Mother’s Day Special: The Audrey Sutherland Story

850 miles alone in a kayak in Alaska. That’s just one of the great adventures undertaken by Audrey Sutherland, a legendary solo traveler, paddler, swimmer, and mother of four.

In the world of outdoor adventure and paddling, Audrey Sutherland stands as a towering figure. A woman who didn’t just break the mold but crafted her own. This Mother’s Day, we celebrate not just any mom, but a mom who exemplified the spirit of adventure, independence, and courage in all aspects of her life. Audrey Sutherland’s story is not just about the miles she paddled but about the journeys she embarked on. Both physically and metaphorically, proving that an adventurous spirit can coexist with motherhood – and perhaps even set a positive example for our progeny.

An Adventurous Start

Born Audrey Helen Schufeldt in 1921 in Canoga Park, California, Audrey’s love for the outdoors was kindled in the San Bernardino Mountains, where she spent her summers in a cabin built by her father. It was here among the pine trees that Audrey learned the value of solitude and the beauty of nature. In her own words from Paddling My Own Canoe, she recalls, “I stalked deer at dusk and fireflies at night, ran wet and exultant in cloudbursts and thunderstorms, and climbed to the tops of young pine trees to swing them in whipping circles.”

After graduating from the University of California, Los Angeles, with a degree in international relations, and working as a riveter building airplanes during World War II, Audrey married and moved to Hawaii in 1952. It was in the Hawaiian Islands that her adventurous spirit truly found its calling. Here, she became a substitute elementary school teacher, swimming instructor, and mother. Solo travel became complimentary, even essential, to her existence as a woman in the world. She writes of the feeling she got from solo travel in her book Paddling North: “So much of my life had been limited by the parameters of children, marriage, jobs, cities, neighbors, friends, expectations. Now there were none, and the sense of freedom was intense.”

Now or Never

Audrey’s realization that life’s adventures couldn’t wait came abruptly. When denied leave from work to make an epic kayak trip from Ketchikan to Skagway in Alaska, she made the bold decision to quit her job and pursue her passion. Paddling alone for 850 miles in an inflatable kayak, she embraced the solitude, stating, “It’s so much simpler alone, you don’t have to worry about whether somebody is hungry, or tired, or angry, or whatever.” This trip wasn’t just a physical challenge; it was a declaration of her independence and a testament to her belief in following one’s dreams, regardless of life’s circumstances.

The Hui Wa’a Kaukahi Kayak Club

Inspiring others was second nature to Audrey. While teaching at the University of Hawaii, she motivated one of her students to establish the Hui Wa’a Kaukahi Kayak Club, now the largest recreational kayak club in Hawaii. This club, built on the values Audrey cherished, continues to inspire paddlers to explore the vast and beautiful waters of Hawaii, fostering a community bound by the love of kayaking.

Further Reading

Audrey Sutherland’s life and adventures have been chronicled in her books, Paddling My Own Canoe, which narrates her experiences in Hawaii, and Paddling North, detailing her solo kayak trip in Alaska. These works not only offer a glimpse into the remarkable life of an extraordinary woman but also serve as inspiration for adventurers, especially women and mothers, to pursue their passions.

Audrey Sutherland’s legacy is a testament to the spirit of adventure. This Mother’s Day, as we celebrate the incredible women in our lives, let us also remember trailblazers like Audrey who remind us that the pursuit of our dreams knows no bounds. For adventure moms, outdoor enthusiasts, and Girl Paddlers everywhere, her story is a beacon of inspiration, encouraging us all to paddle our own canoes.


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