Monthly Archives: January 2013

What I’m Reading Now: Paddling North

I love the adventure books wherein the heroine finds herself in the woods–after starting out with personal devastation, crying on the bathroom floor, losing all her family, and dealing with other heartbreaking scenarios.

I also love the books that are just about exploring the world for its own sake, about getting to the experiences on our life lists.

The remarkable Paddling North, by Audrey Sutherland (Patagonia Books, 2012) is a bit more the latter than the former. But it’s some of both, although without the drama and conflict usually accompanying the new memoir. (Which, don’t get me wrong, I love.)

Cover of Paddling North. Illustrations by Yoshiko Yamamoto.

Cover of Paddling North. Illustrations by Yoshiko Yamamoto.

The plucky Sutherland up and quits her job so she can paddle from Ketchikan to Skagway, Alaska. But she’s no spring chicken–she’s sixty years old, is divorced, has raised four children alone, and is an inveterate lover of water. She paddles 850 miles in eighty-five days, and she does it solo ninety-nine percent of the time.

The boat she uses is a Sevylor inflatable kayak, known to many of us river veterans as a “ducky.”


Sevylor Inflatable Kayak

She’s also well read and accesses literature with ease, especially words relating to nature. She quotes Yeats, Conrad, Muir, and Homer without missing a beat. She also pulls up Steve McQueen’s best known quotation: “I’d rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on earth” (first brought to my own teenaged attention in On the Loose, by Jerry and Renny Russell [Sierra Club, 1967]).

And Sutherland gifts us with lovely passages of her own. A few of my favorites:

The white obelisk of Mary Island lighthouse lay five miles to the southeast. Was it automated, and if so, what happened to the old light keeper’s residence? Lighthouse is an oenomel, a word evoking a whole way of life, geared to a rhythm of light and fog and the four seasons. “Oenomel,” a combination of wine (oenos) and honey (mel) drunk by the ancient Greeks, by derivation means a strong sweet draught as of language or thought. I’ve come to use it to describe any word that evokes more than the meaning of the word. Cabin, candlelight, wine, valiant, poignant, dusk–all are oenomel words. Phrases, too–rain on a tin roof, mountain hut, breaking wave.


To the east the land was darkening. Night does not fall. It rises from the earth as the sun sinks low, sets, and embraces the land with its shadow. How could I describe the place? Words could only be read and the scene imagined. Even a photo could only be seen. It would not include the sound of the water on the stones, the scent of the spruce trees, the coolness of sea wrack under my hand, or the weary satisfaction of just sitting there after paddling six hours that day, and six weeks before that. The size of these islets and their details of sand, shell, and rock beach, grass, driftwood, and flowers, the small woods back of the shore–these are proportioned to kayaks and close-ups, not big cruise ships or ferries. Those get a far outline of the shore, but their only close-ups are of the docks and the towns. This country is made for the pace of a kayak.

Sutherland could have made her book about the drama of all the losses that led to the trip and her salvation, because she, as we all have, suffered her losses. Instead she launches right onto the water, and we launch with her. Through her joy in the journey, she does find a deliverance from the pain of transition. It’s just that she does it with discretion, skill, commitment, and lack of self-pity. Refreshing.


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What I’m Reading Now: Fierce Medicine

When my daughter Rose was a toddler, she would go to live with her dad on alternate weekends and all summer long. She’d wave good-bye to me all the way down the street, and I’d stand on the sidewalk waving back, not taking my eyes off her until her dad’s car rounded the corner and went out of sight. My neighbor across the street would come over to ask how I was doing. She was well attuned to mother-daughter bonds, as she had a grown daughter who visited often with her husband.

“Does it get any easier?” I asked. I knew she suffered when her daughter left at the end of a weekend.

“No,” my neighbor answered. “I always hate to see her go. It feels like this tearing–just as strong now as when she was a little girl going off to kindergarten or when she left for college.”

Yesterday when Rose, now in her twenties, departed for a job in Colorado, that old tearing feeling returned. The grief her leaving stirred was mixed with the joy of seeing her finding her wings. As she was going out the door, she asked me to return a book to the library, as she’d run out of time. I left the book near our front door to take downtown next time I go.

Tonight, the book Fierce Medicine by Ana T. Forrest is still here, and I picked it up to page through after dinner. Now I’m so engrossed in it, I’ll be keeping it by my bed to read until I’m done (after renewing it from the library, of course). It seems synchronous that Rose should leave a book about “breakthrough practices to heal the body and ignite the spirit.” It offers a way out of pain.

When Rose used to go as a young girl, I’d go to my desk and write. I was writing stories about the river–I should say The River–which was the muse I followed beginning at age 17. The River gave me a hand out of adolescent pain into a world that connected my restless heart to the earth. It sounds funny to say water grounded me, but it did. Until finding The River and The River Community, I had no lifeline to make the sort of great contribution my teachers and parents always said I could.

The writing eased the pain of the loss I felt when Rose’s departures left me standing in the middle of a room wondering what to do instead of devote every waking minute to being a mother.

Now the writing has left me in pain, too, with aching arms, and poured out intellect and heart. I ended 2012 getting a long-time project ready for publication, and I feel emptied out by that as well as my girl going again.

Therefore, Fierce Medicine seems written just for me, with words I need to read now. I want an integrated, ferociously committed approach to easing the pain of loss–the departures of loved ones, the deadening of my live and lively body to sit at a desk and write for years, the fading of strength with age. I’m ready to sign on to an ignited spirit and healed body. My sense is that not turning away from this difficult moment, no longer ignoring the pain, is what is called for.

Here’s what Forrest’s website says about her book and life’s work:

Ana Forrest has been changing people’s lives for nearly 40 years.  Now this innovative yoga master draws on her own amazing life story to reveal powerful physical, emotional and spiritual practices for healing and growth.   In her new book, Ana offers a guide to living fully in our lives and bodies, allowing us to discover the healing power of our body’s wisdom.  From “stalking fear” to “walking free of pain” and “learning the art of truth speaking,” Ana distills and shares wisdom from her own life experiences, making complex ideas practical and easily applied, offering a new blueprint for life.

Find out more about it at


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Author Rebecca Lawton will celebrate the publication of her novel, Junction, Utah, with a presentation on early river running in the West on Thursday, February 21, at Readers’ Books. The community is invited.

There will be a reception starting at 7:00 followed by a reading and slide show at 7:30 p.m. Readers’ Books is located at 130 East Napa Street. The band Bosonoma will provide entertainment.

Lawton was among the first female river guides on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon and on other rivers in the West. Her collection of essays, Reading Water: Lessons from the River was a San Francisco Chronicle Bay Area bestseller.

Junction, Utah, was inspired by Lawton’s own years as a whitewater guide. Her presentation will include images of Colorado River rapids, early and modern day river guides, as well as places in the West that became settings in the novel.

Lawton is also co-author of the local bestseller, On Foot: Twelve Hikes in the Valley of the Moon, and other books. She has published in Orion, Sierra, and San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, as well as in many literary journals and anthologies. She won the first Ellen Meloy Fund Award for Desert Writers for work on Junction.

Besides guiding for many years in the 1970s and 1980s, Lawton has worked locally for the Sonoma Ecology Center, where she collaborates on projects to sustain watershed health.

A donation of $10 is requested to benefit the Ecology Center. This event is sponsored by Readers’ Books. For more information, call 707-939-1779.

My beautiful picture

Little Colorado River in Flood

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I’m not a materialist, but some things are precious to me, because they remind me of loved ones either passed on or far away.

My grandfather’s homemade deerskin jacket, which my husband Paul says is “the most beautiful object you own.” (Grandfather Austin was an Adirondack guide, and the first of four generations in my family who have guided for a living.)

Grandfather Austin in his Adirondack guideboat

Grandfather Austin in his Adirondack guideboat

A postcard on my windowsill from my daughter Rose, who lives several states east, with a line from Tolstoy: “There are as many loves as there are hearts.”

Stained glass in my window by my friend Rebbi Gazzaniga; oil paintings on my wall by my friend Elizabeth Black; photographs of my most recent Grand Canyon river trip by my friend Michael Mills.

These are just a few things I treasure, and some others are words: my late mother’s handwritten note to me from years ago, when I was a river guide and traveling downstream every day, that includes this quote from T.S. Eliot:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
― T.S. EliotFour Quartets

I think we arrive back to our hearts, and our families, and know their worth.

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I’ve been tagged by Jordan Rosenfeld to post an excerpt from Junction, Utah, just out this week ( The instructions were to paste seven lines from page 7 or 77 from my new novel. Here are seven lines from page 7.

“Scouting Warm Springs, Rick couldn’t have looked more relaxed if he’d been watching a game of pool in town. He stood easily a half-foot taller than anyone else on the trip, his hands clasped behind his favorite tennis visor—the one that said Corvallis for the university he’d attended just one semester. He’d spent all his time boating instead of going to class, finally admitting he’d rather work as a river guide and kayak sales rep than graduate with any degree. ‘Screw it.’ He’d thrown his head back and laughed. ‘I’m just river trash.'”


Green River bighorn sheep

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Forum. In Merriam-Webster’s Tenth (no I will not replace it): “Akin to the Latin foris outside or fores door. Also fora. A public meeting place for open discussion.”

If you haven’t been to Marlene Cullen’s Writing Workshops, go now. You can go in person if you live in the Bay Area, or you can go to her website at or her facebook page: if you can’t get to Petaluma, California, on a third Thursday.

Marlene is often thinking about writing: prompts, presentations, conferences, freewrites. She’s a vital, giving person, and a lovely writer herself. I can’t wait for the day she offers Writing on the Bay, perhaps in a boat like Bogie’s Santana: Now that would be an outside open discussion! Never mind his silly comment about not being able to pee over the side. Of course we’d let him! As long as we get to write!

Carpe sailing. Carpe fora. Carpe Marlene and the Writer’s Forum!


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