The Sun Is a Compass: My 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds

The Sun Is a Compass: My 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds

by Caroline Van Hemert


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For fans of Cheryl Strayed, the gripping story of a biologist's human-powered journey from the Pacific Northwest to the Arctic to rediscover her love of birds, nature, and adventure.

During graduate school, as she conducted experiments on the peculiarly misshapen beaks of chickadees, ornithologist Caroline Van Hemert began to feel stifled in the isolated, sterile environment of the lab. Worried that she was losing her passion for the scientific research she once loved, she was compelled to experience wildness again, to be guided by the sounds of birds and to follow the trails of animals.

In March of 2012, she and her husband set off on a 4,000-mile wilderness journey from the Pacific rainforest to the Alaskan Arctic, traveling by rowboat, ski, foot, raft, and canoe. Together, they survived harrowing dangers while also experiencing incredible moments of joy and grace — migrating birds silhouetted against the moon, the steamy breath of caribou, and the bond that comes from sharing such experiences.

A unique blend of science, adventure, and personal narrative, The Sun is a Compass explores the bounds of the physical body and the tenuousness of life in the company of the creatures who make their homes in the wildest places left in North America. Inspiring and beautifully written, this love letter to nature is a lyrical testament to the resilience of the human spirit.

Winner of the 2019 Banff Mountain Book Competition: Adventure Travel

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780316414449
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 02/25/2020
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 114,415
Product dimensions: 8.20(w) x 5.40(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Caroline Van Hemert is a biologist and adventurer whose journeys have taken her from the pack ice of the Arctic Ocean to the swamps of the Okavango Delta. She currently works at the US Geological Survey Alaska Science Center and regularly publishes articles in scientific journals about birds and other wildlife in the north. Her research and expeditions have been featured by the New York Times, MSNBC, National Geographic, and more. She lives in Alaska with her husband and two young sons.

Table of Contents

Prologue: Swimming the Chandalar 3

Part 1 Zugunruhe

Alaskan Kid 19

New York Meets Alaska 28

What Came Before 39

Now Is the Only Time 49

Part 2 Inside Passage

Preparations 63

Launch 72

Storm Days 82

Chasing Tides 92

Rules of the Sea 103

Part 3 Yukon

Into the Mountains 117

Border Crossing 131

Yukon Days 142

Wind River 156

Part 4 Arctic Coast

Mackenzie Delta 163

Capsized 175

A Land of Change 183

Barter Island 197

Part 5 Brooks Range

Arctic Pulse 207

Brooks Range Anniversary 216

Pingaluk 228

Takahula Lake 242

Caribou Crossing 251

Noatak Stories 270

Final Days 281

Epilogue: Three on the Lost Coast 290

Acknowledgments 295

Index 299

What People are Saying About This

MD, coauthor of Zoobiquity - Barbara Natterson Horowitz

"Van Hemert's vibrant and elegant book transports, educates, and inspires. To read The Sun Is a Compass is to be masterfully guided through the wild by an expert not only on nature itself but on the deep and often hidden connections between the natural world and our human lives."

Author of Cold - Bill Streever

“In The Sun is a Compass, adventure and romance journey hand in hand, covering 4,000 tough miles, reminding all of us that the easy way may not be the best way.”

Author of Turing's Cathedral - George Dyson

“Most adventures start with a map, often following a route that looks possible on paper but turns out to be less than possible in real life. Caroline Van Hemert's The Sun Is a Compass tells of a journey that looked almost impossible on a map. I was left with the same sense of amazement I have felt, five miles from land in the Gulf of Alaska, with nothing in bloom for a thousand miles, when a hummingbird flies by, circles once, and continues north.”

Author of Mozart's Starling - Lyanda Lynn Haupt

“This book leaves me pondering such a beautiful contradiction: We cannot survive as humans in extreme wilderness; we can best survive as humans through the experience of extreme wilderness. The Sun Is a Compass is a gorgeous, feral reminder of the resilience we all possess, and what we truly need, which is in fact very little—a bit of food and warm clothes, wildness, and love.”

Customer Reviews