The Northern Lights and me – and The Cremation of Sam McGee

Northern Lights

Do you remember the first time you ever saw the Northern Lights magically light up a dark winter sky? (Photo by Ashlee Burridge via from theweathernetwork.com)

“Leading lights at NASA say this December may well be the best time in a decade to view the aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights,” a small dispatch in today’s Montreal Gazette informed me. “Scientists at the space agency predict that solar activity will reach a new peak in December thanks to a ‘complete field reversal’ of the sun’s polar magnetic fields.”

Which is good news if, like me, you love being awestruck when the Northern Lights put on a show on a cold, clear winter night.

I remember the very first time I ever saw the Northern Lights. It was in – wait for it – Queensborough! I was maybe six years old, and I remember my dad (who loved looking at the night sky and was very knowledgeable about it; I wrote about my happy memories of that here) walking with me a short distance up the street the Manse is on to where it intersects with Queensborough Road. And there we faced north and I was dumbfounded to see the sky filled with dancing green and yellow lights.

(This would have been before Queensborough had streetlights – whose advent I wrote about here – so the night sky would have been darker on a winter night than it is now.)

But aside from the spectacular light show, there’s another thing I always think of when I hear mention of the Northern Lights: Robert Service‘s poem The Cremation of Sam McGee. Surely you know the familiar lines:

The Northern Lights have seen queer sights, but the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge I cremated Sam McGee.

What a tale that poem tells! A perfect yarn to entertain a classroom full of children, in fact. I have fond memories of our teachers at Madoc Township Public School entertaining us with the poems of Robert Service, most notably The Cremation of Sam McGee and The Shooting of Dan McGrew (“A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malmute Saloon…).

Robert Service

Robert Service, author of many, many volumes of Klondike-related poetry – among them Songs of a Sourdough and Rhymes of a Rolling Stone.

(Of course Robert Service wrote approximately eight hundred thousand other poems – an exaggeration, but not that much of one – but those two are by far his best-known.)

Recitations of those and other Robert Service poems were also a popular feature of community socials – church events and whatnot – in rural Hastings County back in those days. (The same kind of event where my dad was given to reciting King John’s Christmas.) There’s nothing like listening to a speaker who can give the proper dramatic emphasis as he or she regales you with the story of what the narrator of “Sam McGee” has to go through to fulfill his promise to his frozen friend. And then the ending, when he peers into his makeshift crematorium and gets the surprise of his life! Why, one hangs on every word, and it’s a rousing good time.

I happen to know that a regular Queensborough-area reader of this blog is an extremely good narrator of Robert Service poems. I have heard him do it! I wish I had a video or a recording of his narration to share with you tonight. (Perhaps I will after a community social in the not-too-distant future!) In the meantime, though, why don’t we let none other than Johnny Cash do the honours?

Ladies and gentlemen, The Cremation of Sam McGee – with illustrations by Canadian artist Ted Harrison, from the lovely Kids Can Press children’s book of the poem; and with the Northern Lights playing a strong supporting role:

19 thoughts on “The Northern Lights and me – and The Cremation of Sam McGee

  1. You have warmed the cockles of my heart with this post, as it brought back a happy memory of my own dear departed father. Dad loved Robert W. Service and could recite the entire poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee” from memory. And I’ll be keeping my eyes fixed on the night sky in December.

  2. I recently read “Ploughman of the Moom”, R. Service’s autobiography (1942). Bought it on Abe’s Books and it is a great read. He claimed that he did not write poetry, simply rhyme. I have been a fan since childhood. How i wish i had known 0f your dad’s love of rhyme, we could have had such great discussions! How sad the loss of the great skill of the recitation of rhyme and monologue. Hurray for the the great sights of the northern lights.

    • Hurray for the great sights of the Northern Lights indeed! And Grant, I hope you know that it was you I was referring to in this post as a terrific presenter of Robert Service’s “rhymes.” I hope it’ll soon be time for another such recitation!

  3. Hi Katherine,

    I have been lucky to see the Northern Lights up in Barry’ Bay many times. At first we thought they were ATV lights but when they stayed and had a greenish hue we knew they were a sight to be enjoyed. My first sighting was a cold Thanksgiving weekend night in Barry’s Bay as we were coming back from church in town with my cousins to the family cottage. We were all loose in the back of the station wagon (before seatbelts) and we spotted the Northern lights dancing in the sky. They followed us back to the cabin. I recall my Dad reciting The Cremation of Sam McGee that night and fondly can hear his voice reciting in my head as it to was his favourite poem to recite.

    I can do the first verse but maybe it is time to learn it all so I can do it over a campfire in December in Queensborough with the Northern light display predicted. It will make Sam McGee’s desire to be warm all the better to hear it over a campfire in December.

    Thanks for bringing a smile to my face.

    Jo-Ann
    Sent wirelessly from my BlackBerry device on the Bell network.
    Envoyé sans fil par mon terminal mobile BlackBerry sur le réseau de Bell.

    • I’m so glad it brought that smile, Jo-Ann. What great memories you have of the Northern Lights (and Sam McGee) from your childhood! I think your idea of a recitation around a campfire in Queensborough is – well, perfect. And one that will make for very happy childhood memories of the Northern Lights for another generation!

  4. Oh, Katherine… my dad, with his grade six education, could recite both Same McGee and Dan McGrew to perfection with no book in hand! And thanks for the image of your father’s recitation of Bad King John: I keep my copy of Now We Are Six on the same shelf as my Robert Service.

  5. You know, I love this book–we have it and The Shooting of Dan McGrew–and the boys have enjoyed them both. But the first time Aunt Marion did a glinty-eyed recitation of Sam McGee up at the farmhouse at Gelert, I was absolutely terrified! The idea of him sitting up when he’s in the fire and saying “It’s the first time I’ve been warm!” gave me nightmares that night and possibly a few afterward. I’m over it now.

    • Great story, Nancy! I did not know that Aunt Marion had Sam McGee in her vast repertoire (though I guess I shouldn’t be surprised), but I can just imagine her telling the tale. As someone who loathes and fears the cold of winter, that line of Sam’s about it being the first time (since Tennessee) he’d been warm always did stick with me!

  6. While everyone loves the thrill of the North via Robert Service, I bring your attention to his “Bessie’s Boil”, a great Lancashire tale. I have recited this at several church functions and it always gets a bit of a giggle. It is a great story.

    • I will look that one up, Grant! Somewhere in our collection of books I have the collected poems of Robert Service; the conversation and comments since last night’s post have really got me thinking about him, so I will try to dig it up. He really did live quite a life, didn’t he?

  7. Hey, while on google I decided to search Labrador City, my home where I grew up and currently live, and to my surprise I recognized my picture of the northern lights on your page! I remember taking that picture up behind smokey mountain after midnight during the summer of 2013. It was one of many that I took that night and shared on the weather network for everyone else to enjoy 🙂 I never thought I would see it on someone’s page. I’m very honoured for you to consider it to share with others. Thank you 🙂 Ashlee

    • Ashlee, how absolutely lovely to hear from you! I remember when I was writing that post, searching for a long time for a photo that looked like the Northern Lights did the very first time I experienced them – and your photo was by far the best. I am thrilled that you found my post, and so happy that you are happy that I shared it. And now that I know you are the creator of that fantastic photo, your name has been added to the credit on it in my post. Thank you so much!

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