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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