Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Searching for Audrey Sutherland

I still remember hiking across a small island in the South Baranof Wilderness of southeast Alaska and finding a small hut made of driftwood. Someone had written its name on a piece of wood and tacked it up at the open door: "The Elves' Hut". As kayak rangers, one of our missions was to dismantle human-made structures like this, but the hut seemed to belong here, a charming, eccentric shelter decorated with shells and flotsam given from the sea.

This time there was a note, left by some paddlers to a woman named Audrey Sutherland. Sorry we missed you, it said. When I got back to town, I asked around about her. Turns out she was well known on the coast, migrating between Alaska and Hawaii like the whales. She always went solo, even as she grew older. Her motto was "Go simple, go solo, go now." As a younger woman, she wanted to explore the coast of Molokai, and so she swam it in jeans, towing her supplies. This was decades ago, long before social media and gear ambassadorships. She wrote books about her trips and a list of things that she thought all sixteen year olds should be able to do. One of them was:
  • Be happy and comfortable alone for ten days, ten miles from the nearest other person
In my seven years as a kayak ranger, I looked forward to finding Audrey. I wanted to meet a woman who did big things before women doing big things was common. As I paddled around the tip of unnamed islands, I wondered if I would see her in the distance. I wondered if I would stumble upon her camp. But if she was there, I missed her in the rain and fog.

I never got a chance to find Audrey. She died in her late 80s in 2015. If she met me, she would probably not approve. I live in a house. I mostly work at a desk. My adventures are pretty tame. I still think we would have lots to talk about. I still remember the bears passing behind my tent on a salmon stream in the old growth forest. I still remember pulling the kayak up on a beach so quiet I could hear the rain. And even though I don't stray too far from home these days, I still try to live by her motto: Go simple. Go solo. Go now.
Paddling North

Is there anyone who inspired you like Audrey has me? Did you ever meet this person?

17 comments:

  1. I'm going to pick up her book. Thanks for the recommendation.

    The stranger who most inspired my path is Ken Kifer. He kept an extensive Web site about all things bike touring that captured my imagination back in 2002. I wasn't yet a cyclist, but became enthralled by the idea of traveling long distances under my own power. I remember e-mailing him a question to which he responded, and being starstruck about that. He was sadly killed by a drunk driver in 2003, but the archives of his Web site are still around: http://www.phred.org/~alex/kenkifer/www.kenkifer.com/bikepages/

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    1. That's sad--I'm sure he'd be glad to know he was an inspiration though.

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  2. Jane Howard, in a book titled Families. Her captivating writing was on the theme that if you don't have a family of your own (she didn't have children), you can make one of friends, acquaintances and other family members. No, I never met her....I probably would have been tongue-tied and said something banal that thousands of others had already said to her!

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  3. I read Paddling North years ago, and it was the impetus for lots of dreaming! She led a remarkable life.

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    1. I just bought the book again even though I'm pretty sure I still have it somewhere!

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  4. A woman named Julie Cheney, who taught a mountaineering class I took in my early 20s. I was in awe of her. She was so competent in the mountains and was the kind of woman I wanted to be. Sadly she died in an avalanche a few years later. I still think of her though.

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  5. Don't know if you ever read Anne LaBastille, author of the woods woman. She was a huge insperation for me. I admired her strong independent spirit. It would have been awesome to have had just one afternoon to sit and talk with her, but she is gone now.

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    1. Yes, Anne LaBastille...have all of her books, read and reread. Inspiration for me, also. Thanks for reminding me.

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  6. I love the motto. I've missed my solo journeys this year, what with all the other activities I've had to attend to. I'll have to think on who has inspired me, there are many, mostly those who live the way I hope to live one day. I'm partway there, living in a wall tent year round, but I want to have my own land so I can do all the other homesteading type things I can't do on borrowed land.

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    1. I am inspired by you! I'd prefer a yurt, mostly just because I like them. I also would like to grow more food, but that would mean I'd have to stay home.

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  7. Hi, I love the 10 days/10 miles quote and enjoyed Paddling my own Canoe. I'm also inspired by authors who combine a love of wilderness and exploration with conservation, field biology and simple living, like Mardy Murie and Theodora Stanwell-Fletcher. I also have to give credit to Laura Ingalls Wilder☺

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    1. I'll have to look up Theodora. I know the others. I loved all the Laura books.

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  8. I'm not very good at overnight solo trips in the wilderness... Audrey sounds amazing. Jill Homer inspires me!

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  9. This just in: "How being alone may be the key to rest." At http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-37444982

    Sort of related, kinda. May explain why I feel OK sleeping in the dirt and bathing in ice-cold water. Or maybe those people who've said I'm weird are actually smarter than I am.

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  10. What a neat story! Bummer you never got to meet her though ... I'm sure she would have loved to know how much of an inspiration she was for you.

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