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Living Large on Lake Labarge

22 June 2005

Lake Leberge, Yukon

When I was about 11 years old, I fell in with a disreputable crowd: Jack London, R.L. Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Service, and of course the arch vagabond himself, Mark Twain. When I wasn't hanging around Hannibal, or creeping through the jungle with Mowgli and Rikki-tikki-tavi, I was up in the Yukon with White Fang and Nikki and Sam McGee. No telling where I might end up on any particular day. It certainly didn't depend on the price of gas.

Rudyard was the obvious Poet Laureate of that lot. Robert Service was perhaps the Poetaster Laureate. But at the time, even his limerick lines seemed unforgettable. And in fact they must have been, for they are in my ear even now, almost 50 years later.

"The northern lights have seen queer sights
But the queerest they ever did see,
Was that night on the marge of Lake LeBarge
When I cremated Sam McGee."

Mystery, adventure, exotic locale, desperate deathbed promises made and kept. Wow. Everything a boy could want.

I'm on the marge of Lake Labarge right now, or at least the verge of Lake Leberge. Service seems to have taken liberties with the spelling. When he was up here, around 1898, this lake was much populated, covered over with skiffs and steamers and rafts and wrecks and just about anything that might float for a day or two. It was part of the Yukon River Road to the Klondike, and that mob of mad Stampeders probably saw this scenery as just something to get through. Their eyes were inward, raptly bent upon the golden future. You know, the one just around the bend.

I, on the other hand, have come here to visit with an 11-year-old boy.

But I've about given up on seeing the actual Northern Lights. There may well be some strange stuff going on up there, even as I write, but it has to get dark before you can see it. And that may not happen before, say, October.

Yesterday was summer solstice. The longest day of the year. The sun was going down around midnight, so I took a picture of it. An hour later I came out again and it was still going down. The red had washed out of the clouds, a little. The still surface of the lake shone with a deep pale pearlescent gleam, and even the air above it had a wavery quality. It gave an underwater uncertainty to mountains across the way. The first amphibians, the sea still in their eyes, might have seen mountains just that way.

I got here on Monday, just behind a caravan of Germans in their Canadream RVs. The Euro being what it is, the entire German nation seems to be over here taking advantage of it. Who needs Lebensraum, when the world is for rent?

It was a calm, sunny afternoon, perfect for kayaking.

I had been cooped up at Takhini Springs over the weekend, waiting out a cold persistent rain. The trailer sat safely plugged into electricity, while I scanned the gray horizon for lightning from the tenuous comfort of the hot pool. I even watched a little TV, only to find that Canadian TV is every bit as boring as the US variety. It is sort of an interesting challenge, though, to watch stand-up comedy in French, and try to figure out the joke from body language. Don't laugh. The French are pretty good at body language.

After all that, you'd think I'd want to get right out on the water. Instead I lazed around, sunning on shore in a lawn chair for hours, watching a few people put in their boats, reading Huck Finn. I witnessed one fellow back his 30 foot Bayliner into the water with his 30 foot motorhome. Did a creditable job of it too. Too bad his battery was dead. Frumpf. Frumpff. Frumpff-frumpff-frumpff-frumpfffff. Pop. Ffft. Click, click, click. Alberta plates. After a while he got tired of bobbing around out there, tugged the boat in to shore like a latter day Gulliver, got another battery out of the motorhome, and was on his way. Vroom.

Another couple, with BC plates, had an interesting rack for their canoe. The back T bar was on a swivel mount, which allowed them to load it from the side, then swing the front around to the ladder rack behind the cab of their pickup. There was a "US Marines" sticker on the window, and a yellow ribbon on the tailgate. Turns out, back in the late sixties, this Canadian citizen traveled south to join up, had a bit of adventure in Viet Nam, and then returned home to Vancouver.

One of those guys that likes to buck the current, I guess.

Tuesday brought another day of cold rain and wind. At Takhini Hot Springs I heard someone warm up an old aphorism about the Yukon: "If you don't like the weather, wait a few minutes." First time I heard that one, it was said about Texas. 'Course that's in the winter. In the good old summertime, the only English words a Texas weatherman needs are "partly cloudy", "clear", and "hot".

The rest is body language.

The Germans left early Tuesday, emptying out the campground, so I drove round to a site right on the bluff. And surprise, XM radio began working, for the first time since I entered the Yukon. Sirius still holds up pretty good. I think their satellites swing further north.

After setting up, I wandered up through the puddles to Mom's Bakery, for sourdough pancakes and what I thought was a plentiful store of pecan tarts. I also picked up a dozen eggs still warm from the hens clucking on the other side of that fence. Then I settled back on the couch for a few hours to finish up with old Huck. I like reading while a storm shakes the trailer. Soooo much better than a tent. Wish I had a chicken in the fridge. This is chicken soup weather. Guess I'll settle for warming up the last of that brisket.

Better than wish soup, any day.

It's Wednesday morning, and the air over the lake is crystalline. It's idyllic - sunny and 68 degrees. Windy though. Surf's up. I seem to keep finding lots of reasons not to go kayaking. Maybe later. Somehow it seems like work right now, and I'm retired.

I made a pot of coffee and walked a few feet down to the edge of the bluff. Some generous soul cut down a tree here not long ago, and left a stump the perfect height to rest my laurels on. I surveyed the whitecaps on the lake. Longfellow comes to mind, for the first time in many a year:

"A boy's will is the wind's will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts...."

The wind is certainly having it's will here with the hillside pines. There's a faint high whistle and a trembling all around, and something of the feeling you get near the top of a mountain, when the wind pokes and laughs to you, and tells you you are alone.

But I can't hear what it's saying now, over the pesky drone of that airplane.

There's a flotilla of ducks off shore, out in the middle distance. I counted 24, all gathered in a bunch. I reached around for the camera in my jacket pocket, brought it up to focus...and they had disappeared. Every one of them. I scanned the sky. They can't have flown off that fast. A trick of the light? Hidden by the waves?

Nope. Just gone.

I was about to put it down to another curious aspect of the aging brain, when they began to pop up again, individually, spread out over a larger area. Pop, pop, pop, pop. Popopopopop. Up they came, shaking their heads, looking around, and immediately gathering into a mass again. There they floated a moment, perhaps to compare notes. Then all of them dipped at once, and sank in unison.

Gone. I think I am witnessing a coordinated buffet.

Which reminds me. A sharp wind can make a man hungry as well as maudlin. Time for some smoked ham and a couple of those yard eggs. I tried to get up, but met with initial resistance. I'm used to that. But this time it wasn't my joints.

Pine sap.

Well, the morning is not entirely wasted. I am once again in a position to offer advice to anyone out there occasionally dumb enough to sit on a fresh pine stump. You know who you are.

There are a number of salient points:

1) Before you sit on anything else, get out of those pants.

2) Just go ahead and have a good wallow on that stump. Then you can cut up your jeans for fire starter.

3) If you are stubborn enough to try and save them, your best bet is applying a little charcoal lighter or other solvent, then scraping the softened sap off with a knife. Careful with the knife. Remember, holes can't be salvaged for fire starter. White cheeks on your pants, on the other hand, are quite fashionable.

4) Don't try the knife trick on your fingers, sticky as they are. You may need them, now and then, in this digital age.

And that, children, is all Uncle Bob has to say.

Bob, Living Large on Lake Labarge.

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