Paddling North, by Audrey Sutherland, Patagonia Books (www.patagonia.com), 2012, 171 pages, $22.95.
Paddling North is the story of Audrey Sutherland, who braves the Alaskan coastline solo in a nine-foot-long inflatable kayak. But from the start, the only thing that is cast off in this adventure is the reader’s sense of time, of place, and of Sutherland’s supposed passion for the trip she is about to undertake. On page one, Sutherland inauspiciously sets sail with a typo (“There seemed be total wilderness…”) paired with a bait-and-switch lede about an encounter with a grizzly bear that – spoiler alert! – ends up taking place not during, but in a last-few-pages flash-forward recollection two years after the close of her 800-mile paddle from Ketchikan to Skagway. Confused? Me too, especially given that Sutherland’s purported paddle plays out over two summers, but the narrative disingenuously unfolds in a single trip. Too, she never outright tips her wool cap as to when the trip takes place except through clues in the forward or sprinkled throughout the narrative like the occasional bear scat she encounters (the closest, really, she comes to interacting with bear): “Since that first voyage, I’ve paddled… 22 more years in Alaska and British Columbia,” and “It was only after 20 more years of paddling this country…”
Sutherland recounts her trip in a clipped, mechanical pace. Take for example her encounter with a family she comes across while traversing the Behm Canal: “Ahead lay a buoy – and a boat and people on shore by the cabin: three adults and three kids. My preference for solitude was balanced by their hospitality. In the morning, 12-year-old Rick taught me fishing techniques for the spinning reel and confirmed that I had been seeing mink.” It is surprising how much time, and yet how little substance, she can pack into three sentences that span late afternoon to early morning the following day. Or later, “I came back to the cabin and lit the fire I’d laid yesterday. Hot tea and rolls and change out of the wet clothes.”
Sutherland’s trek becomes less about place than about checking off stops on an itinerary, bouncing between uncertain Forest Service cabins and hot springs marked on her maps. Alaska’s Kodak moments become glancing mentions. Upon reaching Hole in the Wall – as good a place as any seemingly worth at least an adjective or two, right? – Sutherland remarks, “I paddled in good conditions to Hole in the Wall and through its slot. The narrow, high-sided pass opened out into a grass-lined bay. It [the bay] would be a good place to anchor for a bigger boat…” That’s it? Nothing about natural arches or rock formations?
At times, the entire story reads as though Sutherland padded her diary entries enough to make of them a story. So it comes as no surprise that the few times she drops snippets from her journal, the dairy entries aren’t all that different from the story narrative. They’re cursory, removed, distant. Overall, the narrative ebbs and flows as though reading over Sutherland’s shoulder her diary or a text or email. Could it be this jumpy, distant narrative stems from the 20-year gap mentioned above? In much the same way Sutherland hypothesizes John Muir’s Travels in Alaska, written 15 years after his adventures took place, reflects Muir glossing over the misery of his wilderness treks, perhaps the veneer of Sutherland’s exuberant passion and thrall about places explored and moments lived have similarly worn away over the passing score years. Sutherland’s difficulties balancing the past and present also come through in a device she leans on regularly, an awkward time-traveling transition in which she interjects from the present-day to note, “Later, I’d read… that a fox farm was here in 1923″ or “Later, I read Vancouver’s own journal notes about this area”.
If nothing else, her writing – understated, muted, and numb – drives home the discomfort and perils of soloing frigid waters under uncertain weather conditions: choppy waters, sinister currents, the cold and wet and wind. The only warmth we experience is that of her admirable instinct to mend neglected oil and wood stoves, and the mouth-watering meals she prepares on them. There are no MREs or tinned meats. No, Sutherland makes it a point to wine and dine herself every step of the way: marinated artichokes, Romano cheese, cioppino, bacon, and mango apple cobbler; Sirah and sake and chablis and rum; and foraged cockles, limpets, and self-smoked salmons steaks. Such repasts prove creature comfort to author and reader alike.
Still, there are moments that break the ice, where Sutherland’s compassion stirs and her brevity is becalming. Writing about petroglyphs she finds along the rocky shoreline, we share a tender moment where she reflects on past inhabitants as she makes a rubbing of a glyph using her stuff sack and crushed fern. If only there were more treasurable moments like these, perhaps Paddling North would have stayed afloat. But at story’s end, there are no skin-of-your-teeth close encounters with bears as promised, no life-and-death experiences, no epic revelations or ah-ha moments to speak of. Just bear poop, a tipped kayak, and the author’s sense of self-accomplishment. Caught in these doldrums, Paddling North instead finds itself lost at sea.
In this month’s November/December 2013 issue of Orion magazine, professor of wildlife ecology Drew Lanham, Clemson University, recently published an essay titled 9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher. Admittedly, the title gave me pause, such that I did a double-take (Orion and Onion are, after all, not so dissimilar words at a glance). As I read Lanham’s nine prescriptions for the black birder (“Carry your binoculars—and three forms of identification—at all times”), I couldn’t help but recall my innumerable tragicomical run-ins over the years between the law and myself – gearing up for fieldwork by a car on a roadside in the middle of nowhere (drug deal), watching breeding junco pairs through binoculars on a University of California campus (pervert), or creeping along a rooftop in search of a bird nest (jumper). And I’m a birder/naturalist of the white male variety.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed, Vintage/Random House (www.randomhouse.com), 2013, 315 pages, $ 15.95.
In 1995, at the age of twenty-six, Cheryl Strayed found herself the very poster child of lost: from her mother, lost to cancer, from her marriage, lost by her infidelity, from her life, lost to sex and drugs. An orphan in every sense of the word, her life was a shambles. In this no-holds-barred memoir, Wild recounts how Strayed found herself again somewhere along eleven-hundred miles of the Pacific Crest Trail between the Mojave Desert, through California and Oregon, to Washington State.
With only her backpack ‘Monster’ to keep her company, Strayed pits her untested self against the perils of the Pacific Crest Trail – rattlesnakes, bears, record snows, loneliness – while simultaneously struggling to make sense of her past. In her trek through the wilds of the outdoors and the wilds of her soul, Strayed’s journey becomes one of self-destruction and self-discovery, desolation and solace. At times Strayed’s writing recalls Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods in her self-effacing honesty, but more so the gritty memoirs of Deborah Copaken Kogan’s Shutterbabe: Adventures in Love and War. Strayed is nothing if not raw in her forthright accounting of her life. Wild throbs with pain. Reliving memories as blunt as standing in the snow on Christmas and pulling the trigger to dispatch the her mother’s dying horse to the tender blue tattoo on her shoulder to lives and loves lost, Strayed does not shy from retelling her life with a blunt insight and compassion and self-awareness so often glossed over today. If Wild is Strayed reckoning with herself, the reader becomes the silent spectator at this punitive peepshow.
Along the way, Strayed sheds her baggage (both figuratively and, because of her zealous packing, literally), including the treads of her feet and a few toenails along the way as her pound of flesh, all casualties of months on the trail. With every step, Strayed’s body is worn raw and bloody and calloused while her soul is reborn and remade and renewed. The woman that emerges from the wild is a far cry from the girl that set foot in the desert.
As tough as it is tender, Wild will leave you grateful for the good in our lives, grieving for that which we’ve lost, and gracious to those who struggle everyday to make sense of the wild in their hearts and souls.