Southeast Alaska as seen from Dundas Island


A Reflection on Paddling North by Audrey Sutherland

“Instead of insight, maybe all we get is the strength to wander for a while. An inheritance of wonder, and nothing more.” ~William Least Heat Moon

Summertime. If ever there was a time to bail out from the world, it’s this season. Even if only with a great read in your hands. Decades ago, Audrey Sutherland knew it. She walked into the office of a boss who hadn’t granted her requested leave for a solo trip through Alaska’s inside passage and quit, knowing life was meant to be run full bore, never a dress rehearsal. We have one go, and it is best we get on with it. Sutherland’s journals became her third book, Paddling North. A single mom who had raised four kids and became an empty nester, she didn’t let the moss grow. Her kayak was an inflatable nine-footer she could bundle up into a backpack and carry on planes. She mailed parcels of food supplies ahead to small town post offices for the journey. She was known for her mantra, “Go simple, go solo, go now.” Amen to that.

None of this means it was easy. Weather, wind and waves were constant. As were orcas, sweeping tides and the essentials of finding food, shelter and fresh water sources along the way for weeks. And there were always bears to dodge. But Sutherland did it in style, cooking fine meals over open flames−much of it foraged−and living the fine life under the stars, often with a couple bottles of wine kept in the front of the kayak for sipping at the end of the day on the steps of a cabin, from a hammock strung between hemlock trees or a makeshift driftwood seat. Sutherland’s writing is sparse and beautiful. Candidly, she writes of the voices we all hear in our hearts and minds, cheering us on, but sometimes wary and full of uncertainty.

The cover of Audrey Sutherland's book, Paddling North.

“Day by day I was becoming part of this world. With no other human to communicate with, I began to forget I was human. I felt I was part of the sea and the animal world. I never felt lonely except inside a cabin when it was raining. Then I was human and sometimes lonely for another 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.”

“The two-note sound of the varied thrush will forever recall this misty enclosed world.”

Sutherland took her chances out there, yet she was truly living. She left this earth at the age of 94, in 2015, having never passed up the opportunity to run wild and free in water. And yes, she cast out a fishing line or two, and crab nets along the path.

As for you, dear reader, where do these words find you? Tethered to some desk at a job that isn’t inspiring and wondering how your life became such a rote and menial day to day wobble without a keel or North Star to guide you, to hold you steady? If so, this book is for you, a tailwind to get you going. But if you already know the restorative meditations of wilderness, don’t worry, Paddling North is for you, as well. If nothing else, this book is a reminder of how those meditations set our souls free to chase a few dreams while we are here.


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