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Times Colonist feature article on Bijaboji

Pat Burkette
Special to Times Colonist
October 24, 2004

In the summer of 1937, ships and planes searched for aviatrix Amelia Earhart, lost in the Pacific while attempting the first round-the-world flight by a woman. But along B.C.'s Inside Passage, West Coasters kept a sharp lookout for the girl in the red canoe.

The girl, who had dipped her oars in the waters off Guemes Island, Wash., on June 18, with the intent of rowing to Ketchikan, Alaska, was 22-year-old Anacortes resident Beatrice Annette Lowman, called Betty for short.

The red canoe was Bijaboji (pronounced beejabogee), a cedar dugout. Betty's father, Ray Lowman, gave it to her on her 18th birthday, saying "Now it is yours, and it is a masterpiece of workmanship. It is like a Grand Banks dory, perfect for survival on the open sea. Be sure that your seamanship takes nothing away from the seaworthiness of this native canoe."

Betty, the Lowman's eldest child, named the canoe using the first two letters of her brothers' names -- Bill, Jack, Bob and Jimmy. The newly released book Bijaboji, North to Alaska by Oar (Harbour Publishing, $34.95) tells the page-turning story of Lowman's 1937 journey.

Betty Lowman has been Betty Lowman Carey for 62 years. She lives in Sandspit with her husband, Neil Carey. Over the phone, 82-year-old Neil explains that Betty was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease a couple of years ago, and it affects some of her memory, so he'll do the talking for both of them.

As editor of Bijaboji, Neil put together Betty's writings about her trip, including published articles and columns. Betty graduated from the University of Washington with a journalism degree, and worked as a newspaper reporter and magazine feature writer. Why did they wait so long?

"I met Betty in 1940, and all this time, she's kept saying I'm going to write a book about that trip," says Neil. "But every day of life was so much pleasure we didn't get down to it. With Betty turning 90 the last day of July this year, I thought, by golly we better do it."

Betty might have put off the book about the trip, but the trip itself was something she felt she had to complete. Ray Lowman forbade Betty's journey, saying it was too dangerous.

"Seventy years ago, there was a limit to what girls could do," explains Neil.

Betty invited a university friend, Florence Steele, to come along once her father had left for the Alaskan canneries in his boat, Una Mae. Flo, worried about the smallpox epidemic that had devastated the coast decades before, got a vaccination. By the time they reached Garden Bay in Pender Harbour, with Betty doing all the rowing, Flo, ill from the shot, decided to go back home. Betty was then about 240 kilometres from home with 1,100 or more kilometres to go. Alone at sea, she was in her element, rowing day and night, working tides and weather, singing ditties like Greig's My Mind is Like a Peak Snow-Crowned, and sleeping in the rough on bits of beach or a pile of drift logs.

"There were millions of stars overhead and a familiar constellation or two," she writes of a night row to Cortes Island. "I was alone, ecstatic, free of self-consciousness about my muscular 160 pounds, free of know-it-alls trying to tell me what equipment I would have bought for the trip if I weren't crazy. If I weren't so broke and loving it!" Betty's sparse gear included sleeping bag, cooking kit, horsehide gloves to prevent blisters, hunting knife and waterproof container of matches. She had no compass, watch or money.

She quickly found her niche in a water world "where material possessions counted for nothing if you did not have brains, strength and ability." Not to mention determination.

"Every other white person I knew of who had gone north in a hand-propelled craft had taken a steamer across the strait from Alert Bay," she writes of her intention to row across wind-swept Queen Charlotte Strait. "Afterward, all said they could have rowed or paddled across. I wanted to do it. Not to wish I had."

In isolated homesteads and settlements along the coast, she met like-minded pioneering people, who recognized her as one of their own.

Betty was fed the favoured breakfast of bacon and eggs, sent on her way with huge sack lunches, offered baths, given bunks in tugboats, fishing trollers and cabins, and taken on side-trips.

Bijaboji is a trip through B.C.'s history. Some of the places Betty visited have gone, and some remain. Early in the journey, Betty and Flo landed on a beach on Saltspring Island. They were welcomed into a nearby farmhouse by a "smiling, hunched-over Scots lady" who served hot tea steeped over coals scraped onto the hearth.

"The lady would have been Aunty Madge," says Saltspring's Dan Caldwell instantly. His family still owns Walker's Hook, where the beach is located. Old apple and plum trees still stand, but only a few remnants of that farmhouse remain. "Her name was Margaret Sinclair Caldwell, and she was actually Irish, but she was a Glasgow-trained nurse," says Caldwell. "She died in 1940, when she was 80. She was a midwife and set off walking through the woods to attend a birth. She never made it."

But Betty's tales of thriving coastal resource-based industry, the canneries, logging camps and trollers along the Inside Passage, speak of bygone times.

And could anything have changed as much from then to now as communications? Betty called home by mail or telegraph. News came by newspaper or radio. At Sointula, Betty, herself by then the topic of newspaper articles and radio reports, listened to a broadcast about the search for a missing Amelia Earhart.

A fisherman admonished Betty. "No woman is worth it. You better hitch a ride across the strait with us or there'll be planes and cutters out looking for another dizzy dame."
"I did not know the famous aviatrix," writes Betty of her role model, "but felt a kinship, plus respect and admiration." Neither of the so-called "dizzy dames" -- Earhart, who was not to celebrate her 40th birthday July 24, and Betty, who turned 23 rowing Bijaboji on July 31, fit the 1930s feminine mould.

When a watchman tells Betty "A woman is a success when she has been loved, envied and hated," she replies, "That puts me on the failure track. Few men or women would bother to hate me because the things I enjoy and do are not explicitly feminine. None would envy me because I do not excel at the things a girl is expected to excel at and, so far as love goes, I am two weeks over 23 years old and have never been kissed in the moonlight."

Earhart, asked by the French press "Can she bake a cake?" after receiving flying awards, said, "So I accept these awards on behalf of the cake bakers and all of those other women who can do some things quite as important, if not more important than flying, as well as in the name of women flying today." Both Betty and Earhart found supportive husbands who put together books about their lives. George Palmer Putnam published Amelia's letters to him, as Last Flight.

Betty said she was not "out for a stunt." Her journey was about meeting an individual mental and physical challenge, which is at the core of all adventures. The challenge became huge when Betty swamped in Douglas Channel, losing everything but her canoe and her life.

After rescue, naysayers said Betty was crazy to go on. "I rushed out of the cabin to get hold of myself," she writes, "saying over and over in my mind that I would rather drown than arrive in Ketchikan aboard a powerboat. I'd drown myself before I'd let anybody say, 'I told you, a girl couldn't do it."

But a girl did do it. Betty Lowman rowed into Ketchikan on Aug. 19, 1937, delighting a proud father. With side trips, she'd covered 2,092 kilometres, twice what she'd planned.
The trip changed her life, making her a celebrity. She became a much-in-demand public speaker, travelling all over North America. Betty was 27 when she met Neil Carey, then 19 and in the U.S. Navy. She became a navy wife a year later, and the couple raised two sons, George and Gene.

If adventurous female achievement is inspirational, a torch passed from Amelia Earhart to Betty Carey also lit a fire in George, father of two girls. He realized girls were short-changed in physical education in school and started the Volleyball Club in California, which now has 10,000 girls aged 12 to 18 playing volleyball.

"Most," says Neil, "get offered college volleyball scholarships." Neil and Betty retired to the Queen Charlottes. "The isolation and beauty of the place was what attracted us. We've got enough in our heads to keep us busy. We wanted a nice quiet relaxed life."

And Bijaboji? In 1963, when Betty was 49, she rowed from Ketchikan to Anacortes, sometimes covering 40 miles a day. She took short trips in her canoe until 1999, when the manager of the Sandspit Airport asked if Bijaboji could be displayed in the air terminal for a couple of weeks. The dugout, which Betty calls "the world's best and most beautiful sea-going vessel," is still there.

Pat Burkette lives on Saltspring Island.