Paddling Northby Audrey Sutherland:
A Review by Clayton Kesting
I should admit from the outset that I have been a great admirer of Audrey Sutherland from the time I first read of her exploits on TopKayaker.net. Her solo trips along the coast of Alaska in inflatable kayaks is the stuff of legend. I already own Paddling My Own Canoe so I was eager to buy her latest book as soon as I read that it was available. Photo: Audrey at Port Hardy, B.C. handmade spray deck Photo by Eiko Jones, used with Audrey's permission.
I am an avid reader of adventure and travel books but have become tired of reading stories by authors who go alone into the wilderness to ’find themselves’, with the result that their writing is full of angst and self questioning. Audrey’s book is definitely not one of that genre, it is written by a mature woman who knows exactly who she is and is very comfortable in her own skin.
The result is a book full of wit and the wisdom gained from a full and active life spanning nine decades. My favourite line is “Fear is more of a problem than the problem feared”. I also like her “TS principle” but you will have to read the book to find out more about that.
Although this book is a compilation of her first two trips to Alaska when she was 60 years old, it was written after she had completed about 20 more so there are references to later adventures to flesh out the story. Audrey’s language is very descriptive without being overly flowery so that the places she visits and the joys and perils of the voyage really come to life. There are also flashbacks to earlier adventures such as swimming the coast of Hawai’i and to her childhood, marriage and her children. The result is that you feel that you are sharing the adventure with her and then sitting down in the evening, in a warm hut before roaring stove, yarning about past lives and future dreams. By the end of the book the reader has a real feeling not only for the country but especially for the author who almost seems like an old friend.
This is a beautifully presented book. It is a slim, hardcover volume rather tall for its width but with quite small print so that there is still a lot of reading in its 171 pages. The dust cover is a lovely drawing by Yoshiko Yamamoto whose illustrations are interspersed throughout the book. It is almost worth buying the book for these illustrations alone. They are quite simple, almost cartoon-like, drawn with broad strokes and muted colours without much texture or shading, but they really convey the atmosphere of the country and are a wonderful adjunct to Audrey’s descriptions. Likewise the maps produced by Anita Karl and Jim Kemp are very clear with an overall map at the beginning of the book and individual maps at the start of each chapter. However, it is important to note the direction of the North arrow on the intermediate maps as they are not always along the long axis of the page as is the overall map. Failure to do this can lead to some confusion with the directions mentioned in the text.
Whilst this book is not intended to be an instructional text on solo wilderness travel, there is still plenty of useful information. The recipes at the end of each chapter are not only appetising but also give a wonderful guide to supplementing your diet from the land on an expedition like this. These recipes also add to the ‘folksy’, intimate feel of the book.
Some of Audrey’s ideas might raise a few eyebrows amongst conventional kayakers, such as her decision not to wear a PFD. However, the needs of a solo paddler in isolated, frigid waters are different to those in situations where help is readily forthcoming either from other paddlers or rescue agencies. Audrey has found that a PFD impedes her ability to re-enter the kayak quickly after a capsize. As she is attached to the kayak by a lifeline, it becomes her PFD. My only concern would be the risk of separation from the kayak if the lifeline had to be cut due to entanglement. Photo right: Audrey in 1997 showing her Alaska route in our interview "The Key For Going It Alone".
My one regret is that I read this book too quickly. It is a book to be sipped sparingly, savoured like the bottle of wine nestling in the bows of Audrey’s inflatable kayak ready for her evening, gourmet meal. It is a book to become immersed in, lived day by day, as you share the journey with Audrey. For my part I am going to take her advice “to go simple, go solo, go now”. The only ingredient missing is the destination.
Audrey passed away at 94 in 2015. Read more
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