In Search of My New Hero

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In Search of My New Hero

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Oahu
Apr 11, 2012

There are many alternatives I’ve found. No one system is the ultimate answer. If one route is blocked off there is another way to go. I’ve learned to live without things and alone. The ability to live in a variety of styles, city or country, with people or without, in different languages and cultures, with enthusiasm for the small luxuries, gives me a power over the future, whatever chaos the world comes to.  -Audrey Sutherland

I sat at the popular Cafe Haleiwa on Oahu's North Shore and plotted. 

But, first, I sat on my black, vinyl-covered banquet chair at a red, Formica-topped table and ordered food--a veggie omelette with spinach, onion, mushrooms, tomatoes, zucchini and egg-white substitute. 

Then, I flipped open the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, nearly elbowing the surfer next to me. Two guys sat at the table to my right. They wore surf trunks, oversized t-shirts, and when I looked at the black-and-white, checkerboard linoleum floor, I noticed sand still stuck to their feet.

"Looks like it might be a body boarding day," the older one said. The tables here were jammed so close together that I couldn't avoid listening in on their conversation. Fine by me. Eavesdropping tells you a lot about a place.

"I can body board all day," the younger one said in response.

On Oahu's North Shore, Haleiwa is known as a surf town. The restaurant's colorfully-painted walls pay homage to the waves for which the North Shore is famous with oversized canvas prints by local artists. The waves here draw surfers from around the world. When the waves are firing, professionals come in droves, from all points of the globe, like pilgrims to Mecca. Particularly when the new-fangled god of surf predictions--Surfline--beckons.

Surfline is a website that provides comprehensive surf reports and forecasts on a daily basis via mobile applications and the Internet. In the world of surfing, Surfline is as much a necessity as the surfboard itself.

I swiped the screen of my iPhone and pulled up Surfline's report for Jocko's, a surf break outside Haleiwa named after big wave surfing pioneer Jock Sutherland.

The report said: Small conditions for North Shore as residual mix of N/NNE swell and trade swell providing rideable surf at select locations. Jockos doesn't favor the northerly swell angle so look for other spots for ride-able waves.

I wasn't in Haleiwa to surf. I didn't much care whether the surf was breaking at Jockos or not. But I did want to know whether Jocko's mom was around. Surfline couldn't tell me that. I'd have to find out for myself.

I first learned of Audrey Sutherland when I read the February/March issue of Hana Hou, Hawaiian Airlines' in-flight magazine. 

According to the magazine, Audrey Sutherland has paddled an estimated 12,000 thousand miles along some of the world's most epic coastlines. In an inflatable kayak. Solo. 

There is a sensuous joy in being alone—delight in the simple animal pleasure of blowing my nose with one knuckle, peeing in the moonlight, and trying a Tahitian dance step with only myself to snicker. There is a smug ironic satisfaction in finding an ingenious solution to a problem which was caused by my own inadequacy or stupidity.  -A.S.

Audrey published an account of her earliest explorations of Molokai's north shore--known as some of the tallest sea cliffs in the world--in a slim, 136-page memoir titled, Paddling My Own Canoe.

I searched for the book on Amazon, and discovered it was published in 1978, got 4.5 stars out of five, and was still in print. A collector's copy sold for $140.83. But I bought a used library hardback for considerably less. When it arrived in the mail, I was packing for a trip to Maui, where I savored passages in snatches while sitting on the lanai at the Royal Kahana Resort. I gazed off into the distance at the very coastline that Audrey, first, swam and, then, kayaked. I stared at the pinpricks of rocks off Molokai's north shore--Mokapu Island, was it? And Okala Island?

I like to think I know all the good books published about Hawaii. Especially those in my genre--outdoor adventure. But, boy, was I wrong. Humbled again.

I've since recommended Paddling My Own Canoe to my posse of readers and writers and outdoor enthusiasts. I've blogged about it here. At first, I berated myself over and over, "How could I not have known about this book?" Then, I moved from a question to a statement: “I've got to meet her.”

But how?

Back in the days of my mainland career, I spent my fair share of time around famous people in their fields. Some names you'd recognize; others you wouldn't. Sometimes I sat around board rooms with these people--or, in one case, at a nationally-known basketball coach's personal desk in his team's locker room. Sometimes, I escorted these folks to dinners. Other times to autograph signings. And, yet, I cannot once remember asking a single person for their autograph.* No 8 x 10 glossies adorned my walls. No signed, first editions lined my book shelves. For some reason, and I don't know why--except that I just wasn't born with the gene--I am neither an autograph-seeker nor a celebrity stalker.

Until now.

But does it count if I'm stalking a 90-year-old woman?

Men and women are more alike than different. Women too need to feel the coyote wildness, the pleasure of muscles moving in coordination, the sweat and the weariness, and the uncertainty of what the end to that effort will be.  -J.S.

The sun was cresting a line of palm trees that line the far side of Chun's Reef when I scrambled over a stack boulders tossed down by Pele sometime in the not-so-recent past.  As I hopped and crawled over the rocks, I periodically perioscoped my head over the hedge of naupaka bushes dividing beach from private property. I felt like George Clooney in The Descendents snooping on his wife's lover, only I wasn't looking for a cheater. Hardly. In the world of epic kayaking adventures, Audrey Sutherland is well-known, having made appearances and talks at outdoor conventions and gatherings, and she was my new hero.

I'm not sure why I had this urgent desire to meet Audrey Sutherland. But after reading her book Paddling My Own Canoe, I felt some sort of connection with her. A kinship. Maybe we belonged to the same tribe--the I-am-my-best-and-most-satisfied-self-when-I-am-alone-in-nature tribe.

Always I come back from these trips feeling like a skinned-up kid, feeling like a renewed, recreated adult, feeling like a tiger. All that basic nature, all that use of animal instincts, arouses some very earthy desires.  -A.S.

Audrey raised four children and held a full-time job, but every few vacation days she could sling together, she packed a bag--or waterproof, typewriter box--and headed to Molokai. Alone. She'd hitch a ride to the remote east end and start rock-hopping along the coast--destination Kalaupapa. The trip was not about the destination but the journey. As she hiked, when she got to a dead-end--a vertical wall of rock--she'd stash her shoes and clothes, slip on her “finsmaskandsnorkel” and swim around the point, her box of gear and food tethered and floating behind her. This was the 1960s. Eventually, in the 1970s, outdoor gear caught up with Audrey, and she discovered inflatable kayaks. And dry bags.

On one of my periscope moves, I recognized Audrey's house from a photograph in the magazine article about her, and I dropped my backpack onto the sand in the shade of a palm tree. I sat back against a rock to stare at the sea. As I sat there, a rock morphed into a turtle. Then, one emerged from the sea. The more I watched, the more turtles I saw. Several ebbed and flowed at the tideline, heads below the water, noshing on seaweed.

Now what?

Across the bay, the voices of a pack of beginning surfers floated on the air as waves rolled toward shore in gentle sets. An orange diver's flag bobbed on a float outside the reef. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw some kind of bird buzz low and inland. 

If she walked out of the house and onto the beach right now, what would I say to her? What would I ask her?

I imagined she was watching me from her window, and I made sure to give the turtles plenty of distance. In the Hana Hou article, she kept a sign that said, "Please stay six feet away from the turtles." I looked around, but I didn't see it.

Should I just go knock on her door? The front door would be better than the back. Traipsing across the back yard, past a hammock strung between two palm trees, onto her lanai, by a picnic table where she’s probably eaten hundreds of meals, and banging on the back door would be an invasion of privacy. Inappropriate.

I got a good look at the bird the second time, as it alighted on a rock at the water's edge, foraging. It was a wandering tattler.

Would Aud--she calls herself that in the book--be honored if I knocked and told her how much her book touched me? Or, would she be annoyed? This was why I wasn't a good journalist. I don't like to bang on people's doors, cold call without an introduction of some kind.

I made sure to stay a minimum of six feet away from the turtles. That's why, when a woman came bounding from somewhere behind me, heading straight for the turtles, I called out, "Hey. Watch out for the turtles."

She was tall, with salt-and-peper hair that managed to look wind-blown even for its short length. She hopped on a rock to get a better view and tapped a finger in the air. "Seven," she said. "I only count the ones on land. Not the ones in the water."

"They're making a great comeback," I said. "The turtles."

Was she Audrey's daughter? I got up the nerve to ask, tumbling out some words that I don't quite remember.

"Audrey took me under her arm when I was a young girl," she said, and her eyes welled with tears. "Audrey's an amazing woman. She could make due with nothing."

Part of Audrey's success in the wilderness came from her tenacious planning and research. She put great faith in lists--packing lists, as well as life lists. One rather infamous list of Audrey's supposedly still hangs in her bathroom and was written back in her child-rearing days. It's titled, "What every kid should be able to do by age 16" and includes:

- Cook a simple meal
-Drive a car with skill and sanity
-Care for tools and always put them away after use
-Clean a fish and dress a chicken
-Change a diaper, change a tire
-Spend the family income for all bills and necessities for two months
-Save someone from drowning useing available equipment
-Listen to an adult talk, with interest and empathy
-Dance with any age
-Be happy and comfortable alone for ten days, ten miles from the nearest other person
-Do your own laundry

One item on her packing list that I didn't understand was lipstick. Audrey was too practical for lipstick. Too practical for vanity. But Audrey pre-dated technical gear. If Audrey was headed out today on an 87-day, 887-mile paddle through the Inside Passage of Alaska and British Columbia--the subject of her forthcoming book--she'd include this item on her list: Lip balm with SPF 15. Lipstick as lip balm. That's my theory, at least.

The woman’s name was Heather. Heather and I spoke for an hour, trading stories of wilderness adventures and encounters.

Suddenly, I knew what I wanted to ask Audrey. I thought of a string of questions:

-What was it? What kept drawing you back to the wilderness? 
-All these years later, what are the two or three memories of your Molokai experiences that stand out?
-Can I see the typewriter case?
-How does it feel to be a role model for women half your age?
-How did you learn to write, because, girl, you can write?
-How did your mother influence who you are today?
-How did your kids turn out?

I was thinking about these questions when Heather asked her own. “Do you want to meet Aud?”

I felt something inside me jerk awake. My animal nature? The ever-alert eye of the prey animal, perhaps? But this was my opportunity, wasn’t it? The reason I'd driven all the way up here from Honolulu to the North Shore? Right?

“She was napping earlier,” Heather said. “I’ll go inside and see if she’s up.”

Heather had shared that Audrey was starting to show her age. She was 90, by golly, and even Audrey couldn’t outlast age. She was sometimes forgetful. Sometimes hard-headed. She took naps.

Wait. No, I wanted to say. But I didn’t say anything. My mind whirred. Was I embarrassed? Suddenly shy? Or was I realizing something else. That the Audrey taking a nap inside was not the Audrey I met on the pages of Paddling My Own Canoe. Of course, I could do the math. I knew Audrey was no longer the spry 40-year-old. But in my mind right now, Audrey was this amazing, larger than life woman. My idol. My role model. My aspiration. Did I want to meet today’s Audrey? The stubborn, forgetful, maybe arthritic, a few short years away from death Audrey? Or did I want to live in my heart and mind with the supple, rock-hopping, swimming naked at the base of waterfall, crawling under a cabin and shoring up a sagging floor Audrey? I didn’t know.

It was too late, anyway. Heather was already inside.

So, I stood on a rock and counted turtles: 12. But, then, one lumbered for the sea. Eleven.

Heather returned a few minutes later. Audrey was still napping, she said, and I felt the slightest sigh of relief escape my lips.

I left shortly thereafter, rock-hopping my way back to the sandy beach, where a man was playing ball with his two dogs. I crossed the highway and slid into my rental car, settled my backpack in the seat next to me and started the ignition. Then, I opened the piece of paper Heather given me. On it was a phone number. That was two-and-a-half weeks ago. I have yet to call.

And why did I always come alone to Moloka’i?” I know why, but the telling is hard. Daily we are on trial, to do a job, to make a marriage good, to find depth, serenity, and meaning in a complex, deteriorating world of politics, false values, and trivia. But rarely are we deeply challenged physically or alone. We rely on friends, on family, on a committee, on community agencies outside ourselves. To have actual survival, living or dying, depend on our own ingenuity, skill or stamina—this is a core question we seldom face. We rarely find out if we like having only our mind as company for days or weeks at a time. How many people have ever been totally isolated, ten miles from the nearest other human, for even two days?
Alone you are more aware of surroundings, wary as an animal to danger, limp and relaxed when the sun, the brown earth, or the deep grass say, “Rest now.” Alone, you stand at night alert, poised, hearing through ears and open mouth and fingertips. Alone, you do not worry whether someone else is tired or hungry or needing. You push yourself hard or quit for the day, reveling in the luxury of solitude. And being unconcerned with human needs, you become a fish, a boulder, a tree—a part of the world around you.
The process of daily living is often intense and whimsical. The joy of it, and the compassion, we can share, but in pain we are ultimately alone. The only real antidote is inside. The only real security is not insurance or money or a job, not a house and furniture paid for, or a retirement fund, and never is it another person. It is the skill and humor and courage within, the ability to build your own fires and find your own peace.  -A.S.

*I don't count the time my mother took me and my two brothers to hear the Cubs' star first-baseman, Ernie Banks, speak. We stayed after and got his autograph. I was maybe five. Or the time she took the three of us to a local car dealership to stand in line for Chicago Bears' linebacker Dick Butkus' autograph. He wasn't much impressed with the cast on my broken arm; I was 10.


Liz | Apr 11, 2012 09:33 PM

wonderful article, I just finished reading the book and it's great to hear this follow up to Audrey's life. Mahalo!

Liz | Apr 11, 2012 09:32 PM

Wonderful article, thanks for sharing!

Jill McIntire | Apr 12, 2012 08:19 AM

I read that book (and her others) years ago. Then, year later, I had friends who ran into her on the inland passage, Alaska to Washington. They were rowing south and she was paddling north in her inflatable. What a role model!

Kim | Apr 13, 2012 08:15 PM

How cool, Jill, to run into her. Good for your friends. And thanks, Liz ;)

tdgrish | Apr 19, 2012 11:19 AM

Regarding the post, "In search of my new hero" Sea Turtles have inspired me over the years, the first time I was able to see one was when I was swimming at Tunnels on Kauai with my father, "Oh My Gosh!" Such A Blessing............ Thank You.

Joyce | Jun 17, 2012 11:00 AM

Hello, you will be thrilled to hear that Audrey has a new book out, Paddling North. This book chronicles her trips in Alaska. going simple, going alone, going now! The book is available at numerous locations;, amazon, and many bookstores. this treasure is every bit at inspiring as her last. I too fell in love with this book and getting to know Audrey through her gift of words.

Kim | Jun 19, 2012 03:57 PM

Hi Joyce, already got it! I pre-ordered it at Amazon, and it arrived a few days ago. Already a few pages in and look forward to reading it, preferably by the sea!

gracejame | Jul 04, 2012 03:00 PM

The blog is absolutely fantastic lots of great information and inspiration both of which we all need

Jean Campbell | Oct 26, 2012 01:25 PM

Audrey has been my hero too since I read Paddling My Own Canoe eons ago as a kid. I was lucky enough to meet her when I was teaching the book in a nature writing class at a local university about 15 years ago. Through a mutual friend, she invited me and my students to her house on a Saturday. She was as amazing in person as in her book. I remember one of my students marveling at how small she was. This student had imagined an amazon of a woman based on what she was able to do and had a hard time grasping that this relatively petite humble woman was the same person. I found her open, warm, inspiratonal and still just as curious about adventure as she sounds in her book. I had my one man canoe with me, planning to paddle after our class was over, and she wanted to learn all about it. Imagine, me, teaching Audrey Sutherland something about paddling!! It was a fantastic day. I'd love to see her again, at 90-something, because I still strive to be as awesome as she is, no matter the age.

Kim | Oct 30, 2012 01:48 PM

Hi Jean, what a fabulous experience. Since reading "Paddling My Own Canoe" earlier this year, I've also read "Paddling North." What a woman. After "growing" with her on the page, I am now ready to meet her in person. I've heard she's made a couple appearances on the North Shore when her latest book was published. I am headed to Molokai this weekend, and you know I will be thinking of Audrey. I won't be paddling this trip. But maybe next!

Julie | Jan 27, 2013 02:06 PM

I adored her book - It was empowering and grounding. To me the biggest lessons were to overcome our fears, have trust in ourselves and to cherish this beautiful world. I also loved her 'tips' ie, what to do if a cockroach ever decides to camp in one's ear. Ha!

Kim | Jan 28, 2013 04:01 PM

Hi Julie, that was a good tip, wasn't it? I also liked her list of "What every kid should be able to do by age 16." Thanks for your comment.

pamountainbeaver | Jan 10, 2014 11:17 AM

I love the ten rules for humans in Paddling My Own Canoe - among them knowing how to change a diaper!

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