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Book Review: The Sun is a Compass by Caroline Van Hemert

Getting out into nature is my favorite way to recharge.  I like to pedal along local trails, paddle in our local waterways and hike or run in the hills whenever possible.  But I’ve never thought to self power myself over 4,000 miles of North America’s wildest areas.  The Sun is a Compass is Caroline Van Hemert’s story about the trip she and her husband made from Bellingham, Washington north to the Arctic Ocean and backdown through the Brooks Range to Kotzebue, Alaska. Their 4,000 mile trek included miles paddled in their custom crafted, handmade rowboats and long stretches of remote landscape hiked or skied in Canada and Alaska.

Caroline is a native Alaskan, and is an intrepid traveler.  She also set out on this trip after finishing her Ph.D. dissertation in ornithology.  Through the story, Caroline weaves in stories of the birds she sees during the trip, giving glimpses of the birds’ journeys and the effects climate change is having on their futures.  On a journey of this magnitude, birds sometimes were the only wildlife the pair would see for days, and they were always a welcome sight for Caroline.

To travel to the areas the couple did took extensive planning.  For months they were pouring over maps, guidebooks and consulting others about the trip.  My favorite statement about how big an undertaking this was is when Caroline sees the topographical maps her husband, Pat, taped on the wall, and they are tilting crookedly.  This irritates her.  Pat’s response shows just what a big undertaking this was.  The tilting wasn’t due to him sloppily taping up maps, but due to the curvature of the earth.  “The scale is that big”

Planning also involved packing up supply boxes of food that would be dropped off for them along the route.  This is a journey of endurance, and their food supplies were full of high calorie, easily prepared, often dehydrated foods.  The resupply boxes were always a welcome sight for the pair after traveling hundred of miles.  The hardest wait comes for a resupply box in the Noatak Valley.  Caroline and her husband arrive and expect the supply box to be delivered after they call the pilot.  But when they call on their satellite phone, weather conditions have the plane grounded.  Day after day passes, with the couple losing energy and nearing starvation.  The sight of that plane on the 5th day was euphoric, and the items in that box were quickly eaten until they were sated.

Caroline and her husband have some magical sightings of animals.  They also have memorable interactions with people during their trip.  My favorite story is of Ricky who lives in a 140-square foot house in Noatak Valley.  Of course when you are the only person in the middle of nowhere, when two travelers set foot near you, you welcome them in, warm them up, feed them and trade stories.  Ricky was a remarkable man, one of several personalities they meet during the trip.

This book proved to be a great escape from the recent smoky, hot air we’ve been experiencing on the West coast.  Well written and very informative.  Take the journey and read this book.




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