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Going It Alone


New editions of kayaking pioneer Audrey Sutherland’s classic books provide inspiration for anyone looking to make a solo journey.

“Go simple, go solo, go now.” These are the words that propelled paddling legend Audrey Sutherland throughout 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. I don’t have to rescue anybody else. I go at my own pace,” she says.

Having grown up in California, she moved to Hawaii in 1952, where she worked as a school counselor and raised four children on her own.

In 1962, at the age of  41, she embarked on her first solo adventure — swimming the coast of Molokai, a remote, roadless area in Hawaii with spectacular cliffs, while towing a raft with supplies. Her epic journey of navigating breakers and hiking steep sea cliffs is outlined in Paddling My Own Canoe: A Solo Adventure on the Coast of Moloka’i— part humorous recollection, part guidebook.

Sutherland also shares lovely details about nightly temperatures, what she ate for dinner, and sights and sounds in lively prose and poetry. For example, she writes, “Below the clouds the North Star was clear in the sky, twenty degrees above the horizon. To the west was an intermittent flare of light. I watched until the regular ten-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.

From Kalaupapa

Lighthouse beams its flashing ray

On a far small tent.”

Sutherland’s five decades of paddling adventures stretched beyond Hawaii. In Paddling North: A Solo Adventure Along the Inside Passage, she shares her decision — at age 60 — to undertake a solo, summer-long voyage along Alaska’s Inside Passage 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 unlocking your own courage and building your own skills. Her wilderness sagas are about finding peace within — whether you’re headed for sunny or stormy weather or sleeping at a rustic campsite or in a cozy cabin.

The books are also warnings about 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.

“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,” she notes in Paddling My Own Canoe.

Special editions of both books have been released by Patagonia Books and are illustrated with beautiful block prints made by Japanese artist Yoshiko Yamamoto.

is an Experience Life staff writer.

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