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Go simple. Go solo.

-Audrey Sutherland, paddler, swimmer, adventurer

Almost every paddler I know has, at one point in their paddling life, looked at a body of water and said, "Yeah, I could paddle that!" Sometimes, a particular body of water seems like such an amazing challenge that it becomes an obsession. in 1958, Audrey Sutherland flew over the Hawaiian island of Molokai and something kind of like that happened to her. Looking down at the rugged, green mountains and the island's spectacular sea cliffs, she just knew she had to find a way to explore one of Hawaii's most remote islands.

Her 1978 adventure memoir, Paddling My Own Canoe, details her obsession and her multiple attempts at exploring Molokai's North Shore. It is a must-read for any paddler who has ever looked at a body of water and wondered what it would be like to explore it.

At the time her obsession with Molokai took root, Sutherland was a single, 41-year-old mom of four living in Hale'iwa. the surf town on O'ahu's North Shore. Blessed with an adventurous spirit and parents who nurtured it, Sutherland was no stranger to hiking, backpacking, and all manner of ocean sports. She began planning her first epic swim/hike on Molokai by pouring over topographic maps of the island and talking with locals. She ultimately decided that the best way for her to accomplish her goal was a combination of hiking and swimming, somehow towing her gear behind her in the ocean. The trek totaled over 20 miles.

In this modern era of paddling equipment materials, designs, and gadgets, finding the perfect gear for just about any application or adventure is easy. Google searches and a trip to your local outdoor store are pretty much all it takes to outfit us for paddling in warm or cold water, kayak or SUP camping, or racing. But in 1962, when Sutherland made her first hike/swim excursion to Molokai, lightweight, technical outdoor gear was non-existent. No drybags. No inflatable kayaks or sups. The game-changing waterproof fabric called Gore-Tex hadn't been invented yet. Sutherland had to improvise what she needed out of surplus materials - on her first attempt, she wrapped a few essentials in a shower curtain, which she put in an Army duffel, which she then stuffed inside a weather balloon!

She made several expeditions to Molokai and each time; she improved her kit and her methods of using it.

Sutherland's hikes were true bushwacks, as no real trail system existed along the cliffs of Molokai. She did her land portions clad in jeans and high-top sneakers—attire any contemporary hiker would cringe at! Where the mountains were truly impassable, she would find her way to the water, often launching herself off the rocks and into the surging surf. She would swim long stretches in the open ocean until she came to a suitable place to exit the water and resume her quest on foot.

Ultimately, Sutherland decided that she really needed a kayak, but one that she could portage and hike with, not a heavy fiberglass rig. At the same time she made that realization, the first inflatable kayaks were coming on the market. She returned to Molokai using her inflatable, to great success. Ultimately, she used that same inflatable on an expedition up Alaska's Inside Passage, from Ketchikan to Skagway, which she undertook at age 60. That expedition is detailed in Paddling North, published in 2012.

Even though her books have been available for over 40 years, it was only recently that I learned of her adventures. What she learned each time she set out - about herself, about Hawaii's cultural and natural environments, and even about parenting, is more than awe-inspiring. Her achievements as an ocean athlete are unparalleled. Surely, someone has optioned the film rights to Sutherland's stories because they would be every bit as captivating, if not more so, than the movie adaptation of The Boys in the Boat, or the much-lauded biopic Nyad, the story of long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad's attempts to swim the Straits of Florida. Photographer Bob Liljestrand produced a 1 hour-12 minute documentary of Sutherland's Molokai adventures, which is available via the SurfNetwork streaming service.

Sutherland died in 2015 at age 94, from complications from Alzheimer's-like dementia, at her oceanfront home in Hale'iwa.

Patagonia reprinted both novels in 2018 in beautiful volumes that include wonderful illustrations by Yoshiko Yamamoto. Earlier editions of Sutherland's books can be found at slightly cheaper prices, but the Patagonia editions are lovely and are excellent additions to any paddler's library.

Sutherland was truly a pioneer. Her accomplishments on the water deserve to be much better known than they are. Do yourself a favor and read Paddling My Own Canoe. Then give that book to another paddler friend and insist they read it.

“What Every Kid Should Be Able to Do by Age Sixteen” from Paddling My Own Canoe:

  • Swim 400 yards easily
  • Do dishes in a strange house, and your own
  • Cook a simple meal
  • See work to be done and do it
  • Care for tools and always put them away after use
  • Splice or put a fixture on an electric cord
  • Know basic information about five careers that suit you
  • Volunteer to work for a month in each of those fields
  • Clean a paintbrush after use
  • Change a diaper and a tire
  • Listen to an adult talk with interest and empathy
  • Take initiative and responsibility for school work and home chores
  • Dance with any age
  • Clean a fish and dress a chicken
  • Drive a car with skill and sanity
  • Know and take responsibility for sexual conception and protection when needed
  • Know the basic five of first aid: restore breathing and heartbeat, control bleeding, dilute poisons, immobilize fractures, treat for shock
  • Write a business letter
  • Spend the family income for all bills and necessities for two months
  • Know basic auto mechanics and simple repair
  • Find your way across a strange city using public transportation
  • Be happy and comfortable alone for ten days, ten miles from the nearest other person
  • Save someone drowning using available equipment
  • Find a paying job and hold it for a month
  • Read at a tenth-grade level
  • Read a topographic map and a chart
  • Know the local drug scene for yourself
  • Handle a boat safely and competently (canoe, kayak, skiff, sailboat)
  • Operate a sewing machine and mend your own clothes
  • Operate a computer as needed
  • Do your own laundry

More on Audrey Sutherland:

New York Times profile

Adventure Journal Profile

Living Stories Collective: Swimming with Audrey Sutherland

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