Science & Nature

Science & Nature

Audrey Sutherland’s wild brilliance

Science & Nature / Instead of sending her children to Outward Bound, Audrey Sutherland drew up a list: “31 things Every Kid Should Be Able to Do by Age 16.” Entry #22: “Be happy and comfortable alone for ten days, ten miles from the nearest other person.”

This is how she, as a single parent in Hawaii, raised her four children to be self-sufficient. The solo philosophy is how she explores life.

“It’s so much simpler alone,” the long-time Haleiwa resident explains in an interview. “You don’t have to worry about whether somebody is hungry, or tired, or angry, or whatever. When you’re by yourself you can stop and look at something; learn a flower, watch an animal or a bird, or whatever it is.”

Sutherland worked for the army as a career counselor. Her territory was Hawaii, Samoa, the Philippines, and Alaska. “I talked to every tenth grader in all of those places. So I was very familiar with Alaska,” Audrey says of her decision to expand her ocean adventures beyond Hawaii’s warm waters. “I saw [Alaska] had a lot of potential for paddling. I went there and learned the basic skills to survive in that place.”

Sutherland’s survival instincts and ocean enthusiasm have had a trickle-down effect. Her son Jock is a world champion surfer. Her grandson Gavin is also a respected waterman. The North Shore Lifeguard Association recently awarded Gavin for rescuing a surfer at Pipeline last winter (#23: Save someone from drowning).

“The ocean knowledge handed down in my family and pure reacting on instinct helped,” Gavin recollects. He says that while his grandmother was often by herself, she inspired the family to do what they love and enjoy it solo. When spending time together, she would tell the kids about her adventures (#11: Listen to an adult talk with interest and empathy) and give them her favorite books to read.

“She had me read Treasure Island and at the end of the book there was an actual treasure map,” Gavin recalls. “It had longitude and latitude so I got the world map out and the coordinates led to Chinaman’s Hat. My dad and I went out there on kayaks and followed the footsteps on the map to the X mark. Lo and behold, there was actually treasure there that my grandmother had buried under a rock.” The treasure chest was full of coins from places she’d visited around the world. (#26: Read a topographic map and a chart.)

Audrey’s new title follows her first book, Paddling My Own Canoe, now considered a classic. “I keep journals on all my trips, whether the trip was to Molokai or wherever,” she says. “I have always kept a diary, even when I was a kid. I don’t know–maybe it’s ego, but it helps if you want to remember something later.”

Going It Alone

Out on the water, she simplifies her life

It was 1981 and Audrey Sutherland was 60 years old when she decided to solo paddle along 857 miles of Alaskan coast in 85 days. Her vessel was a nine-foot inflatable kayak–bright yellow with red, white and blue racing stripes. Small, yes, but this is an author whose previous expeditions include solo swimming the wild north coast of Molokai, towing an innertube filled with her provisions.

Each day off Alaska, Sutherland would cover 22 miles alone, in frigid ocean conditions, and then carry 60 pounds of gear ashore. Why? “I wanted to be lean and hard and sunbrowned and kind,” Sutherland, now 91, writes in Paddling North. “Instead I felt fat and soft and white and mean.” The result is a tale of inspiration and exploration through solitude.

Satellite maps, a cell phone, or escort boats did not safeguard Sutherland’s route: She simply relied on her 24 NOAA ocean charts and 49 U.S. Geological Survey topographic maps. Bears, killer whales, wolves and some animals she couldn’t readily identify were the only interruptions from untamed solace.

While the challenges Sutherland faces, moments that require problem solving and reliance on intuition, make for a page-turner, it’s her subsistence on elegant cuisine rather than gruel and granola that make Paddling North truly resonate for this reader. Camp Curry, Mussels Neapolitan, tetrazzini, corn fritters, Stroganoff, Paella Valenciana and fruit dumplings are among Sutherland’s recipes found at the end of each chapter. Her favorite meal shared in the book: Wild mussels, scraped off rocks from wherever she happens to land, grilled on the fire and paired with local greens she foraged for. The waterwoman always brought garlic, olive oil and Hawaiian salt, and had a bottle of wine in the bow and one in the stern as foundation for gourmet solo meals in the wild.

Sutherland has paddled more than 12,000 nautical miles alone in her lifetime. Aristotle once said, “Whosoever is delighted in solitude, is either a wild beast or a god.” Her experience takes us back to beliefs in woman as both primitive and sacred. As with giving birth, a woman journeying alone, facing danger and deprivation, transcends mortal pains while feeling connected to a higher power. Audrey Sutherland’s adventures allow us to revel in this universal truth. “I didn’t want to get ‘away.’ I needed to get ‘to,’” she writes, and takes us with her.

Paddling North

Audrey Sutherland

Patagonia Books, June 2012

Hardcover, 171 pages, $22.95