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Original Essays | April 11, 2014

Paul Laudiero: IMG Shit Rough Draft

I was sitting in a British and Irish romantic drama class my last semester in college when the idea for Shit Rough Drafts hit me. I was working... Continue »
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Paddling North by Audrey Sutherland
Paddling North

Mary McClintock, January 1, 2013

Paddling 850 miles from Ketchikan to Skagway in southeast Alaska is an accomplishment for any sea kayaker, requiring skill, strength, perseverance, knowledge and good judgment. Doing it alone and with great style at age 60 in a nine-foot inflatable kayak is all the more impressive. Impressive, and exactly what Audrey Sutherland did in the early 1980s on the first two of 23 annual trips. Paddling North is Sutherland’s story of those two trips.
Sutherland paddles solo, but she writes, “on these trips I’m not really alone. We’re a trio. The paddler sizes up the conditions and does the physical labor. The critic sits on my shoulder and nags and growls that I’ll never make it, and the writer stands back and laughs, trying to put the three of us into the reality of one grubby body, and also into words for the journal that night.” In Paddling North, Sutherland skillfully combines in-the-moment descriptions from her journals with reflections from her 20-plus trips.
Sutherland had plenty of experience with solo trips before she headed to southeast Alaska in 1980. Between 1967 and the early 1980s, she had paddled her kayak solo along the remote shores of her home state of Hawai‘i, as well as in Samoa, Norway, Greece, Scotland and Maine. Then, Sutherland asked herself the question she asked students in her work as vocational counselor�"“If you had a year to do anything you wanted, and had all the money you need, and could come back to where you are now, what would you do?”
Since “paddle Alaska” was at the top of Sutherland’s “25 things I most want to do” list, answering her own question was easy. Living her motto�"“Go simple, go solo, go now”�"Sutherland handed in her resignation at work and started planning a trip to southeast Alaska. Then, she went. In Paddling North, Sutherland shows us that she also goes prepared, savors every moment and learns from it all.
While anyone with appreciation of a story well-told will enjoy Paddling North, kayakers who’ve paddled in southeast Alaska or done long solo trips will especially appreciate the many details Sutherland shares: calculating where high tide will fall on a beach and squeezing in a tent site just out of range of the waves, slogging into a headwind and waxing poetic about the joys of tailwinds, waiting out weather, the deep pleasure of long conversations after many days without human company, the close encounters with wildlife and the sheer joy of warm food after hours of cold, rainy paddling. Each chapter begins with a route map, and Yoshiko Yamamoto complements Sutherland’s fine writing with lush illustrations throughout. For those who want to learn more or who are planning a trip, Sutherland includes an extensive bibliography as well as her gear list.
Food is an important part of any kayak trip, and Sutherland elevates camp cooking to culinary heights. She forages to augment her packed food, teaching us about edible plants and sea creatures. Want to make authentic sushi with fish you just caught or create paella with fresh mussels? Sutherland tells us how and more, sharing eleven of her favorite recipes in side bars at the end of most chapters.
Sutherland also describes Forest Service cabins, their state of repair or disrepair and the usefulness of their woodstoves. Don’t let her focus on cooking mislead you�"Sutherland defies stereotypes of 60-year-old women by offering descriptions of repairing woodstoves and cabins, and musing on how she could make a woodstove out of an old oil drum if only she had a hacksaw and tin snips.
Audrey Sutherland describes her days with vivid writing, acute self-awareness and more than a bit of humor. Reflecting on frequently being asked whether she was lonely, she said, “Yes, but it was of my own choosing. I never felt lonely except inside a cabin when it was raining. Then I was a human and sometimes lonely for another good human. Camped out under just a tarp with no walls and with all the wild out there at the four edges, I was a wary animal, alert to every sound, a part of it.”
In June, I visited Audrey when work took my kayaking buddy, Pat Lively, and me to Oahu. Audrey served us lemonade made from her homegrown lemons as we sat across her kitchen table sharing stories. At 91, Audrey’s spirit and feisty independence shine in her bright eyes and animate her easy laughs as she points out her favorite paddles hanging on the kitchen wall and tells of the trips she’s taken.
Paddling North is a book to pick up again and again, whenever you want the mental escape of a long trip but can’t get away. It’s also a book to share with both kayakers and those who have never touched a paddle and can’t quite imagine what kayakers do on their trips into the wild. Paddling North carries the reader along, bringing the challenges and delights of extended solo trips to life.
(review published in October 2012 issue of Sea Kayaker Magazine)
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