A bunch of the boys were whooping it up
in the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box
was hitting a jag-time tune;
Back of the bar, in solo game,
sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
and watching his luck was his light-o’-love,
the lady that’s known as Lou.
Robert Service first published his famed poem The Shooting of Dan McGrew in The Songs of a Sourdough in 1907. For 110 years, the tale accused Lou of stealing the poke—gold dust—from the miner who shot McGrew.
A Port Alberni poet, though, has shot that theory to its grave with the rest of the tale—and won a Dawson City poetry contest as a result.
Gus Barrett fell in love with the north as well as his wife Blanche when they met more than 64 years ago, after Barrett accepted an RCMP posting to Dawson City, Yukon, where Blanche grew up. “In those days we had to have five years’ service to get married,” said Gus. “I purchased my discharge (after two years) to get out and get married.”
The newlyweds moved to Whitehorse and spent 14 years there. Gus went into government service with the post office and eventually Canada Customs on the Yukon-Alaska border, and Blanche continued with her nursing career. They left the Yukon in 1967 and moved around south of the 60th Parallel, including stints in Quesnel and Port Alberni, and they have always returned to the Yukon to visit.
The Barretts returned to Port Alberni three years ago after living here for the first time in 1973. When they were living in the north they bought property on the water in Nanoose Bay, and later lived in Qualicum Beach while working in Port Alberni.
While in Dawson City Barrett fell in love with the poetry of Robert Service, as many people do who are drawn to the north. He liked to read the rhyming prose, but didn’t start writing his own poetry until he was nearly 70.
“Blanche had cancer…she was housebound, so I was housebound too. I decided one day to write a poem; I don’t even really know why. I used to write notes to Blanche to cheer her up,” Gus said. He liked it enough that he continued expressing himself through poetry.
In 2005 when the Barretts were living in Qualicum, Gus assembled a collection of his poetry, titled it Poetry and Other Nonsense, and published it through Trafford Publishing.
Barrett’s work has also been published in Sleds, Sleighs and Snow: A Canadian Christmas Carol (2005), edited by Anne Tempelman-Kluit. A former newspaper editor from Whitehorse, Tempelman-Kluit had seen Barrett’s work published in the Moccasin Telegraph, a newsletter printed twice a month by and for ex-Yukoners. She approached the poet for permission to include one of his poem’s in her book.
He wrote his winning poem, The Daughter of Lady Lou, a few years ago. He thought the miners in Service’s The Shooting of Dan McGrew had done Lady Lou a disservice, besmirching her reputation by accusing her of stealing the old miner’s poke. He penned a response that went, in part:
With one foot on the rail though she’s all female,
With a smile and a dimpled chin.
In her mini skirt that would brand her “Flirt,”
She surveyed us, and she took us in.
Now the room was abuzz as to who she was,
And what was her purpose here.
While she held her poise, ‘midst those half drunk boys,
With never an inkling of fear.
Then I watched as she felt ‘neath her leather belt,
For a poke that was empty and old,
Then she saw my glance, and she changed her stance
She smiled, but her smile was cold.
It was still as a tomb in that crowded room,
As she sipped her rum and coke
With a voice quite calm, but never warm,
She gazed around and spoke.
Barrett’s rebuttal caught the eye of the judges at the 2017 Dawson City Discovery Days celebration. Every year the Klondike Visitors’ Association holds a writing contest, and this year’s theme was Northern Inspired.
Barrett thought his poem fit the theme, so he submitted it.
Following Discovery Days, he received a phone call saying he won the contest, and the gold nugget prize. So the poem written by a man living on Vancouver Island but hankering for a taste of the north will be printed in a future edition of the Klondike Sun newspaper in Dawson City.
As for the tale of The Daughter of Lady Lou?
It turns out Lou didn’t steal that poke at all: the miner gave it to her on his deathbed, as a gift to his unborn daughter.