Donald Phillips, 1884-1938

Publication Year: 1939.



In the development of the Canadian Northwest, the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railroad in 1885. with the virtual extinction of the buffalo and the decline of the fur-trade, marked the end of an era. It was succeeded by the period of the packtrain, now closing but no less romantic, when trappers and tourist-explorers traversed the last reaches of univisited valleys. Donald (Curly) Phillips was an outstanding figure of this latter time, and when the white death of avalanche brought an end to his life on March 22nd, 1938, his name stood for all that was best in the vigorous activity of those crowded hours.

Born at Dorset, Ontario, on April 15th, 1884, Curly learned from his father the rules of canoe work, fishing, hunting and trapping, which served him so well. According to his diaries he was trapping in the Temagami area as early as the autumn of 1902, and spent the entire winter of 1907-8 on the trail out of Biscotasing with his friend, Ed Britton. In April, starting on Curly’s birthday, they left for the West, going first to Calgary. For a short time Phillips worked at Field on C. P. R. tunnel construction, but soon left for Edmonton. That winter he cut ties for George Kaywood, a contractor, but in the summer of 1909 bought several horses and headed for the mountains, meeting on the way the Rev. G. B. Kinney, who persuaded Curly to accompany him to Mt. Robson. Reaching its base in July, after four attempts from the western side they attained in stormy weather a point on the snow-cap just short of the summit. It was a courageous effort, the more so since Curly had no previous mountaineering experience, and failed of complete success only through adverse circumstances.

Phillips returned to Obed, taking a contract from Blane and Crockett to bring out ties and timber, and during the winter 1909-10 had two camps in that vicinity. In 1910-11 he worked with Walter and Earl Chapman, taking out culvert and pile timber for the railroad between Obed and Brûle. He was in charge of outfitting in the summer of 1911 when the Alpine Club of Canada sent its expedition to Yellowhead Pass and Mt. Robson, a collecting party of the Smithsonian Institution collaborating. Conrad Kain, the Austrian guide, and G. B. Kinney were also present. Curly then took members of the party from Fitzhugh ( Jasper) to Laggan (Lake Louise), the first to travel from steel to steel by the route now followed by the motor highway. Phillips and Kain returned and trapped together during the winter on the headwaters of the Smoky, Moose and Beaver Rivers. In the following spring Curly trapped out from Rocky Mountain House with the guide and packer, Fred Stephens.

In 1912 Phillips built his corrals and a shack in Fitzhugh (the name was changed to Jasper in 1913) in the middle of what is now Pyramid Drive. He packed supplies up Moose River for a tie contractor, and late in the summer took Messrs. Pratt and Proctor, of New York, collecting and hunting on the upper waters of the Big Smoky and Jackpine.

During the winter 1912-13 Curly and Frank Doucette trapped the Jackpine, and in the following summer made the switchback trail in to Mt. Robson from the railroad. He handled the Alpine Club of Canada over the new trail and camped at Robson Pass, where the first complete ascent of Mt. Robson was made, but in which he did not take part. That fall he drove his horses to Kiscoty on the prairie, spent the winter in Jasper with his brother-in-law, Bert Wilkins, and early in 1914 was with Frank Doucette bear hunting for several weeks.

In August, just when the British ultimatum was sent to Germany, Phillips started with Wilkins, Miss Jobe (Mrs. Akeley) and Miss Springate to go north to what he called the Big Mountain (Mt. Sir Alexander), a peak that he had seen while trapping 0n the Jackpine. Most of the streams were then unnamed and unmapped, but the mountain was reached and an attempt made to climb it, before weather and lack of supplies drove them back. Curly spent Christmas in New York, returning to trap on the Big Smoky.

In the spring of 1915 Curly hunted bear alone, and he and Wilkins built a bridge across the Fraser at Mt. Robson. That summer they took Miss Jobe, Miss Hinman and the Tyler boys 0n a two months’ trip to Mt. Sir Alexander, reaching a high elevation on its summit crest before returning. Phillips and Wilkins then went on a hunting trip with C. and W. Rindsfoos, of Columbus, Ohio, staying out until December.

Curly did some trapping out of Roundcroft in 1916, and later ran an outfit in conjunction with Otto Bros, at the Tent City, where Jasper Park Lodge is now located. In the autumn he took another long hunting trip with W. Rindsfoos, who was collecting for the Smithsonian. Then Phillips, Doucette and Wilkins went trapping north of Obed for the winter. In the summer of 1917 Curly outfitted a few small parties in the vicinity of Jasper, and in August took K. V. Painter, of Cleveland, for a hunting trip to Porcupine River. On returning, he took supplies out to the Wapiti for Rindsfoos, who was trapping and collecting, Miss Jobe going along on this trip.

When Curly returned he was called for army service, obtaining leave in 1918 to go trapping on the Wapiti with Rindsfoos. They spent the winter there, and, on coming out in the spring on a raft, lost most of their supplies and had a hard time getting through. As Phillips had been drafted, he reported at Calgary as soon as he returned, and was sent to Kingston, Ontario, with the Canadian Field Artillery. There he got cornered between kicking horses and came out with a shattered arm. He returned home after the armistice and trapped on the Smoky until Christmas. Then Wilkins accompanied him on trapping forays until March, 1919.

During the autumn of that year Phillips again had out K. V. Painter, this time to the Porcupine, starting from Entrance and coming out at Mt. Robson. He then took out another party, headed by Dr. Romig, of Cleveland, returning to rail at Devona. Later on Curly built a cabin on the Jackpine, trapping there through the winter 1919-20.

Early in 1920 Phillips paid a second visit to New York, and in the spring took Lincoln Ellsworth on a bear hunt. He had Miss Hinman and a party of eighteen, with fifty horses, on a summer trip of forty days, and there were several autumn hunting parties. In 1921 Curly trapped north of Pedley in the spring, again took out Miss Hinman in the summer, and at this time was working eighty-five head of horses. He trapped in the north during the winter and spring of 1921-22, leading Miss Hinman’s party to Athabaska Pass and Tonquin Valley in the summer, an arduous trip down the source of the Fraser.

In 1923, after coming in from trapping north of Entrance, Curly discovered that he had lost forty-three horses, largely from a contagious fever then prevalent. In April he trapped north of Edmonton as far as McMurray, but there was little outfitting that season. In November he married Miss Grace Inkster, of Edmonton, three children resulting from this union.

Phillips seldom went on the trail after this except with hunting parties and on his own trapping. In May, 1925, he wrote that he was engaged in market gardening on irrigated land, as people “have to eat, but they don’t have to have a packtrain.” He and his wife spent the winter 1927-28 in Victoria, expecting to remain there and engage in fox-farming. He merged part of his outfit with that of Fred Brewster, but the call of the mountains was too much for him and he returned to Jasper in May to supervise the construction of the Maligne Lake chalet.

During the summer of 1930, Phillips took the party of A. C. Lovekin, who had been in the Robson area with him in 1917, by canoe down Peace River waters from Summit Lake to Lake Athabaska, and out to civilization via Waterways. In May, 1931, Curly, with his father and brother, made a river trip from Entrance, going through Fish Lakes to clear out the creek for summer navigation, continuing down the Hay and Berland and returning to Jasper up the Athabaska.

Phillips outfitted the camps of the Alpine Club of Canada at Tonquin Valley (1926) and Maligne Lake (1930), and arranged but did not accompany the mountaineering expeditions of the writer (Athabaska Pass and Tonquin Valley, 1924; Athabaska Pass, 1928; Athabaska River, 1931 ; Chaba and Athabaska River, 1936), as well as those of A. J. Ostheimer (Athabaska and Wood Rivers, 1927), A. J. Gilmour (Mt. Sir Alexander, 1929) and M. M. Strumia (Athabaska River, 1930). He also arranged for Miss Hinman’s journeys to Peace River (1930), Mt. Sir Alexander and Peace River (1937). He continued his winter trapping (winters of 1934, 1935, 1936), and made his last hunting trip in the autumn of 1937, when he took Drs. Kingery and Diack, of Portland, north by airplane from Finlay Forks to Prophet River, flying across the Lloyd George Mountains.

Shortly before his death, Curly disposed of his horse outfit to his brother-in-law, Bert Wilkins, expecting to give his time thereafter to river work. He was keenly interested in recent developments of winter sport, and was looking over sites for ski cabins at the time of his fatal accident.

Phillips’ settlement in the West coincided with the building of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad toward Yellowhead Pass, an enterprise in which he took part and saw completed, making for himself a well-earned place as trapper and outfitter. Never outliving his love of water travel, he preferred this to transportation by horses, and spent his later years building the tidy freight canoes and power launches with which he explored the Athabaska tributaries. He had no quarrel with modern trends, instituting the outboard motor races on Pyramid Lake as his way of spending a quiet Sunday. His increasing and varied interests made him less inclined to accompany in person the summer packtrain parties which he outfitted, but how ably he handled such matters, with the aid of such faithful men as Adam Joachim, Dave and Don Moberly, is attested by mountaineers and valley travelers alike. Mt. Phillips, a snowy peak adjacent to Mt. Whitehorn, holds his name in remembrance.

The writer first met Phillips late in 1916, when there was but a “tent city” at Lake Beauvert, and the few visitors in Jasper found lodgings above the general store. A short trip to Mt. Robson laid the foundation of a long-standing friendship, and Curly outfitted our parties thereafter. We camped regularly at his corral, drank beer with him at the Pyramid, and were out at dawn together photographing game. To motor with him as driver in the old Ford truck was a wild event, the flooded road to Medicine Lake demanding a full complement of assistants with shovels and axes to make one’s way out of the mudholes. Early in 1928 he wrote : “I came out on foot from the lake, as I went over a cutbank with my car and smashed it up pretty badly. Had presence of mind to head it down hill when I saw I had to take it, and so stayed right side up, landing against a four-foot boulder at the bottom of the 20-foot bank.”

Curly was essentially a man of action, recording in his diaries his every move but seldom his thoughts. He was by necessity a phenomenal shot and a trapper of originality, studying Indian methods and devising his own. His winter, often solitary experiences on the traplines are hair-raising until one realizes that they were the common lot, almost monotonous by very repetition. In the woods he moved like a shadow, cutting his trail with tremendous speed. He was always ready to laugh, but was not without a quiet reserve. For many of us his memory will live as long as grass is green and water runs, and men go adventuring in the wild beauty of a world that is hidden from the mob.

J. M. T.