Paddling My Own Canoe

A peek into the life of an extraordinary adventurer

By Haven Livingston

Paddling My Own Canoe

Sutherland rests on the beach on one of her Alaska trips (Audrey Sutherland Collection).

IN A TIME WHEN PEOPLE HAVE TRADED backpacks for glamping trailers, binoculars for cell phones and true grit for social media opportunities, we need Audrey Sutherland’s motto more than ever: “Go simple, go solo, go now.”

TPhe absorbing and joyful story told by Sutherland in her book, Paddling My Own Canoe, tells of her solo explorations of the Molokaʻi north coast. It is a reminder that adventures of the truest sense occur when we follow our heart, not our ego, through whatever fears we face in an effort to find the simple joy that resides deep inside us. That sometimes we have to bear down, and persevere until we are black and blue, dead tired and figure things out alone, before we can find the best and happiest version of ourselves.

“In five years the three trips had taught me how difficult it could be, but I still wanted to go back. It wasn’t because of the ‘challenge.’ I didn’t feel daring and I didn’t think my character needed to be improved by conquering something, but now I knew the magnificence of the place, strong and fulfilling.”

Sutherland passed away in February 2015 at the age of 94. Patagonia recently released a redesigned edition of her out-of-print book with the original great story that was published 40 years ago with new images by block printer Yoshiko Yamimoto.

Sutherland’s curiosity began with her nose to the window of an airplane; peering down on a dreamscape coast of tiny coves sealed off by towering mountainside cliffs. She poured herself into researching a way to explore it, come hell or highwater. She found both.

In 1962 Sutherland’s first of many ventures started along the 12 miles of isolated and spectacular north coast of the Hawaiian island of Molokaʻi. First, she swam around the 3,000-foot cliffs with “finsmaskandsnorkle” while towing a leaky rubber bag of supplies. Near disastrous results in the unpredictable seas sent her back to the planning stages but her spirit was piqued. “Now I knew what was there, but I had still barely touched that lonely coast.”

After a couple of swimming trips, she caved and mail-ordered a six-foot long inflatable kayak. In the kayak she had to relearn how to navigate the ocean. No longer could she stare at the fish as she swam nor dive through waves when it got stormy. She had to learn to travel on top of the water, dealing with wind and a vessel that could capsize. Ultimately the kayak became her transportation of choice and with good humored practice, she mastered it. When unrelenting storms tossed her in the sea or kept her wet for days at a time she cheered herself on with mantra of “the little engine that could.” Each small achievement grew her power of self-confidence. Year after year she returned to what had become her sacred coast.

“And now, this second night out, hunkered there by the flames, sipping tea with rum, feeling its warmth inside, the fire’s warmth on my face and shins, and the wind’s chill on my bare back, I felt again the surge of pure primitive joy and power that comes with being alone and wary and confident.”

Paddling My Own Canoe

Sutherland in front of the USFS cabin located in Shipley Bay on northeast Prince of Wales Island, Alaska (Michelle Masden).

Instead of helicopter parenting, Sutherland received as a child and in turn gave to her four children, a rearing of independence and self-entertainment. It seems to be something we have nearly lost in present day; childhoods of romping through forests making up games or playing on the beach without a hovering parent telling us constantly to ‘be careful.’

“… rarely are we deeply challenged physically or alone. We rely on friends, on family, on a committee, on community agencies outside ourselves. To have actual survival, living or dying, depending on our own ingenuity, skill, or stamina — this is a core question we seldom face. We rarely find out if we like having only our own mind as company for days or weeks at a time. How many people have ever been totally isolated, ten miles from the nearest other human, even for two days?”

Adventure has come to mean outdoing the next person, even if it means deliberately putting oneself in harm’s way; then immediately bragging on social media for instant affirmation by our peers. For Sutherland, adventure was a biproduct of seeking the isolation and wilderness she needed to recharge her spirit and strengthen her sense of self.

Sutherland did not blindly jump into her adventures, nor was she a trust fund kid. She had been working towards them her whole life; swimming, scuba diving and schooling prepared her for the trips. Working full time as a traveling school counselor, she planned long in advance for her coveted time off each year. In 1981, at the age of 60, she began annual kayaking forays up sections of the inside passage between Washington and Alaska. These trips went on for the next 20 years and are documented in her last book, Paddling North, which has also been re-released by Patagonia.

Sutherland seems to have been cut of a leather that hardly exists anymore. She had no cares in the world what other people thought of her pursuits or if they even knew. She did it for her, and no one else. Inspiration comes as a complete package from this book: what Sutherland accomplished, how she physically did it, and her attitude about it. It is the kind of adventure story we need most right now.

Paddling My Own Canoe

Self portrait of a paddler (Audrey Sutherland Collection).

Paddling My Own Canoe

A freshly caught salmon adds to her trip provisions (Audrey Sutherland Collection).

Paddling My Own Canoe

Sutherland and pilot Michelle Masden at Nooya Lake located in the Misty Fjords National Monument, Alaska (Audrey Sutherland Collection).

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