Free Spirited Solo Paddler Audrey Sutherland Did the Most Important Things

The first time Audrey Sutherland explored the rugged northeast coast of Moloka’i, she swam the 20-mile stretch. Forty-one years old, divorced, a mother of four, she swam alone with snorkel and fins, dressed in blue jeans and towing behind her an Army duffel containing a few essentials wrapped in a shower curtain and stuffed inside a weather balloon: camping gear and camera; food she’d canned and dehydrated at home on neighboring Oahu; red wine in film canisters.

In this way she traveled three to five miles a day, swimming in through the surf to camp, forage, and explore a part of the island that was terra incognita in the summer of 1962. She’d first seen Moloka’i from the air years earlier and became obsessed with the island’s northeast coast, where the world’s highest sea cliffs rise abruptly from the Pacific Ocean, punctuated by spectacular waterfalls, steep valleys, and a handful of narrow beaches. Details were scarce. Her map, published in 1928, was woefully lacking in detail, though on one point she was clear. “In Moloka’i, because the current and the wind blow west, you can’t go back. It’s the coast of no return,” she said.

Sutherland, however, was hooked. She swam the Moloka’i coast again in 1964. As usual, she told the older kids to look after the younger ones and that she’d be back in a week. “We would joke and say, do we call the Coast Guard if you don’t come back in seven days on the dot?” said the oldest, Noelle Sutherland, who was 20 that summer. Her mother was by no means a punctual person, but she finished the Moloka’i swim on time, already full of plans to return.

“She said, ‘I’ve got to have more gear so that I can pack saws and things to fix up the shack I found in a valley halfway down my trip,’” Noelle said. And so Sutherland found a six-foot inflatable kayak in a magazine and ordered it, sight unseen. Bulbous and slow, it was an unorthodox craft for the wild coasts she burned to explore, but it fit her style perfectly. She could roll it up and pack it onto a plane, and she returned with it many times to Molokai’i. She took it to Na Pali and Kona, and to Samoa, Greece, Norway, and Maine. When she visited Scotland, she brought the little yellow kayak to Loch Ness to investigate the lake’s legendary monster herself.

Sutherland with the makings of an Alaskan feast. She preferred mussels because they don’t move and are easier to catch. Courtesy the Audrey Sutherland Estate

She was born Audrey Schufeldt in Canoga Park, California, in 1921. Her father died when she was five, and her mother raised Audrey and two sisters through the Great Depression on a schoolteacher’s salary. When classes let out each summer, the family decamped to a lopsided cabin in the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles. In a family photo from those days, a six-year-old Audrey perches on the cabin, shingling its roof.

“I stalked deer at dusk and fireflies at night, ran wet and exultant in cloudbursts and thunderstorms, and climbed to the tops of young pine trees to swing them in whipping circles,” she wrote in the first of her books, Paddling My Own Canoe.

At fourteen, she decided to climb San Gorgonio Mountain, an 11,500-foot peak 14 miles from the cabin. “I would go off by myself when I got mad at the family,” she recalled in an interview with Dale Hope of Patagonia Books. “I got halfway and then camped in the meadow and there were eyes out there all night and I thought about mountain lions and wolves.” At daybreak, the realized the predators she’d imagined were in fact a neighbor’s cows. Sutherland laughed at herself and continued. The trip to the summit and back took four days. “In those days we didn’t have backpacks, so we put a blanket down on the floor and put our stuff across the blanket and rolled it up and then carried it over our shoulders,” she said.

When she was just 16, Sutherland started at UCLA, where she became a formidable swimmer and earned a degree in international relations. She predicted the coming war with Japan in her diary, and after Pearl Harbor she and her sisters took jobs as riveters in an aircraft factory. In 1942 she married a young Coast Guardsman named John Sutherland, who came up through the ranks as a mustang—an enlisted sailor who became an officer. After the war they worked a commercial fishing vessel together in California, then moved to Hawaii in 1952 when John was called back to active duty during the Korean War, serving on a buoy tender that roamed throughout the Pacific.

Audrey Sutherland realized that with her husband away so often there was no reason to stay in town, so she drove from Honolulu out to the North Shore and began knocking on doors, asking if anyone knew of a place for rent. The search yielded a beachfront house in Haleiwa for $80 a month, where she raised two daughters and two sons in the same freewheeling style she had known as a girl.

The property overlooks a fast left-breaking wave called Jocko’s, named in honor of Sutherland’s oldest son Jock, a legendary North Shore surfer. The whole family grew up in the ocean; Noelle remembers the day a wave picked up her youngest brother James as he crawled on the beach. “He literally swam before he could walk,” she said.

Sutherland and one of her inflatable kayaks. A man once asked her, “Where’s the Donald Duck head and clown feet?” but over the years she paddled such craft more than 12,000 nautical miles. Courtesy the Audrey Sutherland Estate

“She taught us that we could explore and forage and have fun all on the same expedition—as she would always call them—by cramming us all into the old station wagon and going up to the mountains on illegal roads, or sometimes we’d get keys for locked gates and we’d go up into the mountains where there were streams and trails. My mom was often late to things, so our picnic lunches would invariably end up being picnic suppers, usually in the rain, usually after dark.

Sutherland was a fierce proponent of self-sufficiency, and a lover of lists. One, still posted on her daughter’s wall, enumerates 31 skills a person should be capable of by the age of 16. It’s a broad inventory, ranging from “Change a diaper, and a tire” to “Know and take responsibility for sexual conception and protection when needed.” The first item is “Swim 400 yards easily” and the last is “Do your laundry.” In the middle, there’s this: “Be happy and comfortable alone for ten days, ten miles from the nearest other person.”

Sutherland kept lists for herself, too. After coming to Hawaii she’d earned her master’s degree and went to work for the Army, counseling young people about career choices. The work took her to Alaska, where in 1980 another aerial view of islands grabbed hold of her imagination and wouldn’t let go. “For years I had searched for a combination of mountains, wilderness and sea, and here it was. Clear, quiet water, snowcapped ridges and peaks, small bays—all in the Inside Passage, sheltered from the storms of the open North Pacific,” she wrote in her fourth book, Paddling North. (The middle two books are eclectic guides to kayaking in Hawaii, detailing routes throughout the islands and also such essential skills as opening coconuts and picking opihi. Published a decade apart, both are titled Paddling Hawaii.)

She looked at charts of the standard route through the Inside Passage, 800 miles from Seattle to Skagway. It had a nice alliterative twang, but she found no poetry in the route itself, a straight line connecting towns and well-marked passages. Instead she charted a meandering course, also 800 miles but skipping everything south of Alaska, a “roundabout route of hot springs, old cabins, small islands, and resupply towns,” as she put it. In her little kayak she would pack wine, good olive oil, and Hawaiian salt, with plans to forage and feast on mussels, berries, and salmon.

The trip would take two months, but when she asked for unpaid leave from her job, the request was denied. That evening she went home and looked at her list of the 25 things she most wanted to do, in order of importance. Item One: Paddle Alaska. She quit her job the next day.

“Sometimes you have to go ahead and do the most important things, the things you believe in, and not wait until years later, when you say, ‘I wish I had gone, done, kissed,’” she wrote. “What we most regret are not the errors we made, but the things we didn’t do.”

Sutherland went to Alaska that summer and for 23 summers after that. All told, she meandered more than 8,075 miles around Southeast Alaska, from her first trip in 1980 to her last in 2003, when she was 82.

She died in February 2015, a few days after her 94th birthday. She’d donated her body for research (“I will still be able to teach even after I die,” she said) and when her ashes came back, loved ones gathered in the deep water outside the reef, “Out beyond the deep blue water where she used to swim. ‘Out where the big fishes are,’ she used to say,” recalled Noelle, whose husband James Conti had also died recently.

“I had my husband’s ashes, and Jock paddled Audrey’s ashes out with several other surfing friends. The sun shone down into the water, and as the ashes swirled and sank my son and Jock’s son slipped into the water and twirled and swam in the sparkling ashes,” she said. “Then Jock and other surfer friends surfed the ocean with the sunset behind them, and the waves standing up so they held the light as though they were turquoise.”

Top photo: Sutherland in Alaska, early 1980s. Courtesy the Audrey Sutherland Estate 

Audrey Sutherland wrote several books about her adventures:

Paddling North

Paddling My Own Canoe

Paddling Hawaii



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