Robert Service's desk

Three Takeaways from a Writer’s Cabin

by Sharleen Jonsson

I often daydream of retreating to a rustic cabin, far from the madding crowd. I also love the poetry of Robert Service, “Bard of the Yukon.” So, during a recent trip to Dawson City, how could I not visit his one-time home?

Born in England in 1874, Service immigrated to Canada at the age of 21, found employment as a bank clerk in Victoria, BC, then, about ten years after the height of the Klondike gold rush, transferred to the Yukon. In Dawson City, he quit his day job to become a full-time writer. I imagine him in his little cabin, at his desk with the woodstove crackling behind him and the wind howling outside, as he puts finishing touches on “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” If you ever pass through Dawson, do yourself a favour and visit this heritage site – it’s free and fascinating. Here are three things I took away from this writer’s retreat:

  • It’s okay to write on the walls. Service was in the habit of writing on his wallpaper. Who knows if that was to stoke his creativity or just a symptom of cabin fever? Either way, it seems to have worked. Apparently, he also scribbled aspirational messages. A framed specimen of his wall writing reads: “Rebuffs are only rungs in the ladder of success.” Robert-Service-wallpaper
  • You can compose on anything. I want a cabin retreat but don’t want to be without my printer — and, okay, the Internet. Have you ever felt you just couldn’t start your literary masterpiece without the right technology? Service had what looks like a pocket typewriter to me. (This one, in his cabin, is identical to the one he actually used, which now resides in the tourist information office in Dawson.) Robert-Service-typewriter
  • A love of verse can lead you to the most interesting people. We missed the scheduled live reading of his work, but the guide was kind enough to give DH and me a private reading. (Whoops, I forgot to write down her name.) She read beautifully, introduced us to a few Service poems I’d never heard of, and told us she’s been in Dawson for about 30 years. Why Dawson? “I wanted to get as far away from Ontario as I could.” But Ontario has followed her, in the form of a mother who drives out with a trailer every summer now. “She can’t go in reverse, though. She’s managed to get all the way to Alaska and back to Ontario without ever having to back up.” Service could’ve composed a great poem about that, I’m sure.      Robert-Service-guide

Dawson is a very literary small town, and just down the road from Service’s old place is Jack London’s cabin. But that’s for another post.



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