Features – June 2004
The Sea Kayaker’s Library—Easy-to-Find Books
by Tim Sprinkle
You know, kayaking can be a real drag sometimes. From the packing, to the planning, to the weather watching, I usually end up spending more time thinking about it than actually doing it. But once you get out on that water—oh, yeah. The downtime, the preparation and the wait are all worth it. Wouldn’t it be great if you could get that feeling whenever and wherever you wanted?
Below, you’ll find a list of books listed chronologically by most recent printing that, in my opinion, help you do just that. These are adventure stories, travel essays and assorted explorations from the sea kayaker’s perspective. From paddling the Arctic Circle to exploring the interior of New Guinea, you’re sure to find something here to stir the explorer in you. And in the hands of talented paddlers/writers like Paul Theroux, Chris Duff and Don Starkel, you’re getting more than just an entertaining yarn; this is a whole new breed of high-quality, exciting, sea kayaking literature. As of press time, all of these books were in print and easy to obtain through local bookstores or online shops.
Paddling My Own Canoe
by Audrey Sutherland
(University of Hawaii Press, 1980)
Once Sutherland moved to Hawaii in 1952, it didn’t take long before the rugged coastline of Molokai Island lured her out to explore. What started as an after-work pastime eventually grew into a lifelong obsession that has taken Sutherland all over the world in her inflatable kayak, and today the 83-year-old is considered the authority on Hawaiian kayaking. She has written some well-received books on Hawaii, but this one, which focuses on her first years in the cockpit, really hits home with its descriptions of the land and the author’s newfound love of the sport.
The Starship and the Canoe
by Kenneth Brower
By far the most unusual book on this list, The Starship and the Canoe is an intriguing double biography of a father and son: one a renowned astrophysicist with dreams of a homemade spaceship, the other a tree-dwelling genius out to build the world’s greatest ocean kayak. It’s an unusual premise, but Kenneth Brower makes it work by exposing the force in our lives that drives us to explore the unknown: What one man finds in the heavens, another finds in the world around his kayak. Is it a travel book? Not really. A guidebook? No. Worth reading? I say yes.
The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific
by Paul Theroux
(Ballantine Books; reissue edition, 1993)
In the wake of the dissolution of his marriage, Paul Theroux headed for the islands of the Pacific Ocean. His meandering 1992 travelogue, The Happy Isles of Oceania, reads like the voyage of exploration that it is. As “the green islands shimmered into view,” he writes, “it was another experience of the Pacific being like the night sky, like outer space, and of island-hopping in that ocean being something like interplanetary travel.” Theroux spent 18 months poking around Australia, New Guinea, the Soloman Islands, Samoa, Tahiti and other locations in his trusty folding kayak, encountering people and places that, to the vast majority of his readers, seem very “otherworldly” indeed.
Wind, Water, Sun: A Solo Kayak Journey Along Baja California’s Desert Coastline
by Ed Darack
(Poudre Canyon Press, 1998)
The Baja California Peninsula is a truly unique place: naked peaks stabbing at the skyline, hardscrabble cactus dotting the horizon and a piercing silence that comes with 700 miles of empty desert. But photographer/author Ed Darack brings this region to life in this trip down the Sea of Cortez coast. “This part of the globe was a desolate, worthless swath of hopelessness in the eyes of the Spaniards,” he writes. “A sea in the heart of a desert.” Dense with history and local lore, Darack’s pages explode with incredible photographs and detailed maps.
Watertrail: The Hidden Path Through Puget Sound
by Joel Rogers
(Sasquatch Books, 1998)
Photographer/author Joel Rogers makes it easy to get lost in the breathtaking scenery of Washington State’s Cascadia Marine Trail, the 400-plus mile route that took him through Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands. But there’s more to the Watertrail story than just pretty pictures—there’s also some incredibly evocative writing. In fact, the first sentence in the book pretty much tells you what you’re in for: “The scenic details of Budd Inlet revealed themselves in all their early-morning glory: ragged lines of pilings from long-ago mills, the rotting keels of beached boats, and the Capitol dome rising over the town of Olympia.”
Kabloona in the Yellow Kayak: One Woman’s Journey Through the Northwest Passage
by Victoria Jason
(Turnstone Press, 1999)
What does it take to paddle, largely alone, from Churchill, Manitoba, to Tuktoyuktuk on the Beaufort Sea, and survive? Here’s a hint: Think Victoria Jason. She completed the 4,600-mile feat between 1991 and 1994. And the two-time stroke victim and grandmother of two had only been paddling for a year when she started. Impressed yet? Don’t be, that’s just the beginning of the courageous story detailed in Kabloona. Her observations of the landscape and the people she meets elevate this paddling memoir and make for a captivating read.
Homelands: Kayaking the Inside Passage
by Byron Ricks
(William Morrow, 1999)
Forgoing the luxury of a standard honeymoon, Ricks and his new bride spent five months paddling the Inside Passage from Canada to Seattle. What could have been a run-of-the-mill paddling book in less-skilled hands is transformed into a personal account of the couple’s attempts to build a life for themselves among the people and places of an intricate coastal waterway. But that’s not to say that the author slouches off as a travel writer—he dishes out local lore and paddling adventure with the best of them. “The very name, Inside Passage, seemed to carry an intimacy,” he writes, “a knowing. It would be a personal voyage. As much as anything, it would be a journey home.”
Paddle to the Arctic
by Don Starkel
(McClelland and Stewart, 2000)
It’s hard to talk about Victoria Jason’s book Kabloona (see earlier reference) without mentioning Starkel, who attempted the Northwest Passage trip three times (once with Jason in 1991) before finally making it, surviving conditions and setbacks that are sure to send a shiver down your spine. The resulting book, written in journal form, offers a frank look at what surviving in the Arctic is all about. “I am very ‘green’ to the Arctic,” he writes early on, “inexperienced but I don’t think arrogant or overconfident…Today was crazy and risky. Paddled through the ice fields in all directions. Only my coolness and deck compass saved my life.”
The Armchair Paddler
Cecil Kuhne, Ed.
(Menasha Ridge Press, 2000)
This is it; I’ve found it, the world’s most perfect beach/bathroom/backyard book: a compilation of classic and contemporary paddling stories from around the world. With authors such as John McPhee, Hannes Lindemann and Tim Cahill, The Armchair Paddler is the kind of book you dream about finding on your nightstand in the morning. And with more than 30 essays and book excerpts from all corners of the paddling world, this one is sure to keep any daydreaming paddler busy for a long time.
On Celtic Tides
by Chris Duff
(Griffin Trade Paperback, 2000)
Choppy North Atlantic waters? Check. Raging winds? Check. Literate paddler in the cockpit? Check. Duff is no stranger to open-water kayaking, and this journal of his 1996 circumnavigation of Ireland comes as close to re-creating the actual paddling experience as anything I’ve ever read. “There was so much speed and power in the waves that I knew if something went wrong, I would be upside-down in a second. It was a thin line to dance upon, yet it was so pure in its wildness that I would not have wanted the safety of a windy camp.”
Visions of the Wild: A Voyage by Kayak Around Vancouver Island
by Maria Coffey and Dag Goering
(Harbour Publishing Company, 2001)
Coffey and her photographer/husband, Goering, are no strangers to adventure, having by this point paddled to nearly every corner of the globe (as recorded in their numerous books). But they bring it all back home in this 2001 account of their three-month trip around Vancouver Island—bringing the region’s staggering beauty, diverse wildlife and unique charm to life with prose and beautiful color photographs. And it’s refreshing to learn about the area with Coffey and Goering—legitimate locals who live on Protection Island, B.C.—as guides.
Birthplace of the Winds: Alaska’s Islands of Fire and Ice
by Jon Bowermaster
(National Geographic, 2001)
Jon “writer first, adventurer second” Bowermaster is quick to discount his accomplishments in the cockpit, but his skills with the word processor and the paddle shine through in this riveting account of a voyage through Alaska’s Aleutian Islands in 2000. “From a distance, it doesn’t seem all bad,” he writes, “especially if you like extremes including lousy weather, tidal waves, earthquakes and volcanoes.” His group spent 25 days slogging through an area so battered and desolate that it’s come to be known as the “birthplace of the winds.” But it’s Bowermaster’s skill as a storyteller—weaving together his trip diary with historical nuggets—that really sets his book apart.
Beyond Fear: A Journey Across New Guinea
by Joel Kramer
(The Lyons Press, 2001)
The interior of New Guinea is one of the world’s last great, unexplored places: 1,700 miles of dense, impassable jungle. But that didn’t stop Joel Kramer and Aaron Lippard from diving headfirst into the region in 1998 with little more than an inflatable kayak and one overnight paddling trip to their credit. The first several chapters of Kramer’s occasionally preachy journal of the trip, not surprisingly, focus on the steady stream of villagers who tried to talk them out of it, the rest on the amazing, and ultimately successful, journey itself.
Keep Australia on Your Left
by Eric Stiller
The classic line from this book—“It seemed like a good idea at the time”—more or less sums up Stiller’s recollection of the arduous 10,000-mile circumnavigation of Australia that he and Tony Brown attempted in 1998. “The waves looked like 10 feet high. We paddled as hard as possible into the seas, [but] for the first time on the trip I thought we were truly paddling for our lives.” The two completed a third of the circumnavigation before breaking off the effort. At over 400 pages, this one tends to go on and on, but the nuggets of wisdom Stiller offers up about long-distance kayaking, and his “in-your-face” writing style, keep things moving along nicely.
Arctic Crossing: One Man’s 2,000-Mile Odyssey Among the Inuit
by Jonathan Waterman
(The Lyons Press, 2002)
Part travelogue, part anthropology textbook, this account of the author’s 2,200-mile journey across the Arctic Circle in 1997 offers an amazing glimpse into one of the least understood societies on the planet: the Inuit. “So much of the Earth and its Great Weather…are utterly unchangeable, so they shrug their shoulders, smile, and say, ‘Ayornamut’ (‘It cannot be otherwise’).” A talented writer, Waterman succeeds in illuminating the people and places he visits with detailed observations and impressive background research.
Tim Sprinkle is a freelance writer from Charlottesville, Virginia. He has been paddling the waters of the mid-Atlantic for 15 years.