life’s a ‘beech’

🕔Sep 07, 2005

Although his cottage-style bed and breakfast is nestled behind the clinking masts and wooden boats along the harbour in Masset, David Phillips would rather tell you he lives in a tangled English garden.

A stay with David is like that. He’s a mythic being, a teller of tales, a story himself and he cooks a fabulous meal. Those who stumble upon his magical world, such as foreigners looking for a reason to stay on the misty isles of Haida Gwaii, sometimes end up there a long time.

Others, like famous authors, ballerinas, politicians and representatives of the Queen are quietly led there through age-old methods like word of mouth and remain for short-term regenerative retreats. Bruce Cockburn and Pierre, Margaret and the Trudeau children are a few of the many who have revelled in Phillips’s hospitality.

Regardless of length of stay, Phillips will provide whatever services he can to make his guests comfortable.

If you want three meals a day, he will cook them. If wild strawberries are part of your most earthly desires, he will help you find them. If you want to be left alone, he will pack up his gear and stay at the neighbour’s house for a while. Tell him your budget, and Phillips will tailor to your needs.

The hotel is what you make it, says Phillips. You become part of the story.

Phillips was part of a wave of free thinkers who made their way west in the early 1970s, and when he dropped in on Haida Gwaii, he had no intention of staying.

His goal was to hitch a ride on a barge to China, where he hoped to find in the post-cultural revolution aftermath, a blank slate to offer his creative politics. But after waiting for three days while stowed away in the hold for the ship to leave Prince Rupert, he gave up.

He ended up in Masset looking for his own watercraft. After buying what Phillips calls “the wrong boat,” he made his way to the rugged west coast equipped with not much more than a tuxedo, white linen and his family’s best silver. His intention was to dreamily fritter away days on a beach at the end of the earth.

When his boat got caught in a tidal rip, he was rescued by a local fisherman and brought back to Masset. Phillips remembers feeling an overwhelming lust for community as he and his broken boat were towed down the inlet toward the townsite and he credits that feeling for holding him there since.

He first stayed at what is now the Copper Beech House in 1971. Back then it was a-dollar-a-night flop house and Sidney Smith, a fellow Phillips describes as “a simple, elegant character” was the proprietor.

After a number of years as a tenant, Phillips bought the house and began extensive renovations, bringing the house into the realm in which it now exists.

Like Phillips, the rooms have striking personalities. The Field General’s Retreat overlooks the floats and the boats and boasts the morning sun. The Florence Chadwick Room is “wagon-lit” according to Phillips, although he won’t say what that means. The name is inspired by found items: a pair of glove molds and passport that Phillips discovered on a street in Toronto. Cloud Nine is a spiritual haven at the top of the stairs where spirits sing you lullabies, he says.

When not looking after guests he spends much of his time “provisioning.” Some would call it shopping, but Phillips travels the islands to seek a special vinegar, a jar of wild huckleberry jam or the fresh fish, crab, prawns, scallops and local venison he loves to serve.

He is a well-connected man. Phillips has been involved in many of the key “happenings” on and off the islands for years.

He organized the Haida party in Washington, D.C., when Bill Reid’s Black Canoe was unveiled at the Canadian Embassy. The sculpture (a copy rests in the international terminal at the Vancouver airport), which is black like the argillite found on Haida Gwaii, was nearly overshadowed by the brilliance of the party Phillips threw.

Very involved in the community, Phillips was also instrumental in seeing the Dixon Entrance Maritime Museum open its doors. This charming museum holds artifacts and historical accounts from the days when clam, crab, salmon and even whale blubber processing plants lined the northern shores.

Less interesting to visitors, but essential to Masset, he has been working on a unique three-way public partnership, which may finally see a decent hospital open its doors in Masset.

Phillips has also cooked up a scheme to bring the United Nations headquarters to Masset, but that is something best left for him to tell you over afternoon tea, or better yet, a late-night aperitif.

One of the things that has kept this creative man so engaged on an archipelago populated by less than 5,000 people has been the Haida.

“I’m fortunate to have very dear Haida friends. People have guided me and kept me focused on what is true and real in the Haida world,” he says.

For more information about the Copper Beech House, call (250) 626-5441 or visit