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Vol. 15, no. 1
February / March 2012


Alone in a Rubber Boat (Page 3)



Audrey and son, Jock.

In her prime Audrey
stood five feet, six inches tall and weighed 125 pounds. She suspects she’s lost an inch and gained five pounds with age. She has short, windtossed white hair and the brightest eyes I may have ever seen. We sit and talk for hours before I notice that she’s wearing a touch of lipstick and eye makeup.


She might have tremendous stamina but she’s never been particularly strong. Thirty pounds is about the limit of what she can lift over her head, and that’s partly why she’s drawn to inflatable boats. They are lightweight, and she can lift one overhead or haul it up the beach unassisted. She can also roll one up, stuff it into a duffle bag, get on a plane and go. Or she can land on an Alaskan island, deflate the boat, hitchhike to the other side of the island, inflate the boat and be on her way. It doesn’t matter that inflatables go half the speed of their sleeker hard-shell cousins or that they blow sideways in the wind or that smart alecks sometimes call them “rubber duckies.” They suit Audrey just fine. And they actually represent a huge advancement over her original marine technology. On one of her earliest trips along Moloka‘i’s north shore, she had no boat at all. She simply swam. On her first successful trip she put her camera, food and clothing inside a rubber meteorological weather balloon, wrapped that with a shower curtain and stuffed it into an Army clothing bag, then towed it behind her as she swam along the coast. The next time she towed her gear in a two-foot-square Styrofoam box, which worked better. It wasn’t until 1967 that she discovered, in a mail-order catalog for backpackers, a six-foot-long French-made inflatable boat. “They called it a kayak, but it looked more like a canoe,” she writes in her first book.


When you take into consideration the attention Audrey gives to pre-trip planning, the idea of exploring the sea-locked north side of Moloka‘i without a boat, or in a boat you might find in a backyard swimming pool, doesn’t seem nearly so harebrained. She is a compulsive planner and someone who thinks through every what-if scenario she can imagine. She’s also a tremendous list maker. She makes lists for everything. Paddling Hawaii starts with a list titled “Why Paddle Hawaii? Twenty-three reasons.” It includes: “Swim naked offshore,” “Vacation for $5 a day in an oceanfront suite with a private waterfall,” “Roll overboard and hear the whales sing” and “Kids don’t yammer with a paddle in their hands.” Tacked to the bulletin board by her bathroom door is the list she developed during her child-rearing days titled “What every kid should be able to do by age 16.” It includes: “Cook a simple meal,” “Drive a car with skill and sanity,” “Care for tools and always put them away after use,” “Clean a fish and dress a chicken,” “Change a diaper, change a tire,” “Spend the family income for all bills and necessities for two months,” “Save someone from drowning using available equipment,” “Listen to an adult talk, with interest and empathy,” “Dance with any age,” “Be happy and comfortable alone for ten days, ten miles from the nearest other person” and “Do your own laundry.”


Sutherland’s house is an old Army barracks, moved to the North Shore from Wahiawa and turned into a beach house. She’s lived there since 1956, raising her four kids. When we go inside to look at her photo albums, it becomes clear that the house looks the same today as it has over the decades: white wicker chairs, glass fishing floats, tiger shark jaw on the wall. The dining room table around which her four children ate cereal and mugged for the camera hasn’t budged, though now it features a long map of Southeast Alaska marked up with twenty-three years of paddling routes. Another thing that becomes clear from the photos is that Audrey was never some grizzled seagoing hellion. She was actually quite a beauty.


Audrey’s original manuscript for Paddling North is a loose-leaf stack of paper as thick as two fat phone books. It starts with a bear turning the doorknob to her cabin—but that’s just a tease, and it quickly backs up to the first time she laid eyes on Southeast Alaska while flying there on a business trip in 1980. There was so much wild country, so few people and so many islands to camp on. The wheels of her mind started turning. Her children were grown, she had been divorced for years and she had a little bit of money saved. She writes:


“I went home and looked at the Five Year Plan on the wall. … Paddle Alaska, number one. I walked in into the bathroom and looked at the familiar person in the mirror. ‘Getting older aren’t you, lady? Better do the physical things now. You can work at a desk later.’ The next day I handed in my resignation, effective in two months. … Sometimes you have to go ahead and do the most important things, the things you believe in, and not wait until years later when you say, ‘I wish I had gone — done —kissed.’ … What we most regret are not the errors we make, but the things we didn’t do.”