Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Gold! Gold! Gold! In Klondike and Classroom

Chilkoot Pass
Today, Writer's Almanac reminds, is the day that George Washington Carmack discovered gold on Rabbit Creek, tributary of the Klondike River, in the Canadian Yukon.  The name quickly changed to Bonanza Creek when the richness of the discovery became evident.  Among the tens of thousands who charged into the North to seek their fortunes were an unknown, failed writer named Jack London and a Washington state father and husband named Addison Clark Dyer, my great-grandfather.  Things generally worked out better for London, although I'm glad that A. C. Dyer survived it all.  Otherwise ... no blog today.

In the 1980s my father transcribed the diary that his grandfather had kept on his Yukon adventure.  He'd traveled by horseback from Spokane, Washington, to Skagway, Alaska, where he'd traveled over the White Pass and into the Yukon, where he found enough on his claim on Bonanza Creek that he could make a down payment on a farm in the Walla Walla Valley, a farm the bank took back during the Depression.  Oh well.

A. C. Dyer's diary is mostly a record of what he did each day--nothing that Virgina Woolf, for example, would have written.  Saw this.  Did that.  Rode so many miles.  That sort of thing.  He did get in a fight one day, regretted it later.  (No indication of who won, but surely he did: He was, after all, a Dyer, and, well, we kick butt.)

My uncle had the diary and passed it along to me.  And, one day, it will go to our son.

When I returned to teach in Aurora in 1982 after a four-year absence (teaching at Lake Forest College, Western Reserve Academy, and Kent State University in the interim) the school had adopted a new set of literature anthologies for eighth graders--books that included The Call of the Wild, a novel I had not read except in comic-book form (Classics Illustrated).  I knew nothing about the Gold Rush, little about London, less about the book.  But off I went on a ten-year adventure that led me to read all fifty books by Jack London, to visit all the important sites in his life, to hike over the Chilkoot Trail into the Yukon, to write a YA biography of London and annotated editions of The Call of the Wild.

My students in Aurora, uh, "benefited" from all of this obsessive behavior.  They read Wild, ate sourdough biscuits I'd baked, watched Chaplin's film The Gold Rush, learned about the history of the Gold Rush, saw about 1000 35mm slides I'd prepared.

When I retired in 1997 (the year my YA biography appeared), I was about done with it and had fallen in love with Mary Shelley.  And off I went on another ten-year adventure ...

from WANDERLUST at Stratford
And then, just last week, we were in Stratford for the Shakespeare Festival, and one of the shows on the program this year was a new musical play by Canadian playwright Morris Panych called Wanderlust.  It told the tale--much altered--of Robert Service, the Canadian bank clerk who wrote a zillion poems about the Rush and about the Northland, including "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" (a poem that Pres. Reagan used to recite to the White House press corps aboard Air Force One) and "The Cremation of Sam McGee," a poem I used to have my students memorize over a nine-week period.

I still know "Sam" and run it through my head a few times a week.  We recently gave a children's book version of the poem to our grandson Logan.  Who probably wondered what was wrong with his grandfather.

In Wanderlust, which, sadly, I did not care for--at all--the Robert Service character does recite/enact "Sam" in one scene. (I nudged Joyce in the middle of it and whispered to her that they'd dropped a couple of verses! Sacrilege!)

In the summer of 1986--the summer after my son was in my 8th grade English class (he'd had to endure my madness both in and out of class)--we flew to Skagway, where we rented a car (Avis had two available, one of which worked) and drove to Dawson City in the Yukon, found the site of his great-great-grandfather's gold claim.  On the way, we stopped to honor Sam McGee at the shores of Lake Laberge (official spelling nowadays; Service used a different one) :

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

A few years later I hiked over the Chilkoot Pass, kept my own diary, which is somewhat different from my great-grandfather's: I took Vanity Fair with me and read it in my tent at night, taking notes on Thackeray in the soft light that remained at 10 p.m.  (I am a multi-tasking nerd.)

And in 2001 when I returned to teaching at Western Reserve Academy, I kept The Call of the Wild in my English III (juniors) curriculum.  It was not a book we "studied" but one the students read for "outside reading"; we spent a single day on it at the end of the first marking period.  Sometimes I didn't even have time to show them more than a handful of the gazillion pictures I have.  I don't think they had any idea of the vast dimensions of my obsession.  But most of them liked the book.  Few had read it before.  Quiz scores were high.  I also recited "Sam" one day at an all-school meeting on a cold, blustery, snowy day.  Just for fun.

So--anyway--in Stratford last week I was expecting the hydrants of my tear ducts would burst open when I saw and heard all the Klondike stuff again.  But the show was so overwrought and the music so forgettable that I found myself instead in a reverie about the actual Lake Laberge, remembering my son standing with me on Midnight Dome above Dawson City, overlooking the town and the confluence of the Yukon and the Klondike.  Remembering my great-grandfather, Jack London, The Call of the Wild, and those hundreds of wonderful Aurora eighth graders who indulged me so patiently.  I cannot help but love them for it.

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