Excerpt and Review of Caroline Van Hemert’s “The Sun is a Compass”
If there existed an advanced degree in adventuring, Caroline Van Hermert would have earned it several times over. Her travels have taken her all over the planet, from Alaska to Africa, studying, researching, and exploring along the way. Professionally, Caroline is a biologist with the USGS Alaska Science Center and holds a Ph.D. in wildlife biology and an M.A. in creative writing. She masterfully pairs academic credentials with vocation to bring to life her book, The Sun is a Compass: A 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaska Wilds.
Caroline’s book invites readers to experience her and her six month, 4,000-mile adventure from Washington State to the Arctic Circle. Traveling with her husband by rowboat, foot, ski, packraft, and canoe, Caroline traverses wilderness, survives the elements, witnesses the kindness of strangers, and observes the beauty (and danger) of wildlife in its natural habitat. The Trek is pleased to partner with Caroline to present an excerpt of her adventure.
Caroline Van Hemert is an Alaskan adventurer, wildlife biologist, and writer. Her recent book, The Sun is a Compass: A 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaska Wilds, is available at your local bookseller or online. For more about Caroline and the book, visit her website, or find her at Instagram or Facebook. The below is from the book’s opening chapter.
Prologue: Swimming The Chandalar
I’m standing on the bank of the swift Chandalar River in the Brooks Range of northern Alaska, trying to gather the courage to swim across. My husband, Pat, is by my side. We’re alone, as we have been for most of the past five months.
The sky is a depthless sort of overcast, no definition in the clouds, no glimmer of sunshine. The temperature hovers just above freezing and the air is damp after a night of rain. I grip the straps of my pack, my fingers raw from the chill, and lean against Pat as we look down at the river that flows in a wide channel sixty feet below us. The only sound is the steady rush of moving water. I push away the voice in my head that echoes a single question. What are we doing?
It’s the fifth of August, 2012. Over the last 139 days, we have traversed nearly three thousand miles, most recently through places so lightly traveled our topographic maps have little to say about them. Only the highest peaks are labeled, and then solely by elevation. The Brooks Range is the northernmost major mountain range on earth and has retained its integrity in ways that few places have. Many of the creeks and valleys are nameless, their curves and riffles left unexplored. There are no soft edges here, no boardwalks or trails or park rangers. It’s wild, empty, and gritty.
We’re here because we’re attempting to travel entirely under our own power from the Pacific Northwest to a remote corner of the Alaskan Arctic. We’re here because we need wilderness like we need water or air. Like we need each other. For me, this trip is also a journey back to trees and birdsong, to lichen and hoof prints. Before leaving, I had lost my way on the path that carried me from biology to natural wonder. I had forgotten what it meant, not only in my mind, but in my heart, to be a scientist.
We have a thousand miles ahead of us, but for now all that matters is this river. On the map it looked harmless, squiggly and blue. As I stare down at it now, it’s the color of mud. From our elevated vantage, the water’s opaque surface appears smooth, but when Pat throws a spruce bough from the bank, it bobs in the small waves, spins once, then vanishes quickly downriver.
In the first months of the journey, our destination was so distant that it seemed almost peripheral. Kotzebue. A small village on the shores of the Chukchi Sea. A place on the map as arbitrary as any other. We were consumed by each day, distracted by aching muscles and whales and the simple act of moving. Always moving. But the stakes quietly grew, shape-shifting from a tally of miles into something much more. Only now am I beginning to see this trip for what it is. A celebration and a letting go of youth. A reawakening of the biologist in me. A reckoning between us and the land. Something we must see through to the end.
And so crossing this river has become necessary, in the way that it’s necessary to kiss a lover before leaving, to pause and look up when the moon is rising. Our bodies know what is essential and what is not.
Before we left, people asked us why we were taking this trip; they wondered what compelled us to want to “disappear” for a while. I tried to explain that escapism wasn’t our goal—neither of us was running from a broken marriage or drug addiction or academic failure. We weren’t trying to set a record or achieve a first. We were simply trying to find our way home.
Shortly after Pat and I met in 2001, we discovered that we were most fully ourselves in wild places. That our love was strongest among rocks and rivers, trees and tundra. Since our first summer together, when we spent two months camped on the bank of a remote Arctic river, we had dreamed about another grand adventure. Increasingly, though, time in the outdoors was taking a backseat to more mundane endeavors. Our trips were shrinking, our commitments growing. Even worse, I had just finished a Ph.D. in biology feeling more distant than ever from the natural world. Five years of study had started as an act of love and turned into pure drudgery.
In our commitment to education and jobs, we had neglected what mattered most to us. Our calendars were shaped by academic deadlines and construction schedules rather than tide cycles and seasons. We missed the freedom that came with sleeping outdoors for weeks or months at a time. Recently, decisions about whether to have children and how to care for aging parents had started to feel pressing. My dad had been diagnosed with a degenerative neurological disease. My younger sister was pregnant. The career that awaited me felt increasingly like a sentence rather than an opportunity. Still, I wasn’t entirely sure what all of this had to do with our trip or what I hoped to find along the way. I didn’t yet understand how traveling across four thousand miles of wilderness would help me face my looming adulthood or a job I wasn’t sure I wanted. I didn’t realize I needed to find my way back to biology by the same means I had first discovered it.
Only months after we left did I begin to appreciate that this trip offered what ordinary life could not. Clear edges. Truth. Acceptance. An understanding that living with uncertainty is not only OK; it is the only option. Before we started, I wanted nothing to do with the facts that were staring back at me. Life is tenuous. Love is risky. We have so much to lose along the way. I had forgotten the converse side of this equation, that the most precious things in life are those that don’t last forever. I needed a crash course outdoors to remind myself that a life is not merely a tally of days, that what matters most cannot be quantified. The glimpse of a wolf’s tawny back, his coat shimmering with dew. The sound of my dad’s voice on the satellite phone, holding steady and sure. The look Pat gives me when he knows my pack straps are cutting into my shoulders and my spirit is waning, his expression encouraging me that I can do the impossible.
We hadn’t originally planned to swim across anything. But now we’re perched at the edge of a cold Arctic river without our packrafts; they are on a mail plane heading west. Several days ago, we decided we would shed the extra weight of our boats to lighten our loads. We’ll pick them up again in the village of Anaktuvuk Pass, two hundred miles to the west, after much of the steep terrain is behind us. Winter is just weeks away and we need to move quickly if we’re to reach Kotzebue before freeze-up. The first season’s snow fell last week as we woke to caribou milling around our tent, a small band traveling south. Before we got to the river, our decision to ship the boats seemed like a good one. Now, I’m not so sure.
As we watch the water swirling below, I try to guess how long it might take to swim to the other side, two hundred yards away. Five minutes? Ten? Just as I realize that the distance is equivalent to several laps in a very cold pool, Pat interrupts my calculations by asking where I think we should cross. Before the bend or after? Where the river is widest or narrowest? I see him looking downriver. He is thinking the same thing I am. Where will we end up if we get carried downstream?
We find a spot to enter, just past a large elbow in the river, and I empty the contents of my pack, searching for the thin waterproof bag that contains my extra clothes. Out comes my sleeping bag, sleeping pad, three stuff sacks of food, satellite phone, rain gear, cooking pot, and camera. When I find the clothes, I begin to undress, goose bumps rising on my skin in the cool air. I re-layer with almost everything I’m carrying—wool long-underwear tops and bottoms, fleece pullover, synthetic vest, nylon pants, and a wool hat—and wiggle into a plastic trash bag with holes cut for my head and arms before pulling on my rain jacket and pants. We know the water will penetrate our layers, but are hoping the rain gear and plastic bag will help to preserve our body heat against the cold. Like an improvised wet suit, Pat explained when he came up with the idea.
I volunteer to go first, not because I’m feeling especially brave, but because one of us must do it. Pat isn’t one for chauvinism; still, he hesitates for several moments, staring across the water. He only agrees when I explain that it will be easier for him to rescue me than the reverse. Just in case, I add.
Late last night, curled in our sleeping bags, I tried to envision our crossing. I told Pat that if it seemed too dangerous to swim maybe we could hike back to the nearest village and find someone to give us a ride to the other side. But even as I said this, both of us knew it wouldn’t happen. It would mean we had failed.
When we committed to this project—to travel from rainforest to ice-filled sea, from the edge of the continental United States to the edge of the earth—we decided it would be completely on our terms. No roads, no trails, and no motors. We would travel by foot, on skis, in rowboats, rafts, and canoes. We would use only our own muscles to carry us through some of the wildest places left on earth. This wasn’t a mandate borne only of stubbornness, though Pat and I each possess a healthy dose of that trait, but because it would allow us to know the landscape as intimately as we knew each other. Simply getting to remote places wasn’t the point. We could have hired a plane to drop us off at any number of locations that would qualify as the middle of nowhere. But we wanted something different. We wanted to hear the crunch of lichen beneath our feet, to smell the tundra after a rainstorm, to understand how it felt to walk in a caribou’s tracks or paddle alongside a beluga whale.
For years, adventure was simply a part of our lives. It hadn’t yet taken on the urgency that arrived, in my early thirties, like a loud and obtrusive neighbor, as my perception of time shifted from lazy and boundless to precious and finite. With it came the understanding that youth is only a temporary pause, a whistle-stop on the train that barrels along, leaving the aging and frail and ill—in the end, all of us—behind. When we first started planning, I had an inkling that this trip would matter more than all of the others we’d taken in our ten years together. Not just because of its scale, which was quickly growing to outrageous proportions, but because if we didn’t do it now, we might never have another chance. We knew our bodies wouldn’t stay strong forever. Inevitably, our responsibilities would grow; our freedom would shrink. I would never again be a thirty-three-year-old on the brink of finishing her Ph.D., childless, disillusioned by the prospect of an academic career, and convinced that whatever it was I needed could be found between two distant places on the map, one a coastal town where I had met my husband, the other a remote, ice-locked land I’d never seen.
I’m shivering before I step into the river. When I begin to wade, the mud soft and forgiving beneath my feet, icy water seeps quickly up my pant legs. My muscles stiffen in response, my knees suddenly wooden, my groin aching. Several steps later I lose contact with the bottom as the current tugs on my hips.
Immediately, I’m being carried downstream, farther from Pat but no closer to the other side. I need to start swimming, and fast. I lace my arms backward through the straps of my pack and attempt to balance my chest on top of the buoyant load as though it were a kickboard. For a moment, this seems to be working. I’m floating and kicking. But my upper body is perched so high above the surface that I can’t get any purchase with my flailing legs.
I try again. Lowering my body and leveraging my chin against the bottom of my pack, I kick like hell. I can barely see above the pack, and when I crane my neck, breathing hard, I realize I’m only paralleling the shore. I reorient myself and try once more. I flutter my feet but nothing happens. I kick from my hips, but I only move farther downstream. This isn’t working. Hurry up.
As I’m floundering, I think of my mom, queen of the breaststroke. Frog-kicks? Maybe? After my first contorted attempts, I find a way to use not only my legs but my arms, sliding abbreviated strokes through the shoulder straps. I direct my pack with my chin. It works. I can move and steer and begin to propel myself toward the middle of the channel. Soon, Pat yells from the bluff above that I’ve made it halfway.
I cheer myself on silently, focusing the only part of my gaze that isn’t blocked by my pack onto the trees that are growing larger with each stroke. I can see my progress. Better. Almost there. A surge of confidence follows, and I slow my frantic motions enough to catch my breath. Seconds later, I hit a stiff eddy line. Only a dozen yards from shore, the swirling water leaves me nearly stationary. Pat shouts something unintelligible. I try to stand up, but a small creek joins the river here and the water is surprisingly deep.
Pat yells again. This time, I hear only “Get up!”—but I can’t. I’m suddenly afraid. And starting to tire. My inner voice wavers. If you stop now. You. Will. Wash. Away. Act, don’t think, Caroline. I force my mind to go still. Robotic. Kick hard. Harder. I try to touch down again, but feel only water beneath my feet. I close my eyes and channel everything into my legs. Do it. Or else.
After several more attempts, I feel a release. I have finally managed to break through the eddy. As soon as I find contact with the muddy bottom, I wade out of the water and flop onto the shore. I take several breaths lying down, staring up at the sky. When I raise my head and look across the river, I see Pat pump his fist into the air, celebrating for me. I’m only partially relieved. The swim was much worse than I had imagined. Now I have to watch Pat take a turn. He’s a strong swimmer, but the river’s stronger.
As I stand up and move away from the river’s edge, Pat finishes stuffing the last items into his pack. It takes forever. He seals his pack, then opens it up again, retrieving something he left behind on the ground. He arranges and rearranges his load, my anxiety building with each adjustment. When he finally scrambles down the cutbank, he looks small and the river huge.
Within seconds of wading into the water, he’s kicking his legs and windmilling his right arm, holding the pack with his left. But I’m not sure his one-armed crawl is working. All but the top of his head is obscured by splashing. Partway across, he switches arms. He slows for a moment and begins to drift downstream. “Come on, Pat,” I yell, willing away the excruciating minutes of watching him struggle, and he begins to windmill again. When he’s finally near enough for me to see his face, his expression terrifies me.
He’s wide-eyed and intense. Fighting. Hard.
“Are you OK?” I shout. No response. He hesitates and changes arms. I shout again. Nothing. Fifty yards from shore he’s practically at a standstill. I scream that if he doesn’t answer me I’m coming in after him.
“Hold on to your pack, I’ll be there in a second!” Still no answer. He’s moving toward me so slowly he looks stationary. I wade into the water and begin to breaststroke through the eddy, cursing myself for waiting so long. If the current carries Pat much farther, I might not be able to reach him in time. And even if I do, I’m not sure I can help.
I barely notice the cold this time as I pull against the gray water. Beneath the surface the current churns and grasps. Even without my backpack, it takes all of my energy to fight through the eddy again.
Pat stares intently at the shore and mumbles that he is tired, so tired. Fatigue is only part of the problem. Nearly ten minutes in the frigid river is long enough for hypothermia to set in. When I’m close enough to touch him, I grab his pack and position myself behind him. Without the pack, he can use both of his arms and paddles more smoothly. At the eddy, he glances back at me before stroking hard for shore. I’m right behind him, harnessing the strength that comes with fear. Finally, we stumble out of the water and collapse together on the riverbank.
Title: The Sun is a Compass: A 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds
Author: Caroline Van Hermert
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Little, Brown Spark
At face level, Caroline Van Hemert’s account of her 4,000-mile journey is an exciting tale of adventure in the wilderness, but her writing holds much more than just simple physical accomplishment.
The Sun is a Compass can be interpreted as a series of interconnected love letters. One to her passion for biology and the outdoors that has become subdued under the constraints of laboratory research. One to her husband, with whom she shares the ups, downs, and tensions that only six months of constant struggle in the wilderness can bring. One to her sister and parents, written as Caroline comes to terms with being absent for significant family milestones and illness. Perhaps most importantly, a love letter to herself, examined under the lens of who Caroline is, and wants to be during and after her journey.
The “love letters” analogy stems from the internal monologue that the reader observes, not as a voyeur, but as a welcome guest. Caroline’s internal conflict is as engrossing as the external conflict that ultimately drives the narrative. Caroline’s frank disclosure of her most personal thoughts on this conflict drives the memoir in lulls between physical action, and is so gripping that the reader can’t help but challenge the discord in his own life.
The Sun is a Compass is more than an explorer’s memoir. It’s the real life story of adults with real world problems who happen to be on the adventure of a lifetime. The book is well worth the read, and will leave you itching to explore, both the outside world and inside your own head.
The Sun is a Compass is available for purchase where books are sold, or from online retailers.
All photos taken by Patrick Farrell or Caroline Van Hemert.
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