Robert Service had it right. Strange and fascinating things do tend to happen under a midnight sun. In his famous poem, "The Cremation of Sam McGee", Service immortalized the Yukon as a haven for secret tales, queer sights and the spirit of the northern frontier. Yukoners relish their colourful history, and there's no shortage of gripping stories about the Yukon and the characters who have called it home.
- The Bishop Who Ate His Boots
- The Cremation of Sam McGee
- The Yukon’s Own Titanic
- The Lost Patrol
- The Mad Trapper of Rat River
- Dawson’s Sour Toe Cocktail
He was the inspiration for the famous scene in Charlie Chaplin’s movie, The Gold Rush. Lost in an ice fog at 40 below, with no more provisions, Bishop Stringer hit on the idea of boiling his own and his companions' sealskin and walrus-sole boots for seven hours, and drinking the broth. According to the Bishop, it was tough and stringy, but palatable and fairly satisfying. The Bishop lost 50 pounds, but eventually found his way to a First Nations village where he and missionary C.J. Johnson were nursed back to health.
Robert Service’s classic poem is generally dismissed as pure fiction. However, a Sam McGee really did exist and he worked for a transport company in Whitehorse. The boiler of the steamship Alice May, where the fictional Sam McGee was cremated, is based on a derelict steamer named Olive May. Service wrote the poem around a real experience relayed to him by a Dr. Sugden from Whitehorse, who Service lived with at one point. The doctor went out to tend to a sick prospector, but when he arrived at the cabin he found the man dead and frozen stiff. Sugden had no tools to bury the man, so he cremated him in the Olive May’s boiler and brought the remains back to town.
The Princess Sophia left Skagway, Alaska for Vancouver on October 23, 1918 with nearly 350 Northerners on board, including 125 people from Dawson City. The boat struck a reef the next morning and, although other vessels came to its aid, the Sophia’s captain refused assistance, preferring to wait for a ship from his own company come to the rescue. Weather conditions worsened the next day and no rescue could be attempted. A single sentence was broadcast by the Sophia’s wireless operator: “Good-bye, we are foundering.” The ship went down with all hands.
In 1910, three dog teams and four North West Mounted Police officers, led by Inspector Francis J. Fitzgerald, left Fort McPherson for Dawson City. Tragically, they set out without First Nation guides. The patrol was caught in a brutal cold snap that included one week with an average temperature of -46��C (-51°F) and strong head-winds that could have sent temperatures to -80°C (-110°F). The patrol lost its way and had to turn back, but it was too late. With inadequate provisions they were forced to eat their dogs, one by one, but soon succumbed to the elements. Their blistered, malnourished bodies were a tragic sight when Corporal W.J.D. Dempster eventually found them. Historian Dick North's rendering of this epic tale, "The Lost Patrol: The Mounties' Yukon Tragedy", is a gripping read.
In the winter of 1931-32, the Mad Trapper of Rat River killed one police officer and seriously wounded two others. The manhunt that followed was a 48-day ordeal in -40°C temperatures that took police through some of Yukon’s wildest and most demanding terrain. After four shootouts, police finally cornered and killed their man. The real identity of the Mad Trapper has never been established. Some suspect he was a gangster from Chicago, and others blame him for two grisly murders on the Nahanni River at a place now called Headless Valley. Noted historian and storyteller Dick North penned the classic book about the Trapper. A documentary film crew dug up the Mad Trapper’s remains from a gravesite in Aklavik in 2007, and they plan to conduct extensive tests to determine his real identity once and for all.
Stroll into Dawson City’s Downtown Hotel, belly up to the bar in the Sourdough Saloon, order the infamous Sour Toe Cocktail and no one will look at you strangely. This local concoction is garnished with a genuine, alcohol-preserved human toe. The original toe was reportedly from the frostbitten foot of a stampeder who traversed the Chilkoot Trail. That toe is long gone—every few seasons, another accidental toe swallower seems to come along, and luckless Downtown Dick has to find himself another digit. Partakers of the Sour Toe Cocktail receive a certificate for their achievement, while swallowers are severely chastised.
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Yukon is world renowned as a legendary land imbued with gold rush history, frontier spirit and first nation culture. Listen to what fellow media travellers have to say about Yukon.