“I like being solo in the wilderness,” said Audrey Sutherland. She sat on the wooden deck of her house on the North Shore of Hawai‘i, a six-foot inflatable kayak at her feet, the ocean within view. Soon she will be 90 years old, but she is sharp and capable, and her smile is dazzling. I had read her first book, Paddling My Own Canoe, about her solo adventures paddling that kayak beside the ocean cliffs of the Molokai coast on 12-foot seas and giant waves, so I knew I was meeting a legend. She couldn’t possibly have been more welcoming and friendly. I loved her even more when I noticed that she was wearing a bit of eyeliner and pink lipstick, a charmingly feminine touch of vanity in a woman who has led an epic life in the great outdoors.
I have been on a quest to say yes to more things, as I approach 60 with a desire to live life more fully and be a little braver—how could I not be in awe of this woman? That’s before I even knew there was a sequel to her Molokai experience. It turns out that when Sutherland was 60, she decided to explore Alaska’s Inside Passage in her trusty little kayak—alone. In the course of two decades, she managed to cover 8,000 miles of Alaskan and British Columbian coastline. Her dining room tabletop is a glass-covered map of Alaska with the portion she kayaked meticulously outlined in black felt-tip pen.
“A primitive power comes with standing and watching alone in a dark and silent solitude,” she has said. “Whatever you’re afraid of—bears, solitude, capsizing—you need to learn more about it to overcome that fear.”
Now she pointed to her famous kayak and offered my friend Linette and me a chance to take it for a paddle. So I had to confess two embarrassing facts to Sutherland: I cannot swim, and I’m afraid of the water.
“It makes sense to be afraid of the water,” she said, and I immediately felt a little better. “But I can teach you how to swim. We’ll break it down into simple steps. Come back tomorrow.” What do you say when Audrey Sutherland offers to teach you how to swim? It’s like wanting to get started in Buddhism and the Dalai Lama says he’ll give you a few tips.
Maybe it looked like a baptism—a white-haired priestess leaning over a woman in the sea. At one point, I swallowed a big gulp of salt water that reminded me of the stuff they make you drink the night before your colonoscopy, and I sometimes flailed about. But briefly, ever so briefly, I was buoyant. The sounds of the world receded, and I felt myself suspended in a watery realm, separate and solitary. I did not feel exactly comfortable, but I was held, and happy not to sink, although the possibility of sinking never entirely left my mind.
It has been proven, however, that I float. And I did go out to sea.
And I felt a special bond with Sutherland. We are 30 years apart in age, almost exactly, and I’ll never be as brave as her, that’s for sure, but she is proof that there are different ways of moving through the decades.