Paddling North: A Solo Adventure Along the Inside Passage, by Audrey Sutherland. Patagonia Works, 2018 paperback. 303 pages. $16.95.
In 1980, at the age of 60, a high school counselor in Hawaii decided it was time to do something for herself and set out on a solo kayak trip from Ketchikan to Skagway. She not only completed this — 850 miles in 85 days — but returned for twenty more summers to again kayak through Alaska's Inside Passage. The story of her first journey is told in this remarkable book, first published in 2012 and now available in a beautiful paperback edition.
Audrey Sutherland, who died three years ago at age 94, was a truly amazing and inspiring person, as well as a lovely writer. In Hawaii, she tells us, before she could afford any kind of boat she used to swim around the islands, "towing a bag of gear and camping in the valleys." (An earlier book about this, "Paddling My Own Canoe: A Solo Adventure on the Coast of Molokai," has also just been reprinted by Patagonia.)
The boat Sutherland depended upon in Alaska was a nine-foot-long, yellow, inflatable "plastic canoe" without a rudder. Her main consideration in choosing it, aside from its low cost, was that she could bring it in a duffle from Hawaii and carry it by herself up and down beaches. It weighed eighteen pounds. Her creed: go simple, go solo, go now.
Sutherland planned meticulously for her adventure — drying and packaging foods, studying maps and charts, mailing ahead packages to meet her at post offices in a handful of communities, and reserving Forest Service cabins for ten nights, to take a break from camping in rain. A goal she set for herself was to visit nine hot springs en route, and her search and descriptions of these — some found and others not — are one of the delights here. (She was to find that many features on her maps and charts, including cabins, trails, and even one water passage, no longer existed. Time and tide, even isostatic rebound — the lift of land after the last glacial period — were then and still are reshaping the coastline.)
In what she refers to as her "epicurean spoof," Sutherland details many of her meals. These may leave even an armchair reader jealous — that she could put together such gorgeous, mouth-watering meals while the rest of us, in our home kitchens, settle for toast and canned soup. Here's one she prepared for herself: "First the hot wet oshibori washcloth, the hot sake to sip, sushi rolled in black nori seaweed, miso soup, a mound of hot rice, a tempura assortment of fresh mussels, rehydrated mushrooms, and fucus seaweed, and finally smoked oysters from a can." She did not forget the powered wasabi for her sushi. Then there was the mug of tea and a sweetened black-bean paste for dessert. She ate with spruce chopsticks she whittled on the spot.
Anther time, when she had the use of a cabin, she made and canned kelp pickles, using glass jars she collected from beaches. She carried these to her next post office stop and mailed them home to Hawaii.
Many of her recipes (paella valenciana, Portuguese bean soup, and fruit dumplings among them), with camp cookery tips, are included with the text, along with detailed maps showing her route, campsites, and key landmarks. Colorful block prints of landscapes, wildlife, and that yellow canoe add to the whole effect.
Always, the author's writing is insightful and charming, with truly beautiful descriptive passages. Often it's also humorous.
Here she is, camping on a sunny day, with laundry hung to dry and herself in a hammock made from seine web she found on the beach: "I lay bare in the sun, listening, dreaming, melting like a lighted candle into the earth. It was strange to see my bare feet again. They usually went from boot to bed to boot again, without taking off the socks. They looked quite fragile. My hands, however, are tools — pliers, carabiners, vise grips, antennae, turnbuckles. I should spray them with Rustoleum."
Mostly alone, she relished her solitude. On occasion, she met up with other boaters or fishermen, or residents of the few and far communities where she stopped. "There is a rhythm to this country: hard paddling and rest, rain and sun, wind and calm, hide tide and low tide. A sense of space and the far-off throb of a diesel tugboat. A forest enclosure and the chirp of a tiny brown bird. People and a sense of being human, then a week of being a solo animal in an animal world. A dozen dragonflies hovering, then soaring out of sight. The mite of a red spider crawling over my toe."
"Paddling North," while it can locate readers to specific coves, beaches, current-rushed straits, and even hot springs in Southeast Alaska, is not a guidebook. Rather, it is a sort of guide to life, a sharing of one adventurer's philosophy and her love for what she finds in nature, in testing herself, and in deep thinking. It stretches far past "I went there, I did this" into an examination of life akin to the work of Thoreau, Muir, E. B. White, and others she quotes along the way. She also brings into her text her cultural knowledge of Hawaii and what she learns along the way of Alaska history and indigenous knowledge.
In our age of high-tech clothing and equipment, guided trips, and lives that are circumscribed in so many ways, Audrey Sutherland shows us a life of purposeful self-realization. "Paddling North," previously known mostly within the kayaking world, deserves to become a beloved classic. "Go simple, so solo, go now."
Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days," and "Early Warming." Her latest book is "pH: A Novel."