Review by Nancy Soares
Editor’s note: Susan is an adventurer, writer, educator, and speaker. Her tenacious exploration by sea kayak has fueled her stories and images of the natural world for decades. Her articles and photographs have appeared in Sea Kayaker, Canoe and Kayak, Adventures Northwest, and Figure magazines.
Magic and gratitude. That’s what comes through in Susan Marie Conrad’s sea tale of her solo kayak adventure through the Inside Passage from Anacortes, Washington to Juneau, Alaska. For people like me who love adventure and kayaking but will probably never undertake such a major endeavor, it’s wonderful to read stories like Susan’s. For one thing, there’s the mental eye candy: the beauty and mystery of the Tongass, the fjords, the wildlife, the ice. There’s the excitement: the bears, the unruly weather, the people, “learning experiences”. Susan’s book is an entertaining, enjoyable read.
But wait, there’s more! Like many who travel solo, Susan was looking for something. In a way, in all great journeys from myths and legends (think Jason and Odysseus), to modern times (think Cheryl Strayed), when people sojourn in the wilderness the outward journey inevitably parallels the inward one. This is especially true for solo journeys because the first thing such journeys do is challenge you so you get to find out what you’re really made of.
When we encounter Nature in its original state on an extended solo trip like Susan’s, we allow Nature to envelop us; we live by her rhythms and suffer pain and pleasure at her behest. We get about as close as we can get to who we are and what life is about. Susan isn’t the first person to turn to the wilderness to seek understanding and healing, but her story is unique. Two major themes that weave in and out of her narrative are magic and gratitude. Guided by the nonverbal coaching of the great teacher Nature herself, Susan learns how to take the path of least resistance:
Dealing with challenges on the water, I had learned, is about approach and perspective. Finesse and strategy, more so than brute strength and power, are the keys to managing spirited water. It’s about finding the path of least resistance, much like water itself does. – p. 108
Later she connects that lesson learned from the paddling life to the default world of modern society.
When she embarks she tells us, “If a crystal ball had appeared on the beach that day, foretelling my feelings, along with the adversity and hardship I would be encountering I would have smashed it to smithereens. Uncertainty was part of the adventure and I wasn’t about to water down the magic of it all.” Often when we seek wilderness adventure we want to shuffle off the coils of “civilization” and surrender to uncertainty because in doing so we sense we’ll find Magic. Going out becomes a form of going in, to our heritage as humans who evolved on this planet and to Mother Nature whose womb is still our home. The world becomes alive and magical. We are transformed. Susan notes that when we are solitary we don’t have to protect ourselves. This allows us to experience our true selves, if we’re willing, and thereby experience wholeness and bliss.
For example, Susan learns about pushing versus letting go. Impatient to clock some miles, she makes a judgment call to keep paddling in deteriorating conditions. Luckily she gets off the water before the shit hits the fan. But the incident engenders some soul-searching:
Why was I taking such risks and pushing so hard? If you’re trying to prove something, Susan, the only thing you’ll fucking prove is that you know how to kill yourself. I berated myself, both fearful and infuriated. Fearful that my inability to listen to my voice of reason and to relax would render me dead. Infuriated because I didn’t know why I did this, why I always felt time was of the essence and that I must always be on the go.
The sea was teaching me patience – and I still had much to learn. – pp. 116 – 117
Over and over the theme of gratitude punctuates the narrative: to friends and well-wishers, to the sea and to Nature for the support and the lessons, and for a sense of budding faith in herself and in something else out there. After her close shave, gratitude and magic come together in a moment of transformation on the water:
I began to have strange sensations in my body, and the hair on the back of my neck stood on end. I choked back tears that came out of nowhere. I thought about the extreme fortune I’d had over the two-week journey thus far, and how I had come to an uneasy truce with these waters.
Suddenly I felt that I was part of a much bigger thing; that this unfolding trip was a part of a much bigger thing. Perhaps more expansive than just myself in a kayak on the Inside Passage, I sensed a timelessness about it, an internal feeling of free-floating like something magical was carrying me through on this adventure, a feeling that I thought I could ride into eternity. I felt profoundly protected, as if angels were watching over me. Tears slid down my face and mixed with the sea water on my cheeks. Layers of selfishness were washed away and replaced with a heightened sense of gratitude, humility, and awe. – p. 118
That’s pretty big stuff. But even catharsis is just part of this book. It’s also interesting to read about Susan’s prep work for the expedition: how she puts together her food, how she trains, what she uses for gear. She had the great good fortune to be coached by her mentor Jim Chester, and to be able to use Jim’s charts, annotated by himself as well as Audrey Sutherland over previous journeys. The campground chores and the navigation requirements provide a structure, an anchor that grounds Susan in the mechanical universe as she explores her inner world.
After reading Susan’s story, I hiked up the mountain behind my house. As I walked it began to rain. Hard. My socks were too thick for my shoes and I thought I might feel the pain shortly. Then I thought about Susan putting one paddle blade in front of the other kind of like my feet pacing one in front of the other. Even though my little two-hour hike was nothing compared to just one day of her trip I thought, I’m not turning around. I’m going to finish this hike no matter how hard it rains, because it’s what I set out to do. I need this hike. I’m not cold, I don’t mind getting wet, and if my foot hurts I’ll turn around. Lo and behold, my sock didn’t bother me and even though I got wet through, my house was nice and warm when I came home and I was happy. That very day some of the lessons from Susan’s experience applied to my everyday life. Courage. Determination. Commitment. And yes, you’ll be protected and it will be all right. We can dance in the rain.
In the end, Susan rises to what she calls the “biggest challenge for all humans”, that of becoming comfortable with the conditions of the mind in the face of unfolding reality. On the sea, as she points out, this could mean the difference between life and death. In fact, this could mean the difference between life and death on land as well. Regardless, we all know how unfolding reality throws nasty curve balls. The layers of civilization and technology belonging to the 21st century make us feel safe, although we’re really not any safer in the urban jungle, perhaps even less so. When we peel those layers away to where there’s no interface between us and Nature, we can start reconnecting with our sanity, and with the world, our true mother, which is immeasurably comforting. So I like the way Susan’s story takes her individual journey and makes it relevant to the reader on many levels. I think Inside is magic, and I’m no end grateful I got to read and review it. Check it out!
You can purchase Inside by Susan Marie Conrad by going to https://www.amazon.com/Inside-Womans-Journey-Through-Passage/dp/1935347578/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1479492233&sr=8-1&keywords=Inside+by+susan+marie+conrad