The Legendary Betty Frank: The Cariboo's Alpine Queen by Betty Frank and Sage Birchwater
Reviewed by Judy Campbell
As a young girl, Betty Cox (Frank) had some very non-traditional ideas of what she wanted to be when she grew up. She dreamed of riding horses, mushing dogs, and guiding hunters in the northern wilderness. This autobiographic tale captures the life of a woman who successfully flaunted authority and overturned gender stereotypes while living a life of adventure that would give Indiana Jones heart failure.
Betty was born in 1931 to Dutch immigrant parents in the Peace River Country of northern Alberta. Driven off the farm by hard times, the family joined the hundreds on the move, taking whatever work, legal or illegal, that could be found. They finally come to rest on a small island north of Powell River, home base while Betty’s father fished and logged up and down the coast.
Here Betty, the oldest of five children, honed the skills she would need to achieve her ambitions. Her father gave her a .22 rifle when she was just ten, and she soon learned to hunt. She played on the shifting log booms, camped out on their island, and rowed small boats through dangerous tides. She learned to be resourceful and self-reliant, surviving tuberculosis and gangrene and even protecting the neighbour’s children and goats from a roving cougar.
But young Betty was a “holy terror” (21) at school. She was a charismatic troublemaker who led other students on rebellious forays into the woods, physically challenged every new student, and drove her teachers to distraction.
Ironically, she became a schoolteacher, one of the few acceptable routes available for a single woman to get a foothold in the north. After teaching in several northern communities, she took a post in Alkali Lake west of Williams Lake. Here, she learned to ride, operated a guest ranch, and eventually started working on her real dream – to become a big game guide and outfitter. The gutsy Betty thought nothing of learning a new trade on the fly, by trial and error, or more correctly in this wilderness setting, by the “do or die” method. She fell through the ice on Quesnel Lake with her entire dog team, fended off bears in her remote trapping cabin, and packed moose carcasses down mountains in the dead of night.
It was also here in the Cariboo that she met her future husband and father of her five children, Gordon Frank. It is at this stage of her narrative that the uniqueness of Betty's story becomes even more apparent. She did not become a wife, supporting her husband’s ambitions. In Betty’s life, her ideas and dreams always shaped the family’s future. Her guiding and trapping income was supplement by Gordon’s logging, but neither economic nor family stresses could keep Betty out of the mountains.
These are very much Betty’s stories, told in her own voice. Sage Birchwater, who is noted for his sensitive portrayal of the life of the Tsilhqot’in woman, Chiwid, manages to organize the convoluted narrative threads of “the only person … who can tell five different stories at the same time” (11) into a coherent whole. The book bumps along in approximate chronological order through the various phases of Betty’s life, one hair-raising adventure after another.
This is Cariboo history at its grittiest, an unfiltered look into a lifestyle that is now all but lost even in Betty’s remote mountains. It is a chronicle of rural people living at the margins of mainstream British Columbia society with few resources except what they can glean from the land. To survive, they hunt, fish, cut shakes, and trap. They rely on horses, dogs, beat-up vehicles and each other. The book documents their lives with a level of detail found in few other sources, and this is perhaps its greatest value. The stories, often hilarious, sometimes scary, and occasionally sad, paint a picture of a life lived to the fullest, and of childhood dreams realized beyond expectations.
The Legendary Betty Frank: the Cariboo’s Alpine Queen
by Betty Frank and Sage Birchwater
Halfmoon Bay: Caitlin Press, 2011 - 272pp, $24.95
BC Studies, no. 175, Autumn 2012.