Stay at Home & Paddle North
In these current times of indoor days, with no adventures of our own on the horizon for a wee while, we have found fresh air and inspiration by travelling on someone else’s journey instead… I’m just coming to the end of a beautiful book, ‘Paddling North’ by Audrey Sutherland. It was a gift for Jason and myself from a dear friend, as thanks for introducing him to ‘the wonderful world of packrafting’ and now, both the Audrey - paddling - and myself - reading - are both sad to be coming to the end of a journey so eloquently described within the pages and illustrations laid out before me.
A truly inspiring read, the book is a compilation of Audrey Sutherland’s first (of what was to become an annual journey) solo summer-long voyages along the southeast coast of Alaska. Having previously completed journeys described in ‘Paddling Hawaii’ and ‘Paddling My Own Canoe’ (which I have yet to read, but are definitely next on my list) the single mother of four children decided at the age of sixty to plan and undertake this amazing journey of 850 miles in eighty-five days.
To me, Audrey is a packrafting pioneer. Her craft: an 8kg inflatable kayak with pump was small enough, that she could roll it up into a duffel bag to take on a plane to Alaska and light enough, to carry by herself up the beach to make camp each evening. She recalls the incredulous comments about her bright yellow craft as “it appeared to be a mocking spoofery of all serious expeditions.” On occasion I have experienced similar looks and remarks with my packraft… Her trust in the seaworthiness of her craft and immense paddling experience and knowledge and gave her ample confidence to plan for it’s use on such a demanding journey.
Having undertaken much (much, much!) shorter journeys, I can appreciate every aspect of her book. From the planning to undertaking the journey itself, I could reflect upon my own experiences and how, for me, it really has been a learning curve to get it right! I’ve had to acquire these skills in baby steps over the years and build upon them along the way. I have to admit, unlike Jason, who comes from a military and mountain rescue background, and will happily spend hours, if not days, choosing, tweaking and organising kit, I was never a fan of packing. It always felt like a daunting task: “What kit?”, “How much?”, “That’s never going to fit…" and that’s before even thinking about food (which I’ll come to in a moment.) I’m always relieved to be finally getting out there and doing it! BUT kit planning and packing is something that I’ve got used to, it’s necessary and I’ve come to learn that it pays dividends for the success of any adventure (But shhhh, don’t tell him that!) I’ve also learned to get better at it, especially when i’ve planned to take our children along.
An important theme in ‘Paddling North’
is food. Throughout her journey, “No
gruel & granola” was the rule Audrey set herself. She carefully planned and prepared “weekly meals of no more than 10 pounds.” (4.5 kilos) which she mailed ahead in packages to be picked up along the way, that she would supplement with berries, mussels, salmon (and a glass of wine!) It is wonderful to join Audrey as she prepares her delicious evening meal - all put together with apparent ease. She unselfishly shares her delicious recipes throughout the journey, with suggestions for adaptation with alternative ingredients. For Audrey, on a journey with “no human communication and rare physical pleasures”, food became more than just fuel, it needed to be “pleasurable as well as providing the calories needed to paddle the distance.”
Her preparations for her journey remind me of our evenings spent dehydrating tasty vegetables and fruit to add to our own homemade camp food. Time spent is well rewarded with a delicious, flavoursome meal to end the day. Also, it’s a great way to disguise veggies for children. Sleep comes easy with a full tummy! A little thought and preparation really can transform any journey.
We were fortunate enough to be joined on a recent journey by the ‘giftee’ of ‘Paddling North’, Gordon Stovin, who’s genius ‘firecachia’ sour-dough bread, baked over a camp stove in a titanium cooking pot, was a delight to behold - and eat of course! His passion for the simple pleasure of sharing and breaking bread with others really comes in to its own, under the stars, at the end of a hard day’s walking and paddling.
And once you’re out there, with only the journey ahead of you, all the effort in planning and preparation are paid forward. Days fall into simple patterns and routines… It was comforting to share the ebb and flow of Audrey’s days. The quiet contemplation as she paddles, the solitude of the Alaskan wilderness and the wondrous moments of close encounters with whales, bears and eagles are the magical ingredients that formed her days. The delights of paddling with seals and the occasional sea eagle for company are the closest experiences I can relate to, moments that never cease to amaze, delight and humble.
Finally, there’s the camp. Arriving at a new destination, paddle weary, and seeking the best spot to set up for the night - according to her ‘ideal spot’ criteria. Sometimes, even an awaiting cabin. Having experienced the shelters and cabins on Glaskogen, Sweden, I can appreciate the childlike delight of setting up at a new camp or discovering the ‘home comforts’ of a pre-made shelter for the evening.
Contemplating her future journeys towards the end of the book, Audrey reflects on her equipment and the changes she would make: the design of a new tent, a tiny portable wood stove and amongst other items, an inflatable kayak “of longer and lower proportions.” The ease in which my packraft can be inflated with a nifty bag and then deflated for overland exploration would have opened up endless possibilities in her search for mountains, wilderness and sea.
I can’t help but feel that she would have fully embraced packrafting and the equipment now available for ultralight travel. For instance, the simplicity of utilising my paddle to support my lightweight tent, rather than carrying extra equipment. Audrey was already seeing the potential for multi-use pieces of equipment. It’s really interesting to read her kit list at the end of the book and compare it to my own.
I’m sure she would happily trade - her foul weather jacket and pants and divers’ neoprene wetsuit, bought for added protection for larger stretches of open water, that was “too clammy and constricting for daily use”, for the ultralight dry suit I have the pleasure and convenience of wearing. Also the comfort of an essential, lightweight and manoeuvrable buoyancy aid. She carried a ‘life jacket’ in her kit, but she found it too cumbersome to paddle in and when wearing it, too difficult to manoeuvre herself back into her boat after a capsize. So, rather than
wearing it, she attached herself to her craft with a lifeline. In one unfortunate event, she did capsize, when being towed behind a fishing boat. She was unable to right her upturned kayak with all her bags still attached to it. Whilst in the water, she was worried she would lose her boots which, now, full of water, were about to fall off and sink. Whilst waiting for the boat, which was, thankfully, able to come immediately to her aid, she was able to just hang on to her boat and boots.
She reflects of course, on the lessons learned and vows, next time, to practice with a fully laden boat and the gear she would be actually wearing rather than a bikini and an empty boat as she did in Hawaii! This really struck a chord with me, the essential value and necessity of drills and practice for such an event - something which we have always done from the outset before our own journeys and utterly vital before we started venturing on our own expeditions with our young children.
But now, as Audrey and I near the end of her journey, the desire to reach a destination often lessens as the memories and experiences, freshly created, are hard to let go of. The space for thought afforded by simply existing in the ever changing moment is something that is difficult to relinquish. So, I’m off to discover her previous adventures to join her once more…
Audrey Sutherland died in 2015 at the age of 94. I love her aspiring philosophy of “go simple, go solo, go now.” Though I doubt I would ever be brave enough to go it alone, maybe one day soon I can plan a journey of length that requires the mailing ahead of food (but definitely not including bears!) The gentle tone of her writing describes a truly remarkable achievement whilst she herself remains marvellously unassuming throughout.
‘Paddling North’ Audrey Sutherland, Patagonia, 2018
‘Paddling My Own Canoe: A Solo Adventure On the Coast of Molokai’ Patagonia, 2018
‘Paddling Hawaii’ University of Hawaii Press,1998.