William Service, the Bard of the Yukon
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”
Who of us has not learned that poem in school! Of course by Robert W. Service, legendary for his poems written in and about the Yukon in the days of the gold rush. But what few folk know, he actually spent very little time in the Yukon. As a matter of fact the Cowichan Bay area on Vancouver Island can lay claim to almost as much of his life in North American as anywhere else.
In 1895, along with a Buffalo Bill Cody outfit given to him by his father, he left Scotland for N. American to become a cowboy. After selling off most of his personal goods to finance his way across Canada he wound up on Vancouver Island. His first job there was milking the cows and tending the gardens for a local family. But, he still craved the cowboy ways. He went from there to live with a fellow he just refers to as “Hank; "...garrulous, bent and bearded, a black sheep, and a Casanova!". By then he had learned to ride horses, so he helped him with his 20 or so head of cattle. He also learned some rather bad habits that he himself probably incorporated into his later poems. He found an old banjo and taught himself how to play.
Moving on, he then found himself in the employ of George Corfield, one of the largest farmers and local storekeeper. Service found himself back to work as “cow juice jerker” and part time storekeeper. Still in Cowichan Bay, no where near the Yukon. But, his sense of rambling took over and he grabbed a boat to Seattle, then to San Francisco. Odd jobs, even one working in a brothel, were his adventure. The only thing he acquired was an old guitar given to him at the brothel. He returned back to Corfield and worked there for 4 more years. His spirit of adventure, and perhaps his bad habit of greeting visitors with a gun eventually prompted him to move on. His Scottish bank experience led him to working in Kamloops for the Canadian Bank of Commerce. They transfered him to Whitehorse and started him on the path we all know. Eventual transfer to Dawson City led to his living in a cabin and writing his famous poems. A very young fellow named Pierre Berton was his neighbor. Wealthy not from gold, but from his pen he returned to England and traveled. Joined the military for WW1 as a driver and correspondent for the Canadian Government, married a french girl, had a short try at Hollywood but finally spent the rest of his life on the French Riviera where he is buried.
But, were it not for his restless nature we might have had Songs of the Cowichan instead of the Yukon. He is fondly remembered for his time here and there is a permanent memorial to him on Cowichan Bay Road near the farm where he worked.
Thomas Wagner is a writer, historian and sailor living in Cowichan Bay. Website is thomaswagner.org Photo courtesy of Ladysmith Archive.