What would it take for you to drop everything and disappear into the wilderness for two months…alone?
For Audrey Sutherland, all it took was a good hard look in the mirror before deciding that she needed to cross a few things off her bucket list while she still could. That introspective moment led to a 3 month adventure paddling over 800 miles of southern Alaskan coastline in a 9 foot inflatable canoe solo.
Sutherland, then 60 years old and living in Hawaii, quit her job as an Education Coordinator and Vocational Councilor to pursue her dream of solo-paddling the rugged coastline of Alaska. After months of planning, researching and coordinating food drops she found herself alone in a grand wilderness unlike any other. Paddling North is her story of that journey pulled directly from her trip journal with, in some cases, very little editing.
The book reads at times like a blow-by-blow account of every headwind, paddle-stroke and rainstorm. At other times it swirls and splashes in the philosophical, introspective pools of thought that are an inherent part of long solo adventures. In a way, this makes for some tedious reading at first but as you are pulled in to her story it is this very stream-of-consciousness story-telling that brings you ever closer to her adventure. By the time I had reached the second half of the book I had fallen in to her rhythm and the daily pattern of her travels.
Take down camp, load the boat, launch, paddle…
Then it’s sun or rain, headwind or tailwind, encounters with sea life or other people. It’s the map and compass and scouting the terrain for a pullout. She details her very specific requirements when evaluating a location for camp. Very high on the list are cabins and hot springs, as well as a place to set up a proper kitchen.
Paddle in, unload boat, tie-off boat above high-tide, make camp, make dinner…sleep.
Food is a major theme of the book. I think anyone who has traveled the backcountry knows that food factors in heavily and paddlers, more than anyone else I know, focus on fine food. Sutherland has put so much thought and effort into her meal planning that the book is as much a culinary guide as it is a paddling journal. She often supplements her condensed, reconstituted, pre-packed delicacies with wild ingredients collected along the way. Nearly every meal is accompanied with specially selected wines and cheeses which she takes great care in rationing so as to not run out before a resupply point. Many of her more successful recipes, which she speaks very highly of, are included in the book at the end of each chapter.
Wake up, make breakfast, take down camp, load the boat, launch, paddle…
The book took some effort to get in to, but Sutherland’s attitude about adventure and her fortitude at taking on an arduous solo paddling trip in such unforgiving country endears her to the reader. She talks about wanting to feel as though she is as much a part of the natural environment as the wild animals she encounters. I think she finds that balance as she settles in to the cyclical rhythm of survival. She seems to emerge from the other side of this journey feeling closer to the wilderness than to civilization. She is asked, “aren’t you afraid alone?”
“Of what?” She responds, “…I was safer here than in a city or on a highway.”
Toward the end of the book as she reflects back on the trip, she writes:
‘Are you safe alone?’ People ask. I’m certain that I am safer.
With elaborate maps of her route, nice illustrations and littered with original recipes from her trip, I did really enjoy this book. If you are a paddler, or a solo-adventurer I think you will find this book very relatable. If you are considering an extended solo-trip you just might find this book educational. I certainly found it to be both.
I would like to thank Patagonia Books for providing me with this book. If you would like to check out more titles from Patagonia Books like Paddling North or the next book on my list The Voyage of the Cormorant, visit their website.
About the Author:
Audrey Sutherland was raised in California and has lived in Hawaii since 1952. She raised her four children as a single mother, supporting her family as a school counselor. In 1962 she decided to tour the coast of Molokai by swimming it – and towing along an inflatable raft with supplies. She has ever since been an inveterate water traveler, during the past several decades in inflatable kayak because it’s transportable, light enough for her to handle comfortably and relatively inexpensive.
For more about Audrey Sutherland, read this interview by Dale Hope from Patagonia Books.