American Nomad Blog
About this blog
American Nomad covers the best of U.S. travel—from vacation deals to festivals, weekend getaways, travel tips, and more. A seasoned traveler and Moon author, Laura is the perfect guide to help discover new gems when traveling domestically.
- A Southern Girl's Wintertime Adventure in Yellowstone
- One Novelist's Odyssey Across America
- Gearing up for a Family Camping Trip
- Mint Juleps and More at Oak Alley Plantation
- Avoiding Identity Theft While on Vacation
- Money-Saving Travel Tips from Nomadic Matt
- Fashion, Fun, and Convenience for the Modern Traveler
- In Search of Irish Museums Across America
- The Inspiring Journey of a Solo Kayaker
- Getting Fit for Treks in Yosemite and Elsewhere, Part 2
- Getting Fit for Treks in Yosemite and Elsewhere, Part 1
- Experiencing Yosemite with YExplore
- Two Travel Contests Worth Mentioning
- A Word About the TSA's No-No List
- A Reader's Advice About Airport Security
The Inspiring Journey of a Solo Kayaker
Growing up as an only child in a single-parent home, I was, perhaps not surprisingly, an avid reader from a very young age. Although my reading tastes have always been incredibly eclectic, ranging from fantasy epics and crime novels to Westerns and historical fiction to literary classics and travel memoirs, I'm particularly fond of stories that have the ability to transport me to other places. It's no wonder, then, that books like Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days, Jack London's The Call of the Wild, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa remain some of my favorites. It's also no wonder that, besides stimulating my imagination and igniting my passion for travel, reading has often been a very therapeutic pastime.
In late October, for instance, I shared with you the rather personal fact that, while sitting with my husband in a hospital room, waiting to hear his prognosis, my considerable worry and fear were slightly alleviated by the stack of travel-related books that I'd brought along with me. Most of them had been sent to me as review copies for my American Nomad blog – and although I've already written about several of them, including The Travel Writer's Handbook, Top Travel Photo Tips from Ten Pro Photographers, Closer to the Ground and The Voyage of the Cormorant, and three Cooper's Pack Travel Guides, I realize that I have yet to discuss my favorite of the lot.
Published in 2012 by Patagonia Books, Paddling North ($22.95) is the inspiring tale of one woman's solo kayaking trips through the Alaskan wilderness. It was written by Audrey Sutherland, an avid outdoor enthusiast and inveterate kayaker, whose previous books include Paddling My Own Canoe (1978) and Paddling Hawai'i (1988). When you consider how Audrey's fascinating life began, it's easy to understand her passion for the outdoors. She grew up, after all, in Southern California, the youngest of six girls, and spent her summers with her mother and sisters in a three-room cabin in the San Bernardino Mountains, where she came to appreciate reading, exploring, camping, and other outdoor activities, from riding horses to building tree houses. She spent her early adulthood helping her husband operate a commercial fishing boat, teaching swimming instruction for the Red Cross, and raising three children. In 1952, she and her family moved to Hawai'i, where she had her fourth child.
By 1956, however, she was divorced and raising her four children as a single mother while holding a series of jobs, from teacher to education director at an Army medical center. In 1962, she decided to swim along the coast of Moloka'i while towing an inflatable, supply-laden raft. Of course, as impressive as that feat sounds, her biggest challenge was still to come, when in the early 1980s, at the age of 60, she decided to undertake a solo, summer-long voyage along the southeastern coast of Alaska in an inflatable kayak. Eventually, she made two dozen of these annual trips, the first two of which constitute the journey chronicled in Paddling North, a memoir that – along with some basic maps, two extensive bibliographies, a helpful gear list, several of the recipes that Audrey used during her trips, and Yoshiko Yamamoto's stunning, watercolor-style illustrations – reveal her day-by-day travels through Alaska's Inside Passage.
“This is the story of a trip,” Audrey writes in the book's brief foreword, “taken over two summers, that started in Ketchikan and went all the way to Skagway. Since the first voyage, I've paddled 8,075 solo Alaskan miles and 22 more years in Alaska and British Columbia. But it is never enough. My boat now is a newer inflatable: longer, lower, and faster, with a rudder and a spray deck that sheds the rain and the seas. I have encountered thirty bears, four wolves, and hundreds of whales. We're still coexisting, and I keep learning. The philosophy is still the same. Go simple, go solo, go now.”
So begins a fascinating tale of Audrey's incredible journey, spanning from the choice to attempt her first solo effort in Alaska to her myriad encounters with curious whales, lonely cabins, perilous straits, elusive hot springs, broken paddles, even a capsized boat. Her tale is written with humor, candor, and enthusiasm, and without giving anything away, I read each chapter voraciously, ever curious about how it would all turn out in the end. Impressed by her unabashed self-reliance, I was equally in awe of her careful observational skills as well as her philosophical insight, such as when she writes, “Strange that I kill mice and carefully move spiders.”
Not surprisingly, I was also impressed by her numerous wilderness skills, such as fishing, cleaning and filleting fish, building fires, foraging everything from kelp and beach asparagus to mussels and cockles, and, yes, kayaking. Even her organizational skills are something to emulate; after all, it's hard to believe that she could have accomplished such a long journey without knowing how to pack her kayak so well, send packages of dried food and other needed supplies to various post offices along her route, and returning items to her home in Hawai'i when they were no longer of use. And while I found myself with questions at times – such as, “Why did she send her hammock home?” or “Why does she sink cans instead of packing them out?” or “Why does she interchange the terms 'canoe' and 'kayak'?” or “Why does she drink nonpurified water but worry about red tide poisoning?” – she usually addressed them at some point. Even the fact that the gear list is missing a fishing license, a fishing rod, and lures makes sense when you consider that Audrey was using an inflatable (that is, easy-to-puncture) kayak as transport.
Needless to say, I would love to meet Audrey Sutherland in person – not the least because she claims that a sea otter had once been her ideal reincarnation form. As someone whose spirit animal is, in fact, an otter, I can appreciate her sentiment. But that, of course, is another story...
If you're still curious about Audrey's amazing life, her awesome outdoor experiences, and the inimitable way that she continues to inspire others, check out these articles at Island Scene, The Cleanest Line, and Outrigger Hotels and Resorts. Of course, whether you're planning a solo excursion through “The Last Frontier,” a camping trip with your family, or an outdoor adventure with friends, you'll likely need another resource, such as Don Pitcher's Moon Alaska guidebook. No matter what, though, you should take a lesson from Audrey Sutherland – and plan your next trip to Alaska as carefully and thoroughly as possible. After all, a lot can go wrong in the Alaskan wilderness, from grizzly bear encounters to shellfish poisoning to equipment failure, so it's always advisable to be prepared for any and all possibilities.
As always, I’m open to ideas for future posts. If you have any suggestions, burning questions, or destinations that you’d like me to explore in greater detail, please comment below, contact me via laura [at] wanderingsoles [dot] com, or connect with me on Facebook and Twitter.
Disclosure: While I occasionally accept free or discounted travel assistance when it coincides with my editorial goals, my opinion is never for sale, which means that everything written in my American Nomad blog and Moon travel guides is my unbiased reflection of the things that I see, do, and experience while traveling across the United States.
Photo of Paddling North / Text © 2013 Laura Martone