Story by David Thompson
On a cold blustery day along the Gulf of Alaska in 1981, a sea kayaking guide named Ken Leghorn was leading a wilderness paddling exhibition around Chichagof Island when he spotted a lone kayaker in the distance ahead. The kayaker was in an inflatable boat that rode high in the water and was being half-paddled and half-blown across the choppy sea. The boat didn’t have a proper spray skirt to keep its cockpit dry, and the paddler was soaked. As Leghorn approached he saw that the paddler was a woman. She had white hair. And she was singing.
Audrey Sutherland is 90 today a
nd still living on the North Shore b
each she has called home since b
efore Hawai'i was a state.
“My first reaction was, ‘This is a crazy person,’” Leghorn recalls. “I thought it must be somebody who was totally unprepared to be out there. Then I found out it was somebody who has more long-distance sea kayaking experience than I’ll ever have.” That woman was Audrey Sutherland, solo paddler extraordinaire and epic free spirit. In a kayaking career spanning five decades, Audrey has paddled an estimated twelve thousand nautical miles—the equivalent of half the circumference of Earth. She racked up almost all of that mileage on long, lone voyages in the stubby little blow-up boats she adores, going solo not out of misanthropy or because she’s antisocial but because it’s just easier that way. Her wilderness sagas are not so much about getting away from anything as they are about finding simplicity, with all of the stormy weather, photogenic wildlife, idyllic campsites and cozy little wilderness cabins that go along with it.
Audrey wrote about her earliest paddling treks in her first book, Paddling My Own Canoe, her account of the multiple trips she made in the 1950s and 1960s along the north shore of Moloka‘i. The book, which came out in 1978 and went through nine printings, has become a classic in the canon of solo sea voyaging literature. In it she writes, “Always I came back from these trips feeling like a skinned-up kid, feeling like a renewed, re-created adult, feeling like a tiger.”
Her second book, Paddling Hawaii, which came out twenty years later, is the authoritative guide to sea kayaking in the Islands. It’s half route planner, half compendium of practical instruction and homespun advice. Need to tenderize an octopus? Audrey suggests dropping it into a washing machine for five minutes. “If you aren’t carrying a washing machine in your kayak, slam the octopus repeatedly on a big rock until it is limp.” About to get washed ashore into boulders? Audrey suggests “tucking into a ball to help protect your vital organs. … It’s also useful to go limp like a piece of limu [seaweed] until the wave washes you up the rocks, then grab them and scramble up higher before the next wave.”
A third, long-awaited book is due this spring. It’s the story of her longest paddle ever, an eighty-seven-day, 887-mile trek through the Inside Passage of Alaska and British Columbia. She wanted to call it Paddling Southeast Alaska: 800 Miles in a Nine-Foot Boat, but the publisher has named it Paddling North. Monumental as it might have been, that particular trip was just a segment in a greater journey. Every single year from 1980 through 2003, Audrey explored the straits, inlets, fjords, islands and glaciers of Southeast Alaska and British Columbia in her inflatable kayaks, racking up some eight thousand nautical miles over twenty-three consecutive summers. At 59, when others her age might feel adventuresome for booking a stateroom aboard an Alaska cruise ship, Audrey adopted the migratory schedule of a humpback whale, wintering in Hawai‘i and traveling to Alaska for the summer, and she maintained it for nearly a quarter of a century.