An Interview with Audrey Sutherland

I met Audrey Sutherland aboard a kayak mothership in Sitka, AK. It was her 23rd year of kayaking in Southeast Alaska. We motored south along the west side of Baranof Island and anchored in protected, fjord-like bays to go paddling.

Audrey is a brilliantly focused woman. From the mothership’s wheelhouse, she used binoculars to study the shoreline for campsites. At times she would forego launching a kayak and hop in the skiff to expedite a shore visit. She insisted on starting and operating the skiff’s outboard herself. When ashore, Audrey would duck under the spruce and cedar canopy and quickly assess a spot’s camping potential.

She knows the Latin names of countless plants and animals, and she peppered captain Jim Kyle and chef/kayak guide Tana DeSilva with countless questions. Audrey’s a do-it-yourselfer who loves a good hardware store. She’s also very visual: Sitting in the galley, she would often grab a napkin and draw a simple diagram to illustrate a concept.

She has a tremendous store of memories and can describe beach scenes and bear encounters in great detail. She has, arguably, the brightest eyes on the planet. People talk about sunset years. Audrey is full-on 10AM sunshine.

I interviewed her by phone after she returned to her home in Hawaii.

Gary Luhm: When I was invited to spend a week with Audrey Sutherland, I thought, “Wow, a week with the grandmother of sea kayaking.” At least that’s how I perceived it. How and when did you get started?
Audrey Sutherland: Many people were kayaking before I started. After twice swimming the 20-mile north shore of Molokai, towing my gear, I bought a six-foot inflatable kayak, then a nine-foot, and paddled that coast 18 times.

 What were those early days like, compared to today?
AS: The same. I’m always discovering new places and learning more each year.

GL: The self-sufficiency of those early trips must have been a great boost to your self-esteem. Today paddlers can buy everything they need to outfit themselves. I wonder if that degrades the end experience?
AS: I buy maybe 10 percent of my gear. The rest I make from scratch or redesign and adapt. Cheaper that way, and fits the need.

GL: You paddled in Hawaii for a long time and then shifted to Alaska, from warm water to cold. What drew you to Alaska? Why didn’t you head for Tahiti or Baja?
AS: I’d been to Tahiti and to Baja. Tahiti is too civilized, and in Baja I always felt I needed a desalinator so as not to use the local meager supply of water.

GL: Southeast Alaska is a challenging place to paddle. What adjustments did you make for paddling there?
AS: I started small; short trips of two hundred miles in sheltered waters, and worked up to 500-mile trips in open seas.

GL: How do you re-supply on longer trips?
AS: I can carry enough for three weeks. Beyond that I send a box of food, charts, film to a post office along the route. On the 900-mile trip from Skagway into BC, I sent five boxes.

GL: You’ve had a number of bear encounters.
AS: Yes, I’ve had 30 bears within 100 yards of me: 17 grizzlies, 13 black bears. One grizzly was five feet away with only a thin sheet of plastic between us. I talk to them. The human voice, more than scent, seems to let them know that I’m an unknown and not to be tested.

GL: How else do you keep yourself safe?
AS: I always wear a lifeline. It’s an eight-foot cord with one end looped and fastened over my left shoulder, the other end clipped with a snap hook to the boat by my right hip.

GL: Chris Duff, who has circumnavigated Ireland, New Zealand, and most recently Iceland, says he trains in the worst conditions, then paddles well below his skill level. Good advice?
AS: His skill level is higher than mine. He has paddled the west coast of Ireland and around Cape Wrath in Scotland. I wouldn’t try either one.

 You’ve written extensively about paddling solo. Paddling organizations like the BCU, ACA, and kayak clubs all advocate paddling in groups for safety. Don’t you think it you would be safer paddling in a group? Why do you choose to paddle solo?
AS: I’m safer alone. I prepare in detail. I don’t follow a group schedule. I don’t have to rescue anyone else. I know what I can do and I don’t exceed my abilities.

GL: You’ve paddled or owned a dozen inflatable kayaks. They’re great for portability, but they’re also slow and have a lot of windage. Other portables, like the folders, would seem to me to be a better option for long trips. If you had the technology of today 40 years ago, do you think you would still have paddled an inflatable?
AS: Yes, they are safer boats. For carrying a kayak up and down a beach at low tide my limit is 30 lbs. Folding boats large enough to carry three weeks of gear weigh too much. Inflatable boats vary greatly in speed but I once paddled 22 miles once in 4 hours to catch a ferry.

GL: Do you own a hardshell kayak?
AS: Yes, a nine-foot, 35-pound sit-on-top for my grandson. My son James also has four big hardshells that he keeps in my yard.

GL: You mentioned a number of times that you don’t like surf. But surf is common in Hawaii, and on the outside in southeast Alaska. How do you deal with it?
AS: In Hawaii or in Alaska it is almost always possible to find a cove or a corner of a bay with no surf.

GL: Looking at your paddling accomplishments and reading about your early coastal swims in Hawaii I’d say you’re tough as nails. Yet you say you’re not strong. Why and how does a “not-strong” person take on these types of challenges?
AS: Stamina and ingenuity take the place of strength. I can’t carry a kayak that weighs more than 30 pounds, but I cut rollers from bull kelp and haul the kayak up the shore.

GL: In Paddle My Own Canoe, you state that, “pre-trip conditioning must improve each year to offset the aging process.” You also wrote “when I’m 71, I’ll have to be able to do 71 push-ups.” How do you manage to keep on paddling?
AS: No, I can’t do 71 push-ups. When I get too old and feeble, I’ll make day trips from a base camp or from a cabin.

GL: There’s a passage in the book that reveals some of your motivation. You say, “I come back from these trips feeling like a skinned-up kid, feeling like a renewed, recreated adult, feeling like a tiger.” They must be terrific confidence builders.
AS: More than confidence. Exaltation!

GL: You seem, too, to thrive on problem solving, as you say “the smug satisfaction of finding an ingenious solution to a problem caused by (your) own inadequacy or stupidity.”
AS: That is still part of the fun.

GL: What have you learned from the experiences described in Paddling My Own Canoe?
AS: I learned the basics, and kept on going. There is still a lot to learn.

GL: Has your motivation for paddling changed in any way, as you’ve grown older?
AS: It has stayed the same. Going solo in a wilderness is still my main motivation.

GL: So seeking solitude is a big factor for you. On a recent trip to Cape Scott I carried a satellite phone. I could call my wife every night. What do you think of taking all this technology aboard—the sat phone, the cell phone, the GPS, even a digital camera and laptop or PDA—so you can send a day-by-day trip report, or, God help us, surf the internet.
AS: Why not just stay home?

GL: I’ve heard you say: “Keep it simple.” Would you give that advice to a mainland paddler who doesn’t intend to fly to Tahiti for a paddling trip, but sticks close to home with a high-volume hardshell?
AS: Set a goal for each trip. Ask yourself how light you can go and still stay warm and dry. Will you see more if you go only 5 miles a day? Are you happier going solo? Do you really know this area, its wildlife, its wild food, and its history?

GL: One of your favorite activities is foraging food from the sea. This can be the key to real self-sufficiency. Any comments?
AS: I’m still learning. Yesterday I tried eating a sea cucumber. Definitely not successful—yet.

GL: In our previous conversations you frequently mentioned John Dowd, the founding editor of Sea Kayaker. I had the good fortune of hearing John speak at the 2003 West Coast Sea Kayaking Symposium. He talked at length about the differences between information and knowledge. A lot of information taught to kayakers isn’t useful, he said. What’s required is experience—experiential learning. In other words, information plus the right experience equals knowledge. You seem to have drawn similar conclusions. Comments?
AS: At home I have two sea-kayaking manuals that were supposedly written by experts. In each I’ve tagged more than twenty notes about what won’t work and why. I revere John and his practicality.

GL: Dowd also talked about real and perceived risk. Some would say your solo adventures in Alaska are foolhardy. What is the real risk, and what do you think others perceive the risk to be?
AS: Others think the risk is bears. Read and follow Dave Smith’s book Bear Basics. The real risk is getting into a situation without knowledge of the real dangers. Read your large-scale charts. Try to imagine what circumstances could kill you. Each morning, go through the what-ifs.

GL: How should a novice or one who dreams about expeditionary paddling get started?
AS: Go with a professional group. Paddle with one of the best outfits in your territory.

GL: Say I’m an intermediate-to-advanced paddler, with a few years of experience, a couple of weeklong trips under my belt, and a good pool roll. I’m thinking: Now’s the time to plan a week or two in southeast Alaska. Where should I go for a first trip?
AS: Before you go, make sure you can get back in your boat after a wet exit in 50-degree water. How long does it take? More than 30 seconds and you’ll be too numb to function. For first trips I’d recommend the western Behm Canal out of Ketchikan, or Sitka Sound. Petersburg to Duncan Canal, or Juneau around Douglas Island, and Wrangell to Anan Bay are all good trips too.

GL: I think many paddlers, women especially, regard you as a role model. How do you think you may have inspired others?
AS: Inspiration without nuts and bolts practicality and bit-by-bit efficiency is futile.

GL: Many women often struggle to find a life of their own, with competing demands as mothers, employees and as daughters of aging parents. How did you find time for your adventures? Why was making this time to adventure important to you? What effect did this have on your family?
AS: Before I retired from my full-time job, all of my adventures were for less than ten days each. Each of my four children learned self-sufficiency. We made a list of 25 things they should be able to do by age 16. I could write a whole story on that.

GL: Are you dreaming about padding anywhere new?
AS: The Cook Islands, and new places in Southeast Alaska: around Kuiu, Elfin Cove to Tenakee, around the south end of Prince of Wales Island.

GL: I’m sure you’ll make it happen.

Last stop on the Nordic Tour with Helen Wilson and Mark Tozer

Our last week in Sweden was very busy. After leaving Nynashamn, we made our way to Sandhamn. Sandhamn is a gorgeous island just east of Stockholm. It can only be accessed by boat. John Sjoberg of Sandhamns Kajakskola picked us up and took us to the island, which has a very relaxed feel. The small harbor area hosts a couple of pubs and restaurants. The following day we conducted a rolling class in the morning, and a strokes class in the afternoon. During the strokes class we wound our way around several of the islands in the archipelago enjoying the gorgeous scenery.

The ride to Sandhamn.

Although Sandhamn is very close to Stockholm, it feels secluded.

Mark talks about the forward stroke.

This sandy island was a great place to stop for coffee and cinnamon rolls.

The archipelago can be very tranquil when the weather is calm.

The following day, John returned us to the mainland and we prepared for classes in Sickla that would take place in the morning. Although in distance, Sickla is not far from Sandhamn, it has busier feel, as it is very close to Stockholm’s center. Classes took place through Sjostaden Kajak. Mark and I conducted two rolling classes and a rescue class, all of which took place on a small lake that is part of a chain of lakes that run through the area.

The paddle to the lake was very pretty with lily pads lining the narrow channel.

Rolling felt great in the warm lake.

Mark demonstrates how to empty a kayak before performing a self rescue.

After teaching in Sickla, we made our way across Sweden for our last stop on the west coast. We arrived in Helsingborg and were greeted by Zsuzsanna, a lively and fun woman who organized our visit to Helsingborgs Kanotisterna. Upon arrival I was happy to realize that I’d been there during the first year of the Nordic Tour in 2010. I recognized the club and the active beach, which had lots of organized recreational activities for people to enjoy. The first day we taught two rolling classes, and the second day was filled with strokes, maneuvers and rescues in the harbor area.

Helsingborg has a wonderful sandy beach, with great views of Denmark in the distance.

Strong winds and cloudy skies created a dramatic backdrop for Sunday’s classes.

Demonstrations and activities on the dock provided a break from being on the water.

After leaving Helsingborg, we crossed the country one last time to return to Stockholm for our final day of classes before flying home. We met up with Karin and Martin of Ornsbergs Kanotsallskap. The following day we conducted a yoga session and a rolling class on another of Stockholm’s gorgeous lakes. We enjoyed hanging out with Karin and Martin in the evening and learning all about the beautiful city where they live.

The kayak club is right on the water.

Paddle tricks provided a fun after lunch warm up.

We’re now back home, and this year’s tour is over. Thank you to everyone who helped organize it, and to all of the participants who came out to take classes from us. We’re in the process of organizing next year’s tour, and hope to see you all again!

Maligiaq Makes Waves on His U.S. Visit

In Greenlandic, the word ‘maligiaq’ means “medium-sized wave.”

A seventeen-year old Greenlander with that name has made some very large waves in the kayaking world in the past two years.

Maligiaq Johnsen Padilla (pronounced muh-LIG-ee-ahk YOON-sen pa-DEE-uh) came to the U.S. for a year in September of 1998 to visit his father, Augusto “Geno” Padilla, in Colorado, and to improve his English.

Maligiaq was only 13 during the 1995 National Kayaking Championship meet, yet he won every event in his age group. In 1998, he became the Champion Kayaker of Greenland. At the age of 16, he had defeated all kayakers, even the best of the 20- to 34-year age group—the age group that usually produces the national champion—becoming the youngest Greenland kayaking champion ever.

Maligiaq’s heritage is deeply rooted in kayaking. His mother’s ancestors were from Vester Eyland, a small island near the mouth of Disko Bay that is noted for kayakers of exceptional skill. Living on a small island forces subsistence hunters to go out almost every day in all kinds of weather, or they face starvation. Kayak hunters either become skillful or die trying.

Yet, no matter how skillful a kayaking seal catcher becomes, hunting large sea mammals from a kayak is a dangerous occupation. Maligiaq’s great-grandfather lost his life in 1929 when a seal he had harpooned dragged him and his kayak so forcefully that his back was broken.

Maligiaq’s grandfather, Peter Johnsen, now 73, is a retired seal catcher. When Maligiaq was a small boy, he was riding in a rowboat with his grandfather when his grandfather’s gun accidentally discharged.

With his hand badly injured, Peter was unable to row the boat. Even though he was only four years old, Maligiaq managed to row the boat to shore. Maligiaq’s father says that ever since that incident, Maligiaq and Peter Johnsen have been “as close as two coats of paint.”

Over the years, Peter taught Maligiaq several special kayaking skills that he has added to those he learned in the Greenland National Kayak Association’s training program.

When Maligiaq came to the States, he brought a sealskin-covered kayak with him. Unfortunately, it was damaged in shipment.

One gunwale was badly cracked about a meter back from the bow, which caused the bow to hook to one side. Although Maligiaq performed in the damaged kayak at the 1998 Delmarva Paddler’s Retreat in Maryland and the Southwest Canoe Rendezvous in Huntsville, Texas, it tended to go in a circle when he paddled it upside-down.

To prevent further damage to the kayak, Maligiaq decided to build and use another kayak during his stay.

He built the new kayak in my garage in Houston. Several of his American friends donated the materials he needed and his new kayak quickly took shape. As he worked on the kayak, he listened to Danish rock music on his CD player.

In the two months my wife Jessie and I had Maligiaq as our house guest, members of the Houston Canoe Club took him kayaking, parents wanted him to meet their teenage sons and daughters, and he went cycling with Olympic hopefuls at a local velodrome.

The Honorary Vice Consul of Denmark took him jogging in a Houston park to explain to him in Danish the dangers and problems of exercising in the heat and humidity of the Houston area. Early in his stay it was not always possible to tell if he understood what we were saying to him in English.

During Maligiaq’s stay, I donated a rare 1904 Point Hope kayak that had been hanging in my workshop since 1958 to the Inupiat Heritage Center in Barrow, Alaska. When I mentioned Maligiaq’s visit, the center made arrangements for him to travel to Barrow to demonstrate Greenlandic rope gymnastics and kayak rolling at a large native celebration.

Maligiaq arrived in Barrow in February. Since the sea was frozen, Maligiaq borrowed a plastic kayak and demonstrated rolling in an indoor pool. His biggest thrill while in Barrow was to find native food that was like that at home.

He had been away from Greenland for four months, and he missed Greenlandic food. In the lower 48 states, he ate a lot of beef jerky, but it tasted quite different from dried seal meat. He brought a large supply of dried seal meat with him back to Colorado.

In the spring of 1999, Maligiaq traveled to Texas. Mark and Jennifer White, of Austin, wanted him to help them build Greenland kayak replicas at their home. Maligiaq covered his own kayak framework at their home, to show them the procedure.

Instead of sealskin, he covered his kayak with nylon fabric and a white Hypalon coating. He had to substitute cowhide for the bearded sealskin deck-strap line normally used; we found some narrow horse reins at a Houston saddle store that worked quite well. He completed his new kayak just in time for the 1999 symposium season.

Maligiaq often demonstrated his forward stroke at the kayaking events. Instead of holding the blade perpendicular to the water, he paddles with the top edge of his paddle blade tipped forward.

George Gronseth observed the same style of paddling at a training camp in South Greenland in 1990: “…Greenland paddle is held with the top edge tipped slightly forward”.

I have seen many paddlers in Greenland who appear to hold their paddles with the blade more or less at a right angle to the surface of the water. Maligiaq calls this a “beginner’s” way of paddling. His grandfather taught him a stroke that he had used as a seal catcher on Vester Eyland. This stroke is done with the top edge of the paddle tipped forward about 40 degrees from vertical, according to Maligiaq.

The angle is held more or less throughout the stroke, including the return phase. The drawing above  illustrates how the paddler would see the stroke if looking downward and to one side as he or she paddles.

The path followed by each blade for each stroke is somewhat teardrop shaped, except that the working part of the stroke appears to be more or less straight, as seen by the person doing the paddling. During the return part of the stroke, the blade moves forward as it is lifted out of the water, then it curves downward again as it goes into the water.

Some Americans who use Greenland-style paddles are skeptical of any stroke that does not position the blade face at right angles to the surface of the water.

Most of my use of Greenland-style paddles was in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and I don’t recall ever worrying about it. It was simply a matter of paddling in whatever seemed the most natural and comfortable way. However, when Greg Stamer, an enthusiast of Greenland kayaking from Orlando, Florida, used the “beginner’s” stroke while paddling alongside Maligiaq, Maligiaq was using the stroke his grandfather taught him, Maligiaq easily pulled ahead of Greg.

Greg felt that he tired more quickly than Maligiaq, even after making allowance for the fact that Maligiaq was younger and had trained harder. That made a convert out of Greg.

There might be a theoretical advantage in using a narrow-bladed paddle with the blades held tipped forward. A narrow-bladed paddle tends to flutter more than a wide-bladed one, especially when accelerating.

This is because of vortex shedding, which is more noticeable when one uses a narrow paddle. This phenomenon was discussed in my article entitled “The Narrow Blade,” When a narrow paddle enters the water with the working faces at right angles, the water tends to flow equally around each edge. It makes a vortex that looks like a miniature tornado, along each edge. The axis of each vortex is parallel to the edge.

However, if the top edge of the paddle blade is tipped forward throughout the stroke, the vortex will shed toward one edge all of the time. It becomes predictable, instead of alternating, and the paddler can compensate for and control it. This might be an important factor in the effectiveness of this paddle stroke.

To Greenlanders, the most important advantage of this stroke is that it makes it easier for the working blade to slip out of the water at the end of a stroke. The blade will climb out of a wave while the paddler maintains his form and cadence.

Several other Greenlanders have confirmed the advantages of this paddle stroke. All of them emphasized that they used this stroke to help free the blade as it started forward on the return phase.

Maligiaq used this stroke while racing against professional kayak racers in Montreal “World Championship” races in 1999. Using a Greenland paddle and a borrowed touring kayak with no rudder, he competed against kayakers who used racing kayaks and wing paddles. He made a respectable showing in the top ten, in spite of having to paddle a lot on one side to compensate for side winds.

Maligiaq demonstrated an ancient Inuit game during his U.S. kayaking exhibitions. While rope gymnastics are known in other parts of the Arctic, they are an important part of the annual kayaking championships in Greenland. Contestants perform as many of the 74 rope maneuvers as possible during 30 minutes.

Points are awarded for style and for the number of maneuvers performed. Maligiaq did 25 maneuvers in 30 minutes, and he did all of them well enough to win this category in the championship.

The rope exercises not only strengthen paddlers, they develop balance and train the paddlers to maneuver their bodies in the same way they would when rolling a kayak.

To build a rope gymnastics set-up, install three strong eight-foot-tall (2.4 meters) posts. The poles should be arranged in a straight line with two of them about six paces apart and the third about three paces beyond one end. You’ll need about 50 feet of 1/2-inch (12 cm) rope.

Fasten two lengths of rope securely about six feet (180 cm) from the ground to each of the poles that are farther apart. The ropes should hang side by side, and sag to about four feet (120 cm) off the ground midway between the poles. You’ll need around 50 feet (15 meters) of rope.

A shorter, single rope should be tied about seven feet (210 cm) above the ground between the poles that are three paces apart. This rope should be stretched so that it is taut, with almost no sag.

The spinning gymnastics performed on these ropes can help teach rolling control. For the starting position for the rope event, sit with your behind between the sagging side-by-side ropes, with your lower legs hanging over the ropes.

Your feet should cross each other to lock yourself in place. Grip both ropes firmly with each hand; one hand should be in front of you and the other behind. The hand grips and the locked legs will help keep your behind wedged between the ropes throughout the maneuvers.

The basic maneuver is to spin completely around by shifting your weight to “capsize” and then righting yourself, in one continuous motion. For a more complex maneuver, place a hat on the ground and pause while upside down, then reach down, pick up the hat, put it on, and roll back up. (This means that you must let go with one hand while upside down.)

Gripping the single rope will cut into your fingers; it can be very painful. In Greenland, single-rope gymnastics help toughen a kayaker for the rigorous life of a seal catcher.

Maneuvers performed on the single rope are all done in the hanging position, with the objective of raising your body to wriggle over the rope in various ways. The basic maneuver begins by hanging, with your hands facing opposite directions. Move the elbow on your hand facing forward up and over the rope; with the other hand, pull yourself over the top of the rope and slip over it to finish.

All of the rope maneuvers are difficult to perform. In one exercise, Maligiaq sits sideways on the double ropes with both feet hanging on one side. Then, without touching the ropes with his hands, he kicks one leg at a time over the rope, and turns completely around horizontally, returning to the starting position.

Maligiaq finished his year in the U.S. by paddling around the Statue of Liberty with some New York paddlers. In his wake, he left many paddlers inspired by his talent and knowledge of Greenland kayaking.

I, for one, was sad to see him go. So was the guy at the convenience store down the road where Maligiaq bought beef jerky.

John MacGregor: A Victorian-era Paddle

After taking on supplies at Gravesend,” wrote John MacGregor, firmly establishing the jaunty tone that became his signature, “I shoved off into the tide, and lit a cigar, and now I felt we had fairly started.” Thus begins the literature of sea kayaking and, indeed, of the sport itself.

Although the British Dictionary of National Biography identifies MacGregor (18252892) as a philanthropist and traveler, this eminent though forgotten Victorian single-handedly created a rage for what came to be known as “canoeing.”

Had MacGregor never been born, a Rudyard Kipling or a Robert Louis Stevenson might have had to invent him. The son of General Sir Duncan MacGregor who fought against Napoleon, John MacGregor was an adventurer from the outset.

As an infant, he was rescued along with his parents from a burning ship in which they had set sail for India. MacGregor tried to return the favor as a 12-year-old by nimbly slipping aboard a lifeboat bound for a ship in distress off Belfast, Ireland. Because of his father’s reassignments, MacGregor attended seven schools before graduating Trinity College, Dublin in 1839 with a degree in mathematics. He later entered Cambridge, and subsequently studied patent law. Even before his kayaking escapades, he’d traveled overland through Europe, the Middle East, Russia, North Africa, Canada and Siberia.

In 1865 MacGregor commissioned Messrs. Searles of Lambeth, England, to construct to his specifications the first in a series of seven clinker-built, cedar and oak “canoes,” each of which he christened “Rob Roy.” Although MacGregor omits mention of the exact aboriginal lineage of his boats, it is assumed they were based upon his observation of such craft in Siberia and North America. The original Rob Roy, a decked canoe that weighed 80 pounds and was equipped with a lug sail and jib as well as a seven-foot double-bladed paddle, is now preserved in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England.

It measures 15 feet long with a 28-inch beam, is nine inches deep, and draws three inches. Although the Rob Roy’s inflexible bulk eventually fell from favor (the torch taken up 40 years later by Johann Klepper’s folding boat), it put hundreds of paddlers into the waters of Europe and inspired the first circumnavigation of Tasmania.

Buoyant in every sense, MacGregor set off down the Thames, waving merrily to astonished bargemen then venturing into the English Channel where he joined a school of porpoises.

The Rob Roy was then ferried to Europe, where MacGregor explored rivers and lakes in France, Germany, Switzerland, and Belgium. His account, A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe (1866), may have been that year’s best seller.

“The object of this book,” he wrote in his introduction, “is to describe a new mode of travelling on the Continent by which new people and things are met with, while healthy exercise is enjoyed and an interest ever varied with excitement keeps fully alert the energies of the mind.”

As the embodiment of this new independent traveler, MacGregor was impervious to the blandishments of hired guides or the security of Cook’s Tours. He set off for the entire summer with a spirit stove, a wooden fork and spoon (cunningly carved at opposite ends of the same stem), one spare button, and nine pounds of luggage.

While his kit might be Spartan, fitting together “like the words in hexameter verse,” MacGregor was an ardent creature of style. He decked himself out in a gray flannel Norfolk jacket (garnished with six pockets), matching trousers, canvas wading shoes, blue spectacles, and a straw boater-plus a blue silk Union Jack for the boat.

To say this six-foot-six vision of sartorial splendor enjoyed creating an effect, whether in life or upon the page, would be an understatement. Because his trips were widely publicized, shipping frequently altered course for a closer look and ashore he received plentiful offers of meals and lodging.

Even when unrecognized, he precipitated a mild sensation. “I drew along side [a small steamer on the Meuse] and got my penny roll and penny glass of beer through the porthole, while the passengers smiled, chattered, and then looked grave for was it not indecorous to laugh at an Englishman evidently mad, poor fellow?”

Nor was he above an occasional prank. Paddling unseen below the Danube’s banks, he indulged a hearty chorus of “Rule Britannia,” much to the bafflement of peasants cutting hay nearby.

When all else failed to get attention, at a Swedish wedding into which he had politely blundered, he entertained guests by igniting a bit of magnesium ribbon apparently carried for just such occasions.

After he paused to form the Royal Canoe Club (H.R.H. Edward, Prince of Wales, Commodore), subsequent expeditions followed hard upon one another. He crossed the Channel and sailed up the Seine in a diminutive yawl (christened, predictably, Rob Roy) at the invitation of Napoleon III, to promote canoeing in France. That became another book in 1867.

A tour of Scandinavia in the previous year resulted in Rob Roy on the Baltic.

MacGregor dumped all sorts of improbable information into Rob Roy on the Baltic, making it a veritable collage of oddities: several maps, the music to “The Swedish National Air,” complete lyrics to “The Björneborgarnes March,” conjurer’s tricks (guaranteed to delight children), and a specimen restaurant menu (with prices).

Appendices comment upon the Danish missions and Prussian education. Another appendix is devoted to discussing watertight aft hatches, drip-rings, lee boards, outriggers and a set of bronze boat wheels. (He rejected the wheels because paved roads were still rare and, very much a man of his class, he could afford a few pennies for the local yeomanry to lug his boat into town or portage it by ox cart.) MacGregor also executed three dozen woodcuts, beginning with a dramatic frontispiece depicting the Rob Roy catapulted skyward as a runaway horse and cart crash through a fence.

Though well drawn, the illustrations have a slightly bizarre quality, an exaggeration that may or may not have been intended by the artist, but which is delightful nevertheless. Another, reminiscent of Max Ernst’s surreal collages, depicts the boat transported on a Norwegian railway conveyance powered “by cranks and treadles for the feet, as a velocipede is worked, and to which vehicle there clung as many persons as could hold it.”

Given his prodigious energy, it is perhaps not surprising that MacGregor often expressed himself in the first- and third-person plural: “All hands were piped on deck by the boatswain at an early hour, and the last pair that came up were told off to scrub ship and wash clothes.

Meanwhile, the head cook of the Rob Roy (an ignoramus)…mixed water and oatmeal, and had a round tin plate heating on the flame whereon the mixture was poured. It steamed, it set, it dried hard; and then he removed the plate from the fire, but alas!

The cake would not come off the tin-plate until it was torn away with struggles and a knife; and then all the lower part of the brown cake was covered with bright tin-gone was my only hope of breakfast; for even salt air does not enable you to digest sheet metal.”

When the dog he planned to take along disappeared, he unleashed one of his worst puns, ruing the canine’s absence because he wouldn’t be able to write, “my bark is upon the wave.” Yet despite these lapse and some awkward punctuation, a late 20th-century reader can glide through whole chapters lulled by the utterly familiar: tedious head winds, generous tail winds, fog, makeshift campsites and curious onlookers.

MacGregor carries us thirty or more miles a day, chattering on about encounters with ferocious bed bugs, logjams or a perilous tow from a Dutch cutter. These are balanced with sedate pleasures like fishing or Miss Kjerstin, farmer Svenson’s lovely daughter, who modestly serenaded him on the guitar while he sketched her portrait.

Eventually, however, snagging on some detail, we awake with mild shock and remember that all this took place before the Great War, before the internal combustion engine or household electricity. A window abruptly opens on a harbor full of gaff-rigged work boats, a steamboat that blows a cylinder in a gale, or one of John Ericsson’s fearsome ironclad gunboats. Streets clatter with horse-drawn carriages while, on the green, Bismarck’s troops drill or practice marksmanship.

Where he may try our patience is in his religious asides. A thwarted vocation for missionary work led MacGregor, who styled himself the “Chaplain of the Canoe,” to distribute reams of Protestant tracts to surprised bystanders, and to make less than generous remarks concerning the “benighted” members of the Roman Church. Overall, his rectitude is not overbearing, and takes a back seat to his proselytizing the gospel of the canoe.

Upon his crossing the four-mile stretch of the Baltic into Denmark, however, we encounter a prime candidate for judicious editing: “The Rob Roy, carried through Copenhagen, of course attracted a great crowd, and the head waiter (being a man of sense) conducted her upstairs, where the ball-room was allotted for a boat-house, and there the canoe rested gently on an ottoman.”

This may be the briefest sample of what, after reading his three kayaking books, one comes to think of as the Rob Roy’s mandatory “triumphal reception” into town. Whether set in a busy Scandinavian city or a muddy Prussian hamlet, this interchangeable narrative staple soon becomes the most tiresome device in MacGregor’s repertoire. Nevertheless, there is one instance where it reaches an amusing pinnacle.

In his Middle Eastern expedition, The Rob Roy on the Jordan, Red Sea, and Gennesareth (1869), he plunges down the Jordan noting with pride how few European travelers ventured down the river’s more remote reaches. He quickly found out why. An entire village tumbled out, brandishing rifles and casting stones.

Several men dove in after him and, although our hero valiantly swatted left and right with his paddle, he was finally cornered in the shallows. Affecting nonchalance, a cocked pistol concealed under his knees, he noted, with characteristic understatement, that “their patience was on the ebb.”
The subsequent scene reads like John Cleese playing “The Man Who Would be King” as a Monty Python skit.

“A dozen dark-skinned bearers,” writes MacGregor, “lifted the canoe and her captain, sitting inside, with all due dignity graciously smiling,” up the bank amid loud shouting, and deposited them inside the tent of the local sheik.

Remaining in his boat, MacGregor doffed his pith helmet, and blithely informed his host that he “would rest at his tent until the sun was cooler.” The startled sheik summoned his counselors. After threats and counter-threats, a couple of surreptitious bribes and much conferring -in which MacGregor sat imperturbable, reading the Times-he was eventually liberated by Harry, his well-armed, fast-talking interpreter.

The book is MacGregor’s most exotic and, despite his studied composure, the expedition clearly had its share of real crocodiles and brigands.

The incarnation of the Rob Roy used on this trip was modified with a removable aft deck, allowing its owner to rig a canvas tent fly, drop mosquito netting, and sleep aboard. MacGregor tried out this arrangement along the newly opened Suez Canal, doing his best to remain solitary, as, in that neighborhood, “any man with five francs, or supposed to have them, is worth killing.”

He remained unmolested except for a jackal who “would neither leave me in peace nor come near enough to be shot.” In his inimitable way, he continued down to the Red Sea, particularly tickled by an incongruous cup of coffee offered him afloat, accompanied by a pair of silver tongs for the sugar. Finally, after steaming on to Beirut, he trudged overland through a foot of snow outside Damascus to find the source of the Jordan. He concluded his adventure shortly after 12 contemplative days on the Sea of Galilee musing on the life of Jesus.

While his writings certainly encouraged numerous amateurs to get their keels wet, there was yet another side to MacGregor. His passion for philanthropy led him to donate the proceeds of all of the Rob Roy publications to charitable causes like the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society and the National Lifeboat Institution.

He also co-founded the Ragged-School Union’s Shoe-Black Brigade, which sought employment for destitute children. Combining two improbable interests, he raised money for charity by giving public lectures, hamming it up on stage with the Rob Roy, doing quick changes into his canoeing outfit (or, after the Jordan expedition, into a burnoose) and reappearing to wild cheers. Ironically, almost 140 years later – amid a worldwide explosion of kayaking – the man once anointed the “patron saint of canoeing” has been reduced to a footnote.

MacGregor’s works, decades out of print, lie mostly in the hands of collectors and antiquarian booksellers. I found copies slumbering in the closed stacks of the Peabody Essex Museum (in Salem, Massachusetts) and the Boston Public Library. Time had not been kind to them, nor, in the latter institution, was the attendant who delivered the volumes with a mighty thump that resounded painfully down the reading room’s vaulted ceiling.

Bindings cracked, folded maps tore along ancient creases, dog-eared corners fell like withered leaves. Yet, the contents, the story, MacGregor’s indefatigable enthusiasm and wit, have weathered well. If we dare to think of kayaking as having a literature the way fishing does, then MacGregor is our Izzak Walton.

Having recently read Paul Theroux’s Happy Isles of Oceania, I felt I had bounded from one end of kayaking’s literary bookshelf to the other. To MacGregor’s credit, that leap requires far less adjustment for the armchair kayaker than one might suppose.

Despite their very different sensibilities, I could easily imagine MacGregor and Theroux happily switching boats. Their interests are not that different, nor their insistence upon travel on their own terms, their mixed feeling about their fame, their curiosity about their hosts tempered by impatience with some of their hosts’ customs.

MacGregor’s digressions on the shortness of Danish beds, the deceitfulness of Prussian customs agents, and the behavior of English people abroad, find a certain correspondence in Theroux’s mutterings about Kiwi politicians and starch-fed Tongans.

Theroux’s efforts to “toktok” Pidgin English recall MacGregor’s amusing attempts at communication. He gamely passed a phrase book back and forth with his Swedish hosts until a learned doctor arrived for tea and they discovered a language in common: “We talked Latin,” MacGregor notes, “with that circumlocutory elegance which a very slow remembrance of it involves, like pumping water out of a very deep well, with very little in the bucket when it comes up, and not much at the bottom.”

As personalities, each might be the perfect antidote to the other. A good dose of MacGregor’s cheery, indomitable, stiff upper lip can create an absolute yearning for Theroux’s misanthropy, angst and soul-searching, and, perhaps, vice versa, but, while Theroux’s work is still with us, where will we find MacGregor?

Let me confess that I conceived this entire sketch as an introduction to an imaginary, deluxe, lavishly illustrated, amply edited and thoroughly portable MacGregor. Now where is the publisher?

An Interview with Freya’s Sister

Edda Stentiford, Freya’s sister, left Germany at 17 and now lives with her husband and two children in Caversham, a town 35 miles west of London. I spoke to her prior to Freya’s Carpentaria crossing.

How many years are there between you and Freya?

Two and a bit. Two and three quarters, so call it three. We grew up in Kiel, and that’s on the Baltic coast in northern Germany.

How did you and Freya get along as kids?

Oh, it was always as all sisters do. Sometimes we got on very well and other times we’d bash the living daylights out of each other. Quite frankly I was the one who got the shorter end of the stick. She might have been three years younger but she was always three years stronger. She could easily flatten me without trying too hard. 

How old was Freya when she started getting that physical strength?

When she was six she was strong enough to knock me over, but I threw jellyfish at her on the beach, which set her running away. Mind you, they were just jelly, no stings attached.

She has always been very physical right from the start when my mother, Anne-Marie, took us to mother-and-toddler gymnastics, then into sports clubs. At one time Freya was the North Germany champion in gymnastics. I think she was only about ten. Our parents always tried to facilitate whatever it was we were trying to do unless it was total mischief.

She was born a big baby. I think she was over ten pounds when she was born and she stayed a big baby ever since. Yes, she certainly brought tears to my mother’s face. Joking aside, she was always strong, you know, not big as in fat. She was very quickly the same height as me. From all the gymnastics she did from an early age, she was physically very strong very early. I was never a weakling, but she always gave me the bigger thrashing than I gave her. On the other hand there were times when we were best of friends, like when I’d eat her egg yolk and she’d eat my egg white. As long as we did it quietly and our parents’ eyes were turned.

Was she also strong-willed?

I think “stubborn” is the word she’d been invented for or the other way around, I’m not quite sure which way you want to turn it. Once she’d set her mind on something she was going to go for it and she would go for it, all out, with no holds barred. It was just the whole attitude, you know. If hard work needed to get done, she would just knuckle down and get it done. She always got the rubbish out of the way and then had fun afterwards. I tried to do it the other way round most of the time.

Did that attitude make her a good student in school?

Oh, yes. She actually jumped a grade. She was always very curious. Our mother was a primary school teacher. She was prepping me a bit to get ready for school and Freya was already listening in and then watching me do my homework, to such an extent that when she got into school she could already read and write. When they saw that they said she might as well go straight up a year. It’s not that she was deliberately setting out to achieve things, it was more or less a byproduct of being naturally curious. She absorbed the reading, writing and arithmetic in passing, just by watching. 

What role did your parents play in shaping her character?

Our father was a keen hunter and outdoorsman. A true forestman who made sure the animals had feed in the winter and actually watched the animals to make sure they were healthy. Green ecology as we now would call it, but then it was just straightforward common sense. It was very important to him for us to like the forest. We could run wild, nobody knew where we were for hours on end and it was perfectly safe. He would have liked to have a boy he could pass all these things on to. Things didn’t work out that way and Freya was the one who was more interested in this sort of thing. And she really wanted to please our father, so things really came together there. 

Were you parents involved when Freya was doing bodybuilding and beauty pageants?

Not really. That pretty much came off her own bat. I think my parents looked at that with tolerance rather than anything else: “If that’s what you want to do, my dear, then go ahead. We’re not stopping you.” It was something she wanted to do, basically for a lark. She thought it might be a hoot. Then bless her cotton socks she goes and wins it.

She does like to be the best, and who doesn’t. But it’s not for the sake of image, if you can see what I mean. It’s to satisfy her own self. She always climbed the highest mountain or the highest tree depending what age we were. She’s got the focus and the determination to do as well as she can do.