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Chaos in the world brings uneasiness, but it also allows the opportunity for creativity and growth.
– Tom Barrett  
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  Volume No. 17 Issue No. 7 July 2020  

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  “The Sun is a Compass”
  A 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds
  By Robin Widmar

   People like to compare Caroline Van Hemert’s “The Sun Is a Compass” to the bestselling “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed, presumably since both books feature exhaustive treks undertaken by women. But frankly, that is where the similarities end. Van Hemert’s story pays considerable homage to the natural world while describing a remarkable human-powered journey through the Alaskan wilderness.
   
   The book opens with Van Hemert and her husband, Pat Farrell, standing on the bank of the Chandalar River in the Brooks Range of northern Alaska. The area is so lightly travelled that maps show the wide, fast-moving river as an innocuous thin blue line. The couple’s harrowing crossing emphasizes the hazards of extreme wilderness travel, but also triggers a need to find out more about these people and why they were there in the first place.
   
   The story loops back to Van Hemert’s early years growing up with parents who were adventurers in their own right. While she enjoyed outdoor activities, she was also bookish and keenly interested in learning about the world around her. A conservation biology class in college led Van Hemert to seek summer jobs studying birds in Alaska. She became an ornithologist (someone who studies birds) and focused her research on beak deformities in a population of Alaskan chickadees.
   
   But the work confined her to a laboratory, and Van Hemert soon realized that she despised being cooped up inside. “I had forgotten what it meant, not only in my mind, but in my heart to be a scientist,” she writes. “Five years of study had started as an act of love and turned into pure drudgery.”
   
   At the same time, Farrell was experiencing a similar disconnect from the natural world. An accomplished outdoorsman, he started a construction business that meant he “spent more time communing with a hammer than with forests or mountains.” Van Hemert sums up their shared internal discord: “In our commitment to education and jobs, we had neglected what mattered most to us.”
   
   The couple had long discussed undertaking an epic journey. Life events made them realize, “If we didn’t do it now, we might never have another chance,” so they began planning the adventure of a lifetime. Starting in Bellingham, Washington, they would head northwest across Canada and Alaska, cross the Arctic Circle, and finish in the tiny hamlet of Kotzebue, Alaska. And they would make the trek under their own power. “We wanted to experience the landscape as the birds and caribou did: entirely under the power of our own muscles, without using motors, roads, or established trails.”
   
   The pair paddled canoes and inflatable packrafts, hiked, and skied through some of the most remote wilderness on the planet. They carried their own gear and carefully rationed food, picking up additional equipment, food, and supplies through prearranged shipments to remote villages along the route. Van Hemert describes many highlights and moments of wonder, but also bouts of miserable rain, freezing cold, voracious mosquitos, and a delayed supply drop that leaves Van Hemert and Farrell hungry for several days. More than once, they question what they are doing but press on.
   
   Then there are the birds. While planning the trip, Van Hemert carefully noted which birds would be migrating, gathering, breeding, and migrating again along the way. Her observations go beyond appearance and delve into behaviors, sounds, feeding habits, and gracefulness in the air or on the water. She shares her extensive knowledge and observations in a pleasant manner that lends depth to the narrative without sounding like a lecture.
   
   Of course, there is other wildlife, too, including mountain goats, moose, the enormous spectacle that is the annual caribou migration, and an aggressively persistent black bear. Yet there were also signs of human encroachment, such as empty metal barrels scattered across a site once used for whaling operations. Van Hemert notes: “Sometimes, a landscape is granted the right to be left alone. The biological value of Arctic ecosystems is clear: there are rivers filled with salmon, valleys packed with caribou, patches of tundra that host millions of migratory birds, and plants found nowhere else on earth.”
   
   Fittingly, the story ends with a bird analogy. From the plane that is taking them home, Van Hemert sees “a smudge of white along the shoreline and (I) imagine the swans, gathered one last time, pausing before they begin their long journey home.”
   
   “The Sun is a Compass” is equal parts travelogue, nature documentary, and autobiography. Van Hemert is a gifted writer who relates her tale with down-to-earth eloquence. Her vibrant descriptions of the wild world, as well as her unflinching take on the mental and physical challenges of a 4,000-mile wilderness journey, fully immerse the reader in the experience. It is a thoughtfully written book that is worth reading, and then reading again.
  
 
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