From the bookshelf: Feisty rower's tale a charming adventure

Posted: Thursday, April 14, 2005



Bijaboji: North to Alaska by Oar

By Betty Lowman Carey

Published by Harbour Publishing

304 pages


$34.95 (hardcover)

In the spring of 1937, the economy was in the doldrums, Europe was descending into turmoil and Amelia Earhart set out to fly around the world. In such times, young people got strange ideas.

Betty Annette Lowman, for example. Traveling mostly alone, she rowed 1,300 miles along the Pacific Northwest coast in two months.

Later she told a newspaper, "I had no lofty ambition in making the trip, only a youthful zest for 'roughing it.'"

At last the retired journalist and mariner has published the chronicle of her grand summer adventure. Her exuberant memoir "Bijaboji" combines outdoor adventure with regional history.

The Anacortes, Wash., girl had spent her life around the sea and boats. She especially enjoyed boating, swimming and camping along the wild coast. But even her fishing family was stunned when, fresh out of college, she announced plans to row her canoe, "Bijaboji," from Anacortes to Ketchikan. They forbade her to go, but she chose to defy their advice.

"I firmly believed that the hazards of navigating the Inside Passage in Bijaboji, were negligible," she writes. "I was strong, and I knew full well what it is to live by the tides and wind; to be lost in fogs, to be caught in countercurrents or perilous tide rips, and of the rapidity with which sunny days can curdle, and serene, friendly seas can change to treacherous enemies."

Bijaboji was her constant companion. The canoe's odd name honored her four brothers: Bill, Jack, Bob and Jimmy.

The little boat had an air of mystery. Coast Guard patrollers found it floating empty in Puget Sound. They identified the cedar dugout as a classic Native construction. But despite more than a year of inquiries, they never located its owner. Betty's father, Ray Lowman, talked the Coast Guard into giving it to him, and he bestowed it on his only daughter as a gift for her 18th birthday.

Most of the book takes place along the coast of British Columbia, as Betty and Bijaboji work their way north through the maze of islands and inlets.

The author had planned to roll out her sleeping bag on the narrow beaches. But the people she met were so hospitable to a soggy and sunburned stranger that she passed more of her nights bunked on ships and in cabins. Indeed she found herself the subject of an embarrassing notoriety as "the coed canoeist," tracked through the local newspapers and ship-to-shore radio chatter.

Carey's portrayal of life in that time and place is one of the book's great strengths and charms. She was an observant lass who, despite her references to feeling socially awkward at times, seems to have had a knack for putting people at ease. She describes resorts, fish canneries, Native villages and logging camps and takes us along as her hosts show her a mission hospital, pulp mill and even let her dynamite a log jam. She pays memorable homage to the kind and colorful folks from every walk of life who helped her on her way.

Despite the socializing and side excursions, the trip included long stretches of solo travel. Sometimes loneliness and fatigue weighed heavy on Betty, but often she relished the wild solitude. She writes rhapsodically of soaring eagles, scenic horizons and nights of moonlight and phosphorescent waves.

"I had found a gentle, reassuring peace that civilization and college did not afford me," she reflects.

Despite such idylls, the trip was not all smooth sailing. Although Carey's story conspicuously lacks villains, she faced plenty of scary situations and fretted over rumors that her irate father had asked authorities to arrest her for her own safety. The trip became more difficult as it progressed, and by the book's end it is obvious that Betty bit off more than she expected. In the end, she succeeded in reaching Alaska and the arms of her relieved father.

Carey is kind enough to provide us with a final chapter that outlines, with brevity, her subsequent adventures and the happy fate of Bijaboji.

Black-and-white photos, some from historic archives and others from Carey's own collection, complement the text perfectly. We see not only the boats and towns she encountered, but the rower herself — a strapping young woman with broad shoulders, bobbed hair and an honest smile.

Maps showing her progress in each chapter are invaluable in keeping readers oriented.

As a memoir, "Bijaboji" succeeds with a tale both intrinsically interesting and well told. It starts slowly, yet draws the reader in as the miles and pages flow by. In a few places, more explanation would help readers keep track of the vast cast of Canadians, and one reference to an escaped convict begs for elaboration. But for the most part, Lowman is a skilled writer whose prose conveys her curiosity, youthful enthusiasm and love of the land, sea and ship.

"Bijaboji" is a sweet and rousing tale of a tomboy determined to prove that a girl could pull off a feat. For anyone interested in canoeing, the British Columbia coast or just a good, old-fashioned adventure with a feminine angle, this book is a winner.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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