On Phyllis (LePage) Simpson’s coffee table is a stack of books on the history of the Yukon River. When she reads them, it is not unusual for her to find a glaring error or omission.
“They make me so mad,” she says. “They sometimes get things wrong.”
It’s easy to wonder if perhaps it is Simpson who is mistaken, but she puts these suspicions to rest the minute she begins to talk about her life on the Yukon River.
Simpson was born in 1930 in a roadhouse at Yukon Crossing, just below Five Finger Rapids. Her father was the legendary wood-camp operator, Happy LePage, who owned five wood camps where wood was axed and sold to the steamship companies operating on the river.
Between the ages of seven and 18, Simpson and her family lived on a tiny river vessel named The Ruby, which allowed them to travel up and down the river checking on her father’s investments. It was close quarters, but for Simpson it was perfect.
“I loved living on that boat,” she says emphatically.
She also loved the simple but valuable lessons her father taught her about survival in the Yukon wilderness. “[He taught me] to keep my head up and be aware of what’s around me.”
These lessons have served her well. “I’ve never been lost in my life,” says Simpson.
As she pours over an old photo album, Simpson tells her stories cheerfully and precisely. She is quick to recall the names of characters long-since passed, exact places and dates and rich details.
For example, in one particularly fascinating anecdote, Simpson tells of the demise of the first SS Klondike. She was onboard the final voyage.
When did it happen? “June 12, 1936,” says Simpson, without missing a beat. Then, for good measure she adds, “Just after breakfast.”
She was ushered into a lifeboat that was barely seaworthy. There were two crew members on the lifeboat, as well, and Simpson recalls, “I wasn’t scared until the crew jumped out of the boat.”
It turns out that the reason they jumped out was to lessen the strain on the rickety contraption and shove it onto the shore. To this day, she still doesn’t like pork and beans, which is what she was forced to eat while waiting to be rescued at the side of the river.
Recently, she got into an argument with someone about the location of the sinking. “I told him, ‘The Klondike sank near the mouth of Teslin River’ and he told me I was wrong. A week later, he came back and said,’You were right.'”
Simpson still works part-time at the Yukon Visitor Reception Centre where she is happy to share her knowledge with those who are interested. After listening to her speak, one feels the type of exhilaration that can only come from getting information straight from the source, but this sensation is accompanied by the impression that we are letting our history slip away.
In an age of fast food and strip malls, if we, as Yukoners, are to maintain our unique sense of identity, we will need to learn as much as we can from people like Phyllis (LePage) Simpson.