Star-Bulletin Features

Tuesday, January 12, 1999


She makes waves
Last November, the crew of the PBS' "Anyplace Wild" spent 12 days on the Big Island, filming what will likely be the season opener for the series' third season, which premieres in June. This is the second of two stories about the women who headline that program, the first appeared in Out There last Tuesday.

By Cynthia Oi


That she is 77 years old doesn't factor in to Audrey Sutherland's outlook on life.

Yes, she's closing in on eight decades of life, and yes, her metabolism has changed so that her slim figure, once immune to fat accumulation, has slowed. All of that is incidental, just small barriers to be hurdled then left behind.

Sutherland isn't a woman easily deterred; a review of her accomplishments will tell you that. She has journeyed along Molokai's north shore in a combination of swimming, paddling and hiking 18 times. She has climbed Mauna Loa six times, once back to back with a hike of Mauna Kea. She's paddled more than 7,500 miles of Alaska and British Columbia coastline and hundreds of miles in Samoa, Palau, Ireland, Norway, Greece, Austria, France and Scotland in an inflatable kayak.

She's done all of it by herself.

"There is a freedom in being alone," Sutherland says.

She's nurtured that freedom for decades, building an outdoor resume so impressive that she will be the subject of a segment of the PBS television program "Anyplace Wild."

She's not anti-social. "I just get a little itchy when there are a lot of people around me for more than a few hours."

That wasn't always the case, especially not when she was raising four children, although she also did this by herself.

Her ex-husband "was a very good ocean-going man, and a terrible husband." Cancer claimed him years after their divorce. "Another woman had gentled him," she explains. "He died just as I was beginning to like him again."

Art Sutherland is sitting on a bench at the end of a lanai that runs the length of her beachfront home on the North Shore. The house, modest but roomy, swings along the curve of the shoreline. Her short white hair ripples in the breeze that accompanies the swoosh of waves washing the white sand that fills the beach between smooth boulders.

To the right is a view of Waimea Bay and Chun's Reef, to the left, Laniakea and "Jock's Break," a surfing spot named for her famous surfing son.

"Jock did break there," she says. He was getting out of the way of a friend when he wiped out and broke his leg. In a way, the incident pleased her; it showed that Jock was unselfish, putting himself in danger instead of his friend.

She is proud of all her children but doesn't claim their accomplishments. She has so many of her own.

Her decades of outdoor experiences are chronicled in two books she's written: "Paddling My Own Canoe," and "Paddling Hawaii." The latter explains the how-to, the former explains the why that thrills her.

"And now, this second night out, hunkered there by the flames, sipping tea with rum, feeling its warmth inside, the fire's warmth on my face and shins, and the wind's chill on my bare back, I felt again the surge of pure primitive joy and power that comes with being alone and wary and confident."

The passage from "Canoe" is part of a narrative of her second swim-hike challenge of Molokai's north shore. The first had been an ordeal of an inexperienced traveler, a journey which brought her close to death.

"I looked up at the wall ahead. It was only about sixty feet high. I thought I could climb up ... but I had never before experienced the mind-robbing effects of dehydration. ... Ten feet from the top I ran out of handholds. I knew I could not go back down."

Her only choice was to leap from the cliff into the surging waves below, hoping that she pushed off hard enough to avoid a rocky ledge at water's edge. She managed, then crawled onto the ledge and lost consciousness for "I don't know how long."

Luckily, a boat came by and she hitched a ride to Kalaupapa.

She was in her early 40s when she made those first journeys, and with each solo expedition, Sutherland learned. Her resourcefulness, her ability to fit things to her needs is evident in her kayak.

She's tweaked and modified the 13-foot-long craft, adding a skirt to keep water out and gear dry, having special paddles to make them easy to stow, adding safety lines so essentials, including herself, stay together if she capsizes. All of this because if you're alone, you have only yourself to depend on.

But Sutherland has never been in a situation where she wished there was someone to help her.

"If you're in a kayak, and your boat overturns, it's almost impossible for someone to get you out of your mess. You really have to do it yourself," she says.

Sutherland's oneness comes from her familiarity with the outdoors. The youngest of six daughters of a California agriculture teacher and newspaper editor, "my dad was resigned to the fact that he wasn't going to have a boy, so he took me around trails and hikes."

When she was 14, "in adolescent rebellion," she grabbed a blanket, raisins and cheese and walked for three days into a wilderness area. In all that wandering, she saw no other human being and reveled in the solitude.

Her longing and love for the outdoors is the overriding theme in her life. She shared it with her children, taking one of the four with her on adventures. "One child is one problem ... Four children? The problems are astronomical. So they went along one at a time."

They were also instilled with a need to be resourceful. Sutherland made a list of "twenty things every kid ought to be able to do by age sixteen," which included "fix a meal, splice a cord, change a tire, change a baby ... see work to be done and do it."

Lists are part of Sutherland's organizational structure. It may come from her career as an education counselor and director for the Army. It was that job that introduced her to Alaska, a place she's paddled now more more than 18 summers.

"I went to talk to kids in high schools there. When I was flying into one of the towns, I looked out the window and saw it was kayak country. It was quiet water, inside passage, lots of water, lots of islands. It was total wilderness outside of the towns."

Then in 1980, she made a list of things she wanted to do with her life.

"Number 1 was paddling Alaska." She took two weeks off and paddled "a short 160-mile trip, maybe it was a little longer."

Intrigued, she asked for a leave from her job to spend the summer there.

"My superior said no ... So the next day, I resigned."

She gave two months notice and trained her replacement.

"Made a smooth exit. That Friday, I left the job at 5 p.m. and at 11 p.m. I was on the plane for Alaska. I did a 600-mile trip in a nine-foot boat."

Sutherland's years have blessed her with an accumulation of knowledge about the ocean and the natural world. Her books are jammed with stories and observations, big and little.

That she shares all of this with others seems to run counter to a soloist. But it isn't, she says.

"When you're alone, you can depend on you and yourself," she explains. "But you first have to be able to do that before moving to help others."

And figuring out what it is you want to do in your life is most important, she says.

When she gives seminars, "I always ask people 'If you had $10 million to spend and a year to spend it and you can do absolutely anything in the world with anyone you want, what would you do?'

"Then I say, 'Why aren't you doing it?'

"This always gets people going. One man -- he was upset -- said, 'What the hell do you mean why am I not doing it. I have a wife, three kids, a job, a mortgage, that's why.'

"Well, I slowed him down and asked him to think of one thing he can do, when he can do it, to break it down and figure out what part he can do. That's how you reach your goals," she says.

Her sharp blue eyes scan the seaward horizon and she props her tennis-shoed feet up on the railing, leaning back on the bench, thinking.

The "why aren't you" question often surprises people, she says, because "a lot of people haven't thought about it. They live on the top edge of life, seldom get down to the basic core questions."

Among those basics, according to Sutherland:

"Do you know what your five senses can do?"

"Are you aware of your body?"

The awareness of body leads to an awareness of your mind and your soul, which in turn leads to a freedom, she says.

"One of the things I say in my new book is that my life has been unbounded," she says, which isn't exactly true. There were boundaries: "Marriage, children, responsibilities, friends, expectations."

"All of these things do limit you. But there comes a time when these are gone.

"Then the freedom is intense. Suddenly -- wow -- you have yourself. You can do anything you want."

That she has choices is what seems to feed Sutherland's soul and her choice is to venture alone.

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