'The Sun Is a Compass: A 4,000-Mile Journey Into the Alaskan Wilds' (Book Review)

©. Patrick Farrell (used with permission)

An ambitious couple set out to travel from Washington to the Alaskan Arctic, off the beaten track and under their own power.

Caroline Van Hemert's midlife crisis hit earlier than most. She was in her early thirties, finishing graduate school in ornithology, when she became intensely restless, frustrated with laboratory work and longing to spend time outdoors. She and her husband Pat decided it was time to embark on a journey they'd long wanted to take – a 4,000-mile trek from Washington state to northwest Alaska, traveling entirely under their own human power.

This remarkable journey is the topic of Van Hemert's new book, "The Sun is a Compass" (Hachette, 2019). The story opens with a dramatic river crossing gone wrong, when Pat nearly drowns in a frigid, surging channel. It sets the tone for a trip that is outrageously ambitious and risky, yet not impossible for a couple with their level of backcountry experience.

There is a good deal of lead-up to their departure, with Van Hemert describing her childhood in Alaska, where she was a reluctant tagalong on her parents' numerous escapades that unwittingly planted the seeds for a future career in biology. Pat, a home builder, had moved to Alaska from New York state after building an off-grid log cabin in the bush by hand when he was only 19, falling in love with the region. The two connected over a mutual love of nature.

While the background information is interesting, the start of the journey comes as a relief. I was fascinated by the level of detail that is required to succeed, such as planning food and equipment drops at remote locations along the way. I was also horrified by the lack of preparation in other ways. While Pat spent months building sea-worthy rowboats that they used to travel 1,200 miles from Bellingham, WA, to Haines, Alaska, they neglected to learn how to row.

"Our total combined experience is a quick jaunt in a friend's creaky aluminum dinghy across a protected cove, and a lazy afternoon of fishing in a borrowed raft... [Rowing] is awkward and I bump my thumbs nearly every time. I try to remember my friend's message about the catch and the beats. I know only that my beat is completely of. I left go of one oar handle to wave at our friends and it hits me in the chin. When I look at Pat, I notice the fine creases around his eyes are etched deeper than usual."

This is just the beginning of their countless challenges. After rowing, they switch to skis and head into the mountains separating Alaska from Yukon. Wary of avalanches and crevasses, they navigate unknown slopes and foggy conditions, slowly working their way toward the border. Where the snow is too thin, they switch to hiking, then back to skis again when walking gets too hard. They carry inflatable pack rafts for crossing rivers and lakes.

Sun is a Compass skiing

© Patrick Farrell (used with permission)

The dramatic trek continues up the Yukon River by canoe from Whitehorse to Dawson, and then through the rough Tombstone Mountains to the Arctic Circle. There, they spend a miserable few days traveling down the Mackenzie Delta, infested with mosquitoes. Coincidentally, I read this section while on a canoe trip in Algonquin Park and found her mosquito facts particularly meaningful:

"Caribou biologists have estimated that mosquitoes can drain up to ten ounces, equivalent to an average cup of coffee, from a single animal in a 24-hour period. This translates into a daily barrage of sixty thousand mosquito bites. At such intensity, anecdotal reports of calves dying from blood loss by mosquitoes hardly seem exaggerated. In fact, for a brief annual period in the Arctic, the biomass of mosquitoes outweighs that of caribou."

From there they reach the Arctic Ocean, mercifully mosquito-free, although they have alarming encounters with moose and a particularly aggressive black bear. One supply drop doesn't work out, leaving them without food for four days, but their delay ends up allowing them to witness the caribou migration, which Pat describes as the single most amazing thing he's ever seen. Caroline writes, "For all of its seeming cruelties and callousness, the land has given us what we need most. Closure. Completeness. We never could have guessed that this glorious moment would be the culmination of our hardships."

caribou antlers

© Patrick Farrell (used with permission)

They finally arrive in Kotzebue, the long-awaited end point, after six months of traveling, pleased with their accomplishment, yet nervous about returning to ordinary life.

Interspersed throughout the book are Caroline's observations about birds they encounter along the way, which adds a wonderful scientific layer to the story. She describes the species, their habitats and behaviors, and how climate change is severely impacting their survival. Mudslides destroying nests along the Arctic Ocean coast are one such example.

"On all of the islands we encountered the same destruction. In just two days, nearly an entire breeding season was destroyed. This has always been a land of storms, but in recent years they have become much worse. New weather patterns create greater instabilities. More open water means bigger waves. Less sea ice means less protection from the surf."

The book is fascinating and fun to read for anyone who can relate to the allure of the great outdoors. And it truly is an astonishing feat of athleticism. To trek that kind of distance, hauling gear over unmarked terrain, requires a phenomenal amount of physical strength, mental fortitude, and stick-to-itiveness.

The Sun Is A Compass paddling

© Patrick Farrell (used with permission)

You can learn more on Caroline Van Hemert's website. She is also the author of a wonderful article on sailing to Alaska with two toddlers in tow, which received much criticism from New York Times readers, but was loudly applauded by TreeHugger.