The River, The Sea, Audrey and Me
There lies within every woman a whisper.
A precious voice, so often talked over the top of, drowned out by society and conditioning. In generations past so many of these voices have gone unsung to the grave. So many melodies unheard, so many greatnesses undone (or at least, uncredited). In every generation there have been those who have created the acoustics for quiet voices, who have carved a chorus of change.
One such woman for me was Audrey Sutherland. I never knew or met her, but I read about her. She died in 2015, about a year before I realised she was a neighbour of my Aunty in Hawaii. Sliding doors. She has some classic one-liners. I recall chuckling at her view that being stuck indoors at her desk job made her “soft, white and mean” and that she yearned to escape to the wild to be “hard, brown and kind”. Her adventure motto was, “Go Simple. Go Solo. Go Now” which I have absorbed myself, on a completely cellular level. She raised four children as a single mother, took up paddling in her 60s, and proceeded to paddle over 8000 miles of the Alaskan wilderness over the ensuing 22 years until her death. She made me believe that as a mother of two children, taking up kayaking as a 30-year-old, and being the first person to solo kayak an un-navigable 400 km river surviving off the river and land, was pretty doable.
She was a gourmet forager. She’d gather mussels and limpets, always had garlic and lemon in her kit, and she’d stuff a bottle of wine in the nose of her boat. She would put wildflowers in her boot laces to make her smile on the odd occasion she felt lonely or needed a morale boost on her broad open water crossings. She talked gently to grizzly bears and gave-way to wolves.
She taught me to collect and carry out rubbish in the wild, and to never leave a campfire without collecting wood for the next person. I did this the entire way down my 400 km solo river journey. Even though I knew there wouldn’t be people following me down the river any time soon, in my own little way, I honoured Audrey. One day people will burn wood I laid for them too.
I marvelled at how highly-skilled she committed herself to being in the outdoors. It inspired me to set a high bar in my own preparation. As a mother, she embodied courage and leadership. She wrote a no-punches-pulled list of things: “What Every Kid Should Be Able To Do By Age Sixteen.” I sheepishly realised I couldn’t do half of what she’d sent her children out into the world knowing. I assumed knowledge of the list and am ensuring my sons will walk on from me knowing how to do the same too. She valued manners, know-how, and real-world proficiency above all else.
She understood nature as the epicentre of connection. Firstly with nature itself, then with ourselves, and then with others. Grounding us so we in turn feel grounded and can be grounding to those in our orbit. She understood the environment and its effects on our biochemistry. She knew connection in nature was a journey of return.
Sometimes I wonder whether I was a poet first, or whether I went out into the wild and became one. Solitude in nature does that to a person. Plato once mused, “At the touch of love, everyone becomes a poet”. I think it equally true of the wild. I have fallen asleep to the sounds of dolphins herding fish into the bank, so close it felt they would carry me away. I have laid among howling dingoes and osmosed their song. I have navigated blind in the dead of the night and in fog so thick I was a ghost. I speak the language of water. I have hated and loved the stars. I have been to the place where rivers are born and journeyed to where they give birth to the sea. I read Audrey’s books. And then I went and wrote my own.
The thing I’ve learned about role models is that it’s not about trying to live the life of another woman, or desiring to be her. The words and actions of others can only resonate with us if they’re already inside us. As younger women we can mistake these reverberations for jealousies and envies and threats because we’re not sure of who we are yet, but as we grow we learn that these synapses are deep and dormant revelations. Signposts on our own, untrodden path. In this way we are connected, we follow in the wake of those who have come before us, and keep the surface tension broken for those who come after us.
Heraclitus once said, “No woman can step into the same river twice. For it is not the same river, and she is not the same woman.” (I know you know I just totally paraphrased that). Women flow and pour themselves out like rivers. I journey them to journey myself. I know I will never arrive. Just like Audrey, I will paddle my line out beyond death. Out on the water she has shown me how to be a woman that time cannot touch.
Biography: Hayley Talbot is an expedition kayaking author and mother of boys. She is passionate about promoting the remedial power of nature, the elevation of women, and protecting the wild places she plays in.