, an actor dressed in 19th-century garb recites Service standards outside the poet’s preserved Dawson City cabin. Every time a federal politician flies to the territory to drop off another multi-million-dollar infrastructure cheque, they usually make sure to recite an obligatory scrap of Service verse.
To walk into any Yukon gift shop is to encounter a wall of Robert Service books, posters, postcards and CDs. Duncan’s gift shops – and there are several of them – overflow with miniature totem poles, locally knit Cowichan sweaters and Emily Carr-themed kitsch – but not a single Service fridge magnet or postcard.
A select minority of prominent Yukoners keep Robert Service first editions carefully stowed in safes and bank vaults. In the territory’s museums and archives, the books are handled in temperaturecontrolled rooms with kid gloves.
The Cowichan Valley Museum has a couple of Service first editions, but they are unceremoniously stashed in a storage room alongside Second World War-era gas masks and antique forestry equipment. Service fails to get so much as a footnote in the small museum, which mainly celebrates the region’s forestry history, an industry Service abhorred as “tree killing.”
The Cowichan Valley’s only real monument to the world-renowned poet is Robert Service Memorial Park, a small patch of grass perched haphazardly on the edge of an unlit rural road.
For the rest of this article, please go to the National Post website: http://www.nationalpost.com/Avon+Yukon+Bard/5182286/story.html