The Sun Is a Compass: A 4,000-mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds
By Caroline Van Hemert. Little, Brown Spark, 2019. 320 pages. $28 hardcover, $14.99 Ebook.
There are moments in this beautiful and utterly engrossing book when the author questions the whole enterprise: What were we thinking? Readers might wonder the same thing. Who in her right mind would choose the kind of extreme adventuring that Anchorage resident Caroline Van Hemert and her husband Patrick Farrell endured? That thought is swept away by gratefulness that they did, and that we get to share in their life-embracing journey from the comfort of our armchairs.
They were not in a competition, Van Hemert tells us, trying to pioneer a new route or set a record. They were not elite adventurers with expert skills. They didn’t have a support team or any sponsors. They had very little whitewater experience and virtually no experience rowing. What they had were several years of outdoor adventures together, including a summer of hiking and shuttling supplies deep into northern Canada, where they built a canoe out of spruce bark and descended a wild river. They had a love of wilderness and for one another. They were also feeling the pressure of time and the need to make grown-up decisions about careers and family. If not now, when?
The dream that took hold of them involved self-propelling themselves from Bellingham, Washington, to Kotzebue, Alaska, a distance of roughly 4,000 continuous miles. They travelled by rowboats (built themselves), feet, skis, pack rafts, and canoes. They carried everything they needed for each stretch, resupplying at a few villages and remote cabin stops and with one bush plane drop. The journey started in March and ended in September.
Just the logistics of planning and packing all those pounds and calories and making sure that the couple would have what they needed when they needed it would have overwhelmed most mortals. Pounds were so precious that they made much of the trip without a stove and fuel, dependent on building fires to cook with. They took a satellite phone but no gun. They once mailed ahead their pack rafts and ended up needing to swim the Chandalar, a major Arctic river. (The book’s prologue opens with this death-defying immersion.)
A lesser writer might have documented this adventure as a series of journal entries, presenting a day-by-day account. Van Hemert here proves she’s as good an organizer of story as she is of expeditions. “The Sun Is a Compass” is composed of five sections; the chapters in each focus on key locations and events, with the travel in between implied or summarized. The prose is richly detailed, bringing the reader right into the experience, whether it’s the pinch of a very hungry stomach, the elation of watching thousands of caribou pass, or the adrenaline-filled escape from a predatory black bear.
Part One examines the author as an “Alaskan kid” and the early history of the couple. Part Two, “Inside Passage,” covers the 1,200 miles and nearly two months of rowing, bringing the pair to a cabin they’d previously built at the top of Lynn Canal. Part Three, “Yukon Territory,” begins with bushwhacking into the mountains with skis, crampons, ropes, pack rafts, and paddles, not to mention loads of food, on a route they’d found no evidence had been tried before, and takes them to the Yukon River, more mountain hiking, and down the Yukon’s Wind River. Part Four, “Arctic Coast,” finds them in the mosquito-infested Mackenzie River delta and finally reaching Kaktovik, back in Alaska. Inland again, “Brooks Range” has them crossing the Arctic Refuge, continuing west through the Brooks Range, and canoeing out the Noatak River to the coast.
A helpful map allows readers to orient themselves along the way. A section of photographs is an added delight.
However impressive the adventure is, there is more to the story. The author is a bird biologist, and her observations of birds and natural history in general are expansive and fascinating throughout. (The book’s title comes from a reference to bird navigation during migration.) Moreover, at the time of the journey, Van Hemert was undergoing a career crisis of how or whether to reconcile her love of birds and nature to the soulless laboratory research and data processing she’d found herself stuck in. The questions she raises about life choices are ones any reader can relate to.
Although Van Hemert does not explicitly advocate for the environment in this work, there’s no missing the value she places on wilderness, as well as her concern about the results of climate change. Along the Arctic coast, she notes thawing permafrost bluffs collapsing, in one case carrying a hawk nest and chicks to the beach. She writes, “The Arctic as we know it—a land of persistent ice and snow, a home to walruses and polar bears—is quickly becoming legend. . . There’s only one thing we can be sure of: changes are under way, whether a person, or an entire government, chooses to believe in them or not.”
Towards the end, Van Hemert describes seeing in the distance “the ocean and a glimpse of white, an iceberg sparkling in the evening’s setting sun.” As she begins to realize there can’t be ice in September, “I see the ice levitate and rise into the sky, shattering into pieces. Swans. Thousands and thousands of tundra swans, with golden necks and wings on fire. Their heavy steps patter against the water as they take flight, a gathering of angels against a steel blue sky.”
Caroline Van Hemert so clearly loves our world, with all its challenges, beauty, and mysteries. Her book is a welcome invitation to do the same.