Last of the woodcutters

At first glance, Phyllis Simpson could look like any ordinary grandmother. Her house is filled with graduation pictures of her grandchildren, a warm…

At first glance, Phyllis Simpson could look like any ordinary grandmother.

Her house is filled with graduation pictures of her grandchildren, a warm cup of coffee and pastries are in plentiful supply and a requisite chiming wall clock loudly breaks the silence every 60 minutes.

But she describes herself as the last vestige of the Yukon’s riverboat era.

“There’s nobody that I know of that lived the life that I did on the river,” said Simpson.

In 1930, Simpson was born into steamboat royalty, as it were, the first child of Aime “Happy” LePage, one of the river’s most well-known woodcutters.

“I’ve only been out of the bush the last four years and I hate living in town, take a look at my view,” she said, gesturing to her living room vista of a row of blue fence posts.

But living out at Wolf Creek with 45 metres of driveway just became “too much to shovel,” said Simpson.

“I’ve been in three steamboat accidents and other water accidents; I always told people I would never drown,” said Simpson.

“But guess what? I’m drowning right now — my lungs and my heart are drowning in water,” she said.

“Isn’t that ironic?”

In June, 1936, the six-year-old Simpson was a passenger on the SS Klondike when it set out on its final voyage.

“We were going downstream, it was after breakfast and the captain was teaching this fellow how to steer the boat and he came around the bend too fast,” said Simpson.

The Klondike plowed into the shore, and, as water began to flow in, the ship’s fate was sealed.

“Get that damn kid and those women off,” commanded the captain, said Simpson.

However, after years of being strung up on the Klondike’s davits, the lifeboats had dried out, peppering the hulls with a cracks and holes. Every lifeboat that struck the water immediately started to sink.

Simpson, her mother, and a nurse were nevertheless loaded onto one of the semi-buoyant boats, and two crew members frantically rowed for shore as water seeped in through the floorboards. Simpson’s mother and the nurse bailed water out with their bare hands.

Only a few metres from shore, the two crew members jumped out, grabbed the sides of the boat and shoved it the final distance to safety. The tiny boat was so flooded that water slopped out over the gunwales when it struck land.

"That’s how close we were (to sinking),” said Simpson.

Simpson’s father Happy LePage, after whom LePage park and Mount LePage are named, had been a lumberjack when he first met his future wife Pauline in Alberta.

Pauline’s family was Austrian, and had originally been scheduled to sail for North America on the Titanic — but were bumped at the last minute.

Hap was soon leaving for the Yukon, but he promised his sweetheart he would be back within two years.

He returned on schedule, but only long enough to marry Pauline and whisk her up north.

As Pauline adjusted to her new home in a tiny, one-room cabin, Hap assured her it would only be for two more years. Of course, on the way up he neglected to tell her that with his earnings from the past two years, he had purchased a wood camp serving the steamships plying the Yukon river.

Every morning, Hap would get up, make pancakes on the stove next to their bed, flip hot pancakes onto his wife’s sleeping form and be gone by five or six, returning late in the evening.

“She was pretty lonesome; she made a pet out of a muskrat and anything else that came along,” said Simpson.

Two kids and four wood camps quickly followed, and the young family’s Yukon roots were quickly dug.

While Hap ran the wood camps; Pauline and the kids took up gold mining “just for fun.”

After long, laborious hours of collecting sand by hand, Simpson remembers isolating the gold using mercury.

“You know mercury is poisonous, right? That’s what they tell me, but I’m still here,” said Simpson.

Taking the liquid metal, she would run it along the sand until it had picked up all the gold flakes. Then, she would put the gold-encrusted mixture over a campfire and burn away the mercury, all the while taking in generous breaths of the toxic element.

A photo album before her, Simpson flits from topic to topic as she scans the black-and-white mementoes of her woodsy upbringing.

A picture of a massive wood pile extending far into the distance reappears continually in the photo book.

A handwritten description on the back explains that the pile constituted 400 cords, which, to Simpson’s knowledge, has never been done since, or before.

Other photos paint a picture of Whitehorse as it once was.

The Klondike Rib and Salmon building used to be a morgue, said Simpson.

“I’ve only been in there a couple of times and I get crawly,” she said.

In the summer of 1941, Simpson remembers being at Carmacks when a mysterious plane flew into town.

“These funny looking people came out, I mean, I knew natives, but these looked different,” said Simpson.

“It was Japanese people, and they were surveying,” she said.

“They were planning, I guess, on coming in and taking over,” said Simpson, looking back.

Months later, in April 1942, other peculiar guests would stream into the territory while Simpson was playing ‘cowboys and Indians’ outside the Bank of Commerce.

“The train came in, which wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, but the next thing we see were all these soldiers with rifles and helmets,” said Simpson.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour was unknown to Simpson or her family because they had no access to radio. Nor did they know of the impending Japanese invasion of the Alaskan islands of Kiska and Attu.

Simpson and her playmates scattered, and “the American army took over the whole town,” she said.

Her Acadian and Austrian heritage paying handsome dividends in the “looks” department as she grew older, Simpson won May Queen in 1947 and Ski Queen in 1949.

Which is certainly not to say that she was a “girly girl,” emphasizes Simpson.

The photo album swells with photos of Simpson handling dogs or horses.

Nestled behind a forest of frames holding pictures of her grandchildren, Simpson pulls out a massive plaque bearing many sports achievements.

“I was heavy into sports, and I just loved it when I could beat the men,” said Simpson.

Tough and beautiful, who else’s attention would she have attracted attract but that of a Mountie?

Simpson’s adult life saw her following the transient career of an RCMP officer, moving the family across the Canadian North.

After Jim retired, the two had plans to jump on their Gold Wing motorcycle and start “cruising.”

“He retired in July, and in September, when I came back from visiting my daughter, I thought it was an old man meeting me at the plane,” said Simpson.

“We found out he had cancer and he was gone by March,” she said.

Cancer soon struck Simpson herself, and a doctor gave her five years to live.

That was 16 years ago, she boasts.

But cancer and diabetes now mean a large daily regimen of medication and injections.

“I’m doing it up royally,” she jokes.

Even at 78 years old, and with her bush life behind her, Simpson’s bite is still just as sharp.

“Don’t you print that, I’ll smack you, I’ll track you down,” she said after describing her sister as a “pain in the ass” sometimes.

Contact Tristin Hopper at tristinh@yukon-news.com

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