Go simple, go solo, go now.” These are the words that propelled paddling legend Audrey Sutherland through numerous kayaking adventures during her 94 years of life. “I think I am safer going alone, because I know what I can do and I don’t exceed it,” she says. “I don’t have to rescue anybody else. I go at my own pace.”
Sutherland grew up in California, where she spent a lot of time outdoors with her father, a teacher and newspaper editor. “When I arrived as daughter number six, he took me along in humorous desperation to gardens and fields and mountains where he had thought to take a son,” she notes.
While studying at the University of California, Los Angeles, she learned to swim, calling it “the most useful subject learned there.” “Water became my element,” she writes. “I delight in its color, its texture, the three-dimensional freedom of movement, there where buoyancy balances body weight.”
Later she married a seagoing man who taught her to tie knots and sail. The couple settled in San Pedro, Calif., and eked out a living by fishing for albacore, halibut, abalone, and lobster before moving to Hawaii in 1952. When her husband returned to California, Sutherland remained in Hawaii and worked as a school counselor while raising their four children on her own.
Charting Her Own Course
Sutherland finally put all her seafaring skills to use in 1962, when at 41 years old, she embarked on her first solo adventure — swimming around Moloka’i, a remote Hawaiian island, while towing a raft with supplies. She describes navigating breakers and hiking steep sea cliffs in Paddling My Own Canoe: A Solo Adventure on the Coast of Moloka’i — part humorous recollection, part guidebook.
In lively prose and poetry, Sutherland also shares lovely details about nightly temperatures, daily meals, and the island’s sights and sounds.
“Below the clouds the North Star was clear in the sky, 20 degrees above the horizon,” she writes. “To the west was an intermittent flare of light. I watched until the regular 10-second interval became apparent and then I knew what it was. The Japanese poetry form of haiku came to mind with its own formal rules and delicate charm. Three lines: five syllables in the first line, then seven, then five. I juggled phrases.
Lighthouse beams its flashing ray
On a far small tent.”
Exploring New Frontiers
Sutherland’s paddling adventures spanned five decades and stretched far beyond Hawaii. In Paddling North: A Solo Adventure Along the Inside Passage, she shares her decision — at age 60 — to undertake a summer-long voyage on Alaska’s spectacular coastal waterway in one of the inflatable boats she preferred. (She made the journey at least 20 more times over the next 34 years.)
“I didn’t need to get ‘away.’ I needed to get ‘to,’” she writes. “To simplicity. I wanted to be lean and hard and sun-browned and kind. Instead I felt fat and soft and white and mean. Years of a desk job in bureaucracy can do that even if you like the job.”
The epic free spirit, who died in 2015, believed that security came not from money but from building one’s own skills and unlocking one’s own courage. Her wilderness sagas are about finding peace within — whether a person is headed for sunny or stormy weather or sleeping at a rustic campsite or in a cozy cabin.
“Part of the idiot fun of these expeditions has been the reverse twist, creating sybaritic luxuries where all should be hardship, and transferring the gusto of a gourmet kitchen into meals that weigh an average of 12 ounces per day,” she writes. (See a couple of Sutherland’s recipes below.)
Along with prepared rations from home, she added freshness to meals with wild-caught fish and foraged berries and plants. Wine — which she stored in 35-mm film cans — was always included in her cache “to provide an epicurean touch” to her meals. “What I really need is for some scientist to develop a dehydrated or freeze-dried wine,” she adds.
Sutherland’s memoirs also emphasize the importance of leaving no trace and maintaining nature’s delicate balance:
“Wolf tracks were on the sand beach to the north of the cabin. She (all animals are she, in deference to the female of the species, unless proven otherwise) had been there since the dawn high tide. I wondered if she was hungry, if she had cubs, and if I could leave food for her. But if you make friends with a wild animal for your own pleasure and get her accustomed to man, then surely someone will shoot her for his pleasure. As a man in Wrangell later said, ‘They get too many of our deer.’ Whose deer?”
Finally, Sutherland’s words are reminders, in a world of continued commercial development and fast-paced technology, of the need to protect wild places.
As she notes in Paddling My Own Canoe, “There should be some areas everywhere in the world where motorized access is forbidden, places you get to only through the natural, quiet energy of wind and muscle.”