The Wild Rover - Rowing the Inside Passage to Alaska

The Wild Rover - Rowing the Inside Passage to Alaska

I met Genevieve at the “edge of the world”, in Haida Gwaii, as she was getting ready to build and row a boat from Vancouver Island to Haines, Alaska. Actually, I heard so many cool stories about this gal before I met her. Friends found out about my fire tower gig and the first thing they said was, “Have you met Genevieve? She works as a lighthouse keeper.” After a trip to Ireland, Gen came back to the island, and our paths finally crossed. It was worth the wait: Gen is a one-of-a-kind adventurer and story teller. Not only does she work lighthouses on the northern coast, but she also worked a season at a fire tower lookout in Yukon. I remember her telling me she had a bicycle there, so after her shift, she’d jump on the bike and pedal furiously to reach a nearby camp. It’s all about the people with Gen. Her adventurous spirit is infectious. We met through a pack of badass surf women in Masset. She showed up for dinner laughing about the wet suit burn under her armpits. “Oh well,” she said, “I'll probably head back out there tomorrow.” And that's where we met for the second time, awkwardly pulling on our wetsuits. Gen’s was torn, so I helped her hold the material as she stitched up the tear with dental floss. We were laughing the whole time. When I found out she was about to row her way up the coast, I was so intrigued. What possesses a gal to embark on a solo row trip for three months?

Over two weeks ago, Genevieve and her pup, Reg, set out to row from Salt Spring Island to Haines, Alaska along the Inside Passage, a network of passages though the pacific coast islands, stretching from northern Washington to Alaska. Over the next few months, Genevieve and Reg will be making their way along the Pacific Coast, drinking down stunning views of the land and sea, riding out unpredictable weather and challenges, and no doubt, crossing paths with some pretty amazing people along the way.

Last week, I caught up with Gen as she reached Jedidiah Island. The communication gods were on our side that evening, me calling from a remote fire tower, her answering from an uninhabited island (save for the feral goats).

Once again, I clung onto her every word, living vicariously through her stories.

Row on, read on...

Where are you? And what are you doing right now?

Gen: I’m just setting up camp and making some noodles over the campfire. I rowed about ten miles to Jedidiah Marine Park today, which is in between Texada Island and Lasqueti Island. I’m camping beside an old abandoned homestead. There’s goats here. It’s crazy. I have no idea where they get water. I can hear them off in the distance. Someone did warn me that there’s feral goats here. Tomorrow, I’m heading to Texada, then I’ll cross over to Powell River. I’ll have to weave through the islands, then get up north of Vancouver Island. The goal is to row to Haines, Alaska over the next few months.

Tell me how this journey got started…

Gen: I started out from Salt Spring Island about ten days ago. My sister lives there and she wanted to see me off on the trip. She was my send-off party. Honestly, the paint wasn’t even dry on the boat when I left Haida Gwaii. It wasn’t quite ready to go yet. But I had the ferry ticket and was like, ‘fuck it, I’ll go south’, even though I was still tinkering with the boat.

Gen's official send-off from Salt Spring Island.

Gen's official send-off from Salt Spring Island.

You built the row boat on Haida Gwaii. Does it have a name and personality?

Gen: It sure does. I’ve named the boat “Wild Rover” after the Irish folk song. It’s a song about a guy who goes off and wastes all his money on booze, then comes back and says he’s not going to do it again, but then he goes off and does it again. It’s a really good, old Irish tune. Earlier this year, I was in Ireland for month. “Rover” is also a double entendre because I’ve got my dog with me, and also “Rowing”. I was going to spell it “Rowver” but I thought that was too much.

I built the boat on Old Massett. I bought the materials and plan from a fellow down in Victoria. It was a great project. I’ve got it all dialed in now. It took me a couple weeks to really get it dialed in, but everything is working for now. Although, I’m still at that early stage of the trip where you’re constantly unpacking and reorganizing everything. I practically have yard sales on the beach. Oh, and then I’m losing things. Today, I was like “where the fuck is my wrench?!” [Laughs]. But I’ve almost got it figured out now, and everything has a spot.

The Wild Rover and rover. (Photo by Genevieve Gay)

The Wild Rover and rover. (Photo by Genevieve Gay)

What’s it like to be out there? What are you loving so far?

Gen: Every day is completely unpredictable. Anything I think I’m going to do that day doesn’t happen. Today, for example, I thought I’d go to Lasqueti, but I thought, ‘no, I’ve got to make some miles today’. The wind was kinda shitty. It was totally at my back, which everyone thinks is great – except that I’m rowing. It was such a slog, so I stopped by Lasqueti for a quick rest. There was a man at the dock, it was almost as if he was waiting for me. I literally pulled in, he grabbed my boat, and asked “Do you want to come up and see the cabin?” And I’m like, “Why not?” It was the most spectacular architecture. The owner made it all from driftwood and cement. He was a genius at free form carpentry, I’d never seen anything like it. He’d been living on Lasqueti for thirty years. He gave me a bag of cherries. It was so random and awesome.

It wouldn’t have happened, had I stuck to my original plan. Every day out here is unpredictable. I never know who I’m going to meet.


You brought your dog, Reg, along for the ride to Alaska. How’s he doing so far?

Gen: Well, Reg doesn’t love water. He’s begrudgingly gotten in the boat most days. But yesterday, he would not get in the boat. Any other time, it wouldn’t matter. I’d just read a book and wait, but this was defiance: he was running away. The crashing waves were coming in, the winds had turned, and the boat was getting rocked. I had to go. I was like “Get in the boat!” He wouldn’t, so I took off rowing. He was chasing me along the beach, crying the whole way, so I kept rowing over to the shore, but then he’d run off again. He was so distressed that he finally jumped into the ocean, right into a pile of seals – like twenty seals – and he swam over to small island, where I picked him up.

Dog protest at Ballenas Island. (Photo by Genevieve Gay)

Dog protest at Ballenas Island. (Photo by Genevieve Gay)

What are some of the other challenges you’ve faced so far?

Gen: Challenges…hmm…[laughs]. You know, one of the challenges down south was access. In Sidney, near the BC Ferries, I could literally not find a spot to put my boat in the water because it’s so gentrified there. That was really weird, almost like culture shock. I kept going north, looking for a spot. But it’s all privately owned, there was nowhere to launch because everyone owns their little paradise on the water. Now that I’ve left that realm, it’s been easy to find camping spots anywhere.

Has anything funny, or out of the ordinary happened?

Gen :I’ve got a good one for ya about the ‘unofficial’ start to my trip in Salt Spring. I was doing a test row, though essentially leaving on my trip. I brought the dog with me to see how he would do because I still wasn’t 100% sure I’d bring him. This was Reg’s maiden voyage in the boat and he was pretty freaked out, so I pulled over to a beach. He jumped out and refused to get back in the boat.

Then, a man walks up to the beach with his dog. He asked, “Hey, do you want me to grab your dog for you?” and I say yes. But just before he grabs Reg, he whips off all of his clothes. He’s like a seventy-year-old man. He’s butt naked, grabs the dog, and walks him over to me. Then, we proceed to have a 45-minute conversation about my boat, how I built it, and – keep in mind – this whole time, he’s standing knee-deep, butt naked in the water. He picks up on the name of the boat – Wild Rover. Meanwhile, this other guy shows up, takes off all his clothes and jumps in. It’s like, total Salt Spring hippie moment!

I finally get Reg in the boat, thank the man, and start rowing away.

The man holds up his hands together in prayer position, and he starts singing the Wild Rover song to me. It was such a scene. The sun was beaming down on him and he looked like a naked angel.

“Have the greatest time on your trip!” he yelled. I had such a good laugh about that. Now that’s a send-off. I thought, ‘okay, I guess this means I’m on the trip now!’

Gen and Reg sailing into Nanaimo. (Photo by Genevieve Gay)

Gen and Reg sailing into Nanaimo. (Photo by Genevieve Gay)

So why are you rowing to Alaska? What’s motivated you to go on this journey?

Gen: That exact reason. The stories that come out of it, the people that you meet.

It’s not because I want to be alone in the wilderness, that’s never been the point. Actually, I’m doing this for the social aspect.

In any other situation of your life, you’re not going to meet people and have these interactions. It’s truly about meeting people and seeing them in their natural habitats, catching them in their daily routines. And just working up a good appetite doing it, you know?

You’re meeting so many people, but what happens as you travel further north?

Gen: Yeah, past Port Hardy, that’s when it will get more isolated. It could be two to three weeks of rowing and camping without having towns to stop in to resupply. I have to plan a little more carefully after Powell River. I have a radio, which is the best way to get a hold of people in the marine world. There are repeaters all up and down the coast. It’s a good system to have. You can talk to mariners up and down the coast, so I don’t feel unsafe.

Actually, I have the luxury of knowing a couple of lighthouse stations up north, where I’ve worked in the past. I know the lighthouse keepers, so I’ll stop in for a shower and place to regroup. I’ve arranged to have food and supplies dropped off there for me, which is awesome. There’s a lot of surprise places along the way to stay. I bet I won’t be isolated as I imagined.

Sunset on Valdes Island. (Photo by Genevieve Gay)

Sunset on Valdes Island. (Photo by Genevieve Gay)

Is there anything waiting for you in Alaska?

Gen: Spruce tip ale. It’s so good. The goal was to make it to Haines, Alaska. At the pace I’m going right now, and getting waylaid in different places, meeting people, I’m not sure I’ll make it to Haines before September. But regardless, if I row there or not, or jump on a ferry, I’m going there. I’m going to have that damn beer. I’m so pumped about that.

You should write a book about this…

Gen: I know, right? Every day there’s something. Seriously. Every day there’s some event that happens. There’s never a mundane day. I’m trying to keep a journal, but I’m already eight days behind. I’ve been waylaid in beautiful places with amazing people.

There are just so many gems along the way.

Safe travels, Genevieve and Reg!


The Coyote

The Coyote

Travelling near and far

Travelling near and far