A kayak, a free spirit and decades of discovering The power of one

At 81, Audrey Sutherland is paddling strong after 7,000 miles in the Inside Passage

Posted: Thursday, August 09, 2001

Wind and driving rain were beating against the Alaska Discovery kayak tour Ken Leghorn was leading on the outer coast when he spotted a lone kayaker ahead.

The inflatable kayak had no spray skirt and was being half-paddled, half-blown toward them. The paddler, a white-haired woman, was singing.

"She looked like a total free spirit, completely at home in her environment," Leghorn said of the 1981 meeting. "There was water below her boat, water in her boat and she was completely happy, with a great big aloha smile."

The lone kayaker was Audrey Sutherland, the Grandma Moses of paddling. In 1978 her first book, "Paddling My Own Canoe," opened the way for kayakers to explore Hawaii's wild and woolly coast. Sutherland was in her late 50s then and had been paddling for 10 years.

The year after it was published Sutherland flew over Southeast Alaska on a business trip. Looking out the plane window she saw thousands of islands and small beaches to land. Now she is looking for a publisher for a similar book about her 20 years of paddling adventures in Southeast Alaska


"In Alaska, once you're 10 miles out of town, you're in wilderness. Wonderful!" Sutherland wrote in response to interview questions. "That's why I keep coming back."

On her first Southeast kayak trip, in 1980, Sutherland paddled alone from Ketchikan to Petersburg. She came back the next two years and went from Ketchikan to Skagway via Sitka. It was on one of those trips she met Leghorn, who has become a good friend. Sutherland's been back every summer since, paddling more than 8,000 miles in Alaska and British Columbia.

"I don't know any other individual who has kayaked 7,000 miles on the Inside Passage and what's amazing about Audrey is she remembers every single trip and every single campsite," said Leghorn, who consults with her when planning trips to new areas or developing maps for recreation areas in Southeast.

Though Sutherland still lives in Hawaii, her travels in Southeast Alaska make her an expert in the region.

"One of her subspecialties is being an expert in every single cabin on the Tongass," Leghorn said. "These are unmarked, broken-down cabins."

Sutherland finds the abandoned cabins, patches them with what's on hand, and stays a few nights.

All but 300 miles of her Alaska exploration has been alone.

"A primitive power comes with standing and watching alone in a dark and silent solitude," Sutherland said. "Whatever you're afraid of - bears, solitude, capsizing - you need to learn more about it to overcome that fear."

Conventional wisdom says going alone is dangerous, but Sutherland has found ways to do it safely, Leghorn said. She eschews a schedule, waiting out bad weather.

"She's always self-sufficient and self-contained, with an unsinkable inflatable boat that she can get back into," said Leghorn, who has paddled with her on day trips in Hawaii. "She's basically totally self-reliant. She can be capsized repeatedly and has the skills to get back in and paddle."

Sutherland's philosophy of "go simple, go solo, go now" has inspired many others to kayak, though most do it in more conventional ways, Leghorn said.

"I don't know of any young Audrey Sutherlands following in her footsteps. She remains completely unique," Leghorn said. "Where she has inspired thousands of people is in getting out and being safe and being low impact."

She has been particularly inspiring to women, "showing that you don't need a man to go out and be incredibly adventurous," Leghorn said.

After meeting Sutherland and reading her book, "Paddling My Own Canoe," Donna Perrin was amazed by what Sutherland accomplished, even as a middle-aged, single mother with limited funds.

"It was a total inspiration," Perrin said. "When you break out of the comfort zone, that's when the adventure really starts."

Inspired by Sutherland's "elegant frugality," Perrin and her husband bought a boat and sailed to South America.

"We try to live a pretty simple life and definitely Audrey taught me how to live a quality life," Perrin said. "There's a way to simplify your life, but you don't have to live a meager rice and beans existance. You can have beef strogonoff by candlelight in the wilderness."

Sutherland advocates kayaking as a cheap form of travel. She spends about $5 a day for stove fuel, film, food and wine. She uses an inflatable kayak because at 30 pounds it is light enough for her to carry alone and small enough to take on a plane or ferry as baggage.

She's taken her inflatable kayak to explore Samoa, Norway, Palau, Pohnpei, Greece and Austria. Of all the places she's paddled, she liked Southeast Alaska best.

The kayak is slow and quiet enough to allow her to see wildlife close-up. She's had an orca lift the bow of her boat as he surged up, spraying her arms with the mist from his blowhole. Over the years she's been within a hundred yards of a bear 29 times. One turned the doorknob of the old cabin she was staying in that night.

"I expected him to burst through," she said. She talked to the bear and he walked off down the shore instead.

Her closest brush with disaster was in a tidal current in Sumner Strait in 1982.

"I misjudged the tidal current sweeping over the shallows and missed by 20 feet being swept into the mile-wide breaking surf of Mariposa Reef," Sutherland said. "Paddling frantically, I reached a kelp bed, dragged through it and landed on Strait Island where I stayed for two days, waiting out the weather and studying my mistakes."

Despite the strong tides, Alaska is in some ways easier kayaking than Hawaii. In Hawaii, Sutherland has to time her landings and launches with the pounding surf. In Alaska, she generally has quiet water when coming to shore or pushing off.

But there's the wind and rain. In Hawaii, sudden, soaking downpours are just short breaks in the usual sunshine. Here, it's the opposite. Any sunshine is a break in the rain, "sometimes a hard steady rain all day, sometimes just a steady drizzle," Sutherland said.

The wind is more of a problem. In Hawaii, Sutherland can count on a 10- to 20-knot wind blowing from the northeast. In Southeast, it seems no matter what direction she's going, the wind is blowing her back at 10 to 30 knots or more.

"Once in Boca De Quadra south of Ketchikan I had a steady 50-knot beam wind for two hours," Sutherland said. "Not fun, but there was not enough distance for it to build up a big sea, and the Semperit inflatable boat behaved beautifully with only 4-foot seas from the side."

Wind, waves, and growing age still don't push her back. Even now, at 81, Sutherland continues to kayak alone in Southeast Alaska. If 600-mile paddling trips become too difficult, she says she'll stay at Forest Service cabins and do day trips. She keeps a list of places she hasn't been yet, but means to go.

"Anyplace beyond the roads, anyplace with small islands, deep coves, remnants of past history," she wrote. "There are still hundreds of miles I haven't seen, bears I haven't talked to, whales who haven't come alongside."

Kristan Hutchison can be reached at khutchison@juneauempire.com.

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