in a row

🕔Sep 07, 2005

Imagine the sensation of sitting in a small dugout canoe, rowing across an open expanse of water on the edge of the Pacific Ocean.

Now, add to the fact that the trip took place almost 70 years ago—without any navigational equipment—by a lone woman.

Behind the oars of this epic 650-mile journey was Betty Lowman Carey, then 22.

About to celebrate her 91st birthday in July, this resident of Haida Gwaii can now share her expedition through British Columbia’s Inside Passage with the world, in the form of her new book, Bijaboji, North to Alaska by Oar.

Bijaboji was published by Harbour Publishing in October of 2004, and was on the B.C. Bestsellers List for several weeks. In the Books section of The Vancouver Sun, the book was listed as number 4 in January.

It is an absorbing day-by-day account of the trip in her native-built canoe, found drifting in Juan de Fuca Strait and named after the first two letters of her four brothers: Bill, Jack, Bob, and Jimmy.

Carey undertook her expedition in 1937, the same year that Amelia Earhart was attempting to circumnavigate the globe by airplane.

The story reads like a classic adventure novel, with inspired images that detail the milieu and the characters.

Rowing in the dark, she writes, “Along the far shores of Texada Island, the running lights of trolling boats and tugs bobbed like a string of Japanese lanterns at a merry garden party.”

The sense of isolation is portrayed often in her book. At the northern tip of Malcolm Island she was fogbound near Pulteney Point lighthouse, and spent the night disturbed by the noise of the foghorn.

Carey navigated her voyage with a 1930 edition of British Columbia Coast Pilot, but with no watch or compass.

Physical strength and mental resourcefulness were her tools to survive miles of the British Columbia coast only roughly indicated on the charts.

“My heart and mind were exhilarated with the excitement and pleasure of this life-or-death challenge,” she writes.

The book is liberally spiced with humour. In a struggle with a just-caught ling cod, a treble hook lodged in her leg, whereupon Carey observed that she could just see the headlines in a newspaper, “Fish catches girl on Heddon plug.”

Personal touches also colour her narrative: she took a swim and wash in the mornings, and kept a toothbrush handy to use seawater as a mouthwash.

Carey faced many challenges: an infection from a tick, continual sunburn, and difficult navigational situations.

Approaching the Yuculta Rapids between Sonora and Stuart Islands, she writes that “I had heard plenty about the damage they [the rapids] could do to boats and logs—even swallowing them, and moments later spitting out the remains some distance away.”

Later, while rowing into Klemtu at night, she didn’t find Jackson Passage on any of her maps. She had to light a lantern to find the channel, and then faced a freighter and a passenger/mail steamer both in the water near her.

A few days into her trip, she learned that her father, who did not approve of the project, notified the U.S. Coast Guard to pick her up.

Carey then dodged official-looking boats until she discovered that there was no Canadian Coast Guard. She connected with many people on the coast: fishermen, loggers, and lighthouse keepers, and crews of purse seiners, gillnetters, trollers, and dories. She met some more than once, and often carried greetings from one place to the other.

She marvelled at their lives in the harsh and isolated coastal region, and at many of her stops was surprised to find that she was expected, that word of her trip was spreading up the coast.

The disappearance of Amelia Earhart in that summer of 1937 shadowed Betty’s journey. When she heard that Amelia was finally declared lost, Carey found herself drawing close parallels to her own situation.

Her thoughts nearly became prophetic while trapped on a rock ledge near the remote Foch Lagoon off Douglas Channel. Her canoe was swamped while heading into the mouth of the lagoon, and she lost all her gear except a sleeping bag. She was stranded for three days and two nights.

Carey only wanted to test herself, to be free, and to write about her experiences. She succeeded beyond her wildest dreams in all of these things; Bijaboji is the chronicle of her triumph.

Rowing then and now

By Pat Carrie Smith

When asked about her 58-day trip rowing British Columbia’s Inside Passage in a 20-foot dory that she had built, Dale McKinnon answered quickly, “It was spiritual, and emotional. The aftermath was shock. It was nice not seeing anyone for three days.”

McKinnon, 58, of Fairhaven, Washington, made the voyage in the summer of 2004, following nearly the same route as that of Betty Carey in 1937, whose voyage was recently chronicled in her book, Bijaboji.

McKinnon and Carey met in Fairhaven in late fall 2004 to share their stories, and McKinnon now plans a second Inside Passage rowing expedition this June, from Ketchikan to Skagway, Alaska.

The two women’s accounts of rowing through the Inside Passage are uncannily similar—from their observations of the navigational challenges to the serious confrontational situation that each experienced in nearly the same place.

Carey was swamped and stranded on a rock ledge during a storm while heading to a lagoon off Douglas Channel. McKinnon also faced serious problems during bad weather and tidal conditions while navigating near Douglas Channel.

Both women noted the singular beauty of the landscape, and felt a keen connection with their surroundings.

Carey observed the tight network that exists among the scattered residents of the coast, and McKinnon also said that she found the entire coast of B.C. to be one huge neighbourhood connected by the ferry and VHF radio. McKinnon was also amazed to find people who actually remembered the other woman “who rowed through here a long time ago in a dugout canoe.”

The 67-year time disparity explains some notable differences in the two accounts. McKinnon used a GPS, while Carey had no navigational equipment.

The Inside Passage is not as well populated today: McKinnon says that in Swanson’s Bay, where in the early 20th century a sawmill and pulp mill existed, there is nothing left now but a smoke stack that has been reclaimed by the forest.

Carey was elated and excited when she completed her journey, but McKinnon said as she rowed back into the more populated waters around Vancouver Island, “I was saddened when arriving in Port Hardy. There were more boats, more fumes, etc.”

Both women were profoundly changed by the solitary adventure at sea. McKinnon observed, “I lost my cynicism. The row changed my life.”