A former Oak Harbor woman recently published a book chronicling the 24 years she lived in the remote Canadian wilderness as the owner of a fishing lodge only accessible by boat.
Caroll Simpson, author of “Alone in the Great Unknown: One Woman’s Remarkable Adventures in the Northwestern Wilderness,” will be speaking at 6-7:30 p.m., Thursday, May 18 at the Coupeville Library.
Now a Vancouver Island resident, Simpson purchased the Oopik Wilderness Lodge on the shores of Babine Lake in 1994 with her husband David, who tragically passed away only 18 months later. Her memoir details her experience living off the grid in British Columbia, 740 miles away from her native Whidbey Island.
Simpson did not have access to a phone and faced many encounters with wild animals, storms and the heavy manual labor of running a fishing lodge by herself. Simpson did things that, in retrospect, she has no idea how she accomplished, such as lifting 185-pound propane tanks into the back of a truck when she only weighed 145.
Simpson said her drive and passion for the wilderness ultimately gave her the strength to carry on after her husband died. After his death, her family encouraged her to return to Oak Harbor.
“It would have been an extremely easy thing to do, but I made this commitment to myself and to David and also to the place,” she said. “It was like an entity that I pledged to. It was like a marriage.”
Living alone gave her time to grieve. She said the flora and fauna healed her.
Simpson had never kept a journal before but decided she had to start writing.
“Being alone, I needed to document my feelings and the magnificent things that I saw,” Simpson said. “And my dogs didn’t care.”
She said that recording the most beautiful things she had ever seen in her life was, in fact, the most challenging thing she went through in all her time at the lodge. Photos couldn’t do the wilderness justice and oftentimes things happened too quickly anyway.
Simpson recounted an experience in which she was outside at midnight watching the moon rise. She said she saw a giant Chinook salmon leap out of an “iridescent green wave with the moon shining through it” and watched it jump into another wave.
Every winter when the lake would freeze over and she could not have guests, Simpson would return to Whidbey Island. She worked at the Safeway in Oak Harbor to help pay for her mortgage. When living on the island, she would teach nine-week classes in the Oak Harbor school district about the art and history of the indigenous people of the Northwest Coast. Simpson has also written and illustrated a series of five children’s books called “Coastal Spirit Tales” about learning life lessons, inspired by the animals and nature of the Pacific Northwest.
While living in the lodge, Simpson helped to conserve the land around the property. She was able to fight against a planned clear-cut of 1,700 hectares close to the shores of Babine Lake. Someone at the District Forest Manager’s office told her it was because there was no land resource management plan for the area. Simpson was elected to represent the tourism industry and worked for seven years to save the trees.
“I made such a screaming hissy fit that they only removed a third of it in pockets,” she said. “So it did save the shoreline.”
For 10 years, Simpson lived at Oopik Lodge completely by herself.
In 2004, she became reacquainted with a hunting guide named Helmut she had met previously. When he asked for Simpson’s phone number, she gave him the coordinates of her lodge and a few days later he showed up at her door. They married the following year. In 2018, they made the difficult decision to sell the lodge when they realized they were getting older and the upkeep of the lodge was beginning to be too much. For the first time in her life, Simpson suffered a deep depression. It lasted for two years.
Revisiting her journals from when she lived at the lodge was the only thing that made her feel better, she said. It took her about three years to turn those thoughts, images and experiences into a book. At least every 10 pages, she would write: “God, I love this place.” She used to stand on her dock at the lodge and yell the same phrase to the wilderness.