Finding Clarity in the Alaskan Wilderness

Book review: The Sun is a Compass, by Caroline van Hemert (Amazon / Book Depository)

Biologist and ornithologist Caroline Van Hemert was burning out. PhD completed, nothing about the next steps into work or research felt right. She was happily paired with Pat, the man she’d bonded with over their mutual love of the outdoors and adventure. But she grappled with bigger issues — would they be happy staying in one place? Should they have a baby? Complicated by the wrenching pain of acknowledging her father’s onset of Parkinson’s disease.

They’d dreamed of making a unique, extreme trip: a 4,000-mile trek across the Arctic Circle. She realized the present was probably the only opportunity to do it, since she needed to move on professionally, and it was time to make a decision about starting a family.

Needing the clarity that travel can sometimes provide, especially in remote locales where they could be alone and focus on physical, logistical challenges at hand while appreciating nature for its essence and not the research aspects Caroline was tiring of, they decide to undertake this epic journey. It “wasn’t a logical response to becoming disillusioned by research or facing my dad’s illness. But logic was the last thing I needed. These weren’t matters of the mind but of the heart, and I could think of only one way forward. The advice my parents had given me for years now rang true. Go outside, kid. Fresh air will do you good.

Planning to head north from Bellingham, Washington, they begin with ungodly amounts of prep work — meal planning, resupply box logistics, how exactly to navigate remote terrains with only what they carried on their backs, and to make good time since at some point winter would begin nipping at their heels. Undertaking the arduous trip, highlights would become the people who helped them out of difficult, uncomfortable situations, or shared their own stories and reasons for being in the Alaskan wilderness.

Interactions with locals were revealing, as was her analysis: “I’m reminded that this journey is as much about human connections as it is about wilderness.” Seeing a place through its locals was one of my favorite parts of a journey through similar terrain overlaid with history, last year’s Tip of the Iceberg, and I would’ve liked more focus on both locals (although with few interactions, more excusable) and history of place. It’s wonderful when she includes it, but it’s rare.

They have heart-pounding moments, like being stalked by a black bear, or the wonder-filled experience of watching a herd of caribou migrate. The writing is strong (in addition to a PhD in the sciences, Van Hemert holds a Master’s in writing and it shows). She writes about nature clearly and realistically, and loops in her expertise in biology and ornithology to tell fascinating stories about the natural world, which enhanced the narrative greatly.

But I didn’t connect with this book like I wanted, or expected. Although some stories were incredible, a big problem I had in actually “enjoying” reading was that much of the trip sounded awful. I don’t necessarily need to share the desire for something with an author to appreciate their writing about it, but so much seemed aggressively unpleasant. Hearing about the monotonous dry food was one thing, worse is when she has to pee in the bowl she eats from. If it sounds like it could’ve happened at Auschwitz, it should not be a part of your journey.

Plus descriptions of infrequent bathing, wearing the same clothes, lots of sweating — it made me itchy. I remember traveling a few months in sporadically washed clothes with one towel, although it makes me cringe now and I’ve had enough skin problems to never test my luck like that again. But just reading this was uncomfortable, I don’t know another way to describe it. I thought I would be able to appreciate the extreme of the undertaking but I couldn’t.

It’s also repetitive. The author was entering a tricky life phase, and it’s natural for the looming decisions — accepting a job or going a different professional direction, having kids, etc., to be heavily on her mind, but they were presented repeatedly in the same way. It felt like reading a diary.

But there was ultimately something lovely, in that the trip did for her what she needed it to, and helped smooth out some wrinkles in her future. I can’t help but be delighted when that happens for someone.

Suddenly, I feel the first real pull toward home. I realize now that staying in one place is not the same as being stuck. We’ve seen so much in the past five months, covering ten or twenty or forty miles at a time. But this isn’t the only way of seeing.

A different kind of finding yourself story, with a worthwhile message of learning to trust one’s own strength and capabilities. It didn’t hit the right notes for me but I could see it speaking to those who find themselves in unsure life situations with similar inclinations to go off the grid while seeking clarity. Her path to conclusions wasn’t always clear, but I appreciated the messages.

Only months after we left did I begin to appreciate that this trip offered what ordinary life could not… 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.

The Sun is a Compass:
A 4,000-Mile Journey Into the Alaskan Wilds

by Caroline van Hemert
published March 19, 2019 by Little, Brown Spark

Amazon / Book Depository


16 thoughts on “Finding Clarity in the Alaskan Wilderness

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    1. I know, it just sounded terrible at times. I guess more respect to her, I wouldn’t learn anything about myself without clean underwear, regular bathing and something to
      eat besides trail mix and plain pasta. These kind of stories can be fascinating but this one just spent so much on the planning and logistics and things she was turning over in her head that it detracted from the travel/nature aspects for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I am weirdly not impressed with this stories of people traveling parts of the world for their own personal gain (even if that gain is mental clarity) for a couple of reasons: 1) humans trampling the Earth is actually quite destructive (e.g. the redwoods in California are struggling to grow because everyone is walking on their roots), and 2) if you put yourself in a horrible situation by choice, one that you can escape, I’m not sure why you would think people want to hear you complain for hundreds of pages. One thing I enjoyed about Wild by Cheryl Strayed is that the trip was hard, but she chose to do it, could end at any time, and didn’t complain the whole memoir. Here’s an article about the redwoods:

    This sort of thing is happening in loads of natural landscapes (Great Barrier Reef, Mount Kilimanjaro, etc.), so the fact that the author had a personal issue and decided to tromp across a natural landscape doesn’t sit well with me. And, I don’t want to feel itchy while reading, lol.


    1. I’m not sure if this is on the same level as what’s happening at the Redwoods or Great Barrier Reef, since so few people actually travel where she did. The encounters with locals were when they ventured into towns for resupplies, there wasn’t really anyone else in the backcountry. I don’t know enough about the ecology and environmental impacts of this specific area but their trip didn’t sound particularly destructive. It just sounded like a dream trip for her and her husband that I ended up not enjoying hearing about, too many uncomfortable, itchy moments and the personal element didn’t gel with me. Like with Wild, I never got far enough to see how it developed, I abandoned it after getting irritated with the author early on and thought it’s not fair to keep reading this when I was close to actively disliking her. Memoirs can be so hit or miss!


      1. It’s true! I think my concern about tourists trekking on things and destroying them is that it all usually starts small, with one person’s trip or ultimately selfie. She has a whole book. Thanks so much for your detailed reply!

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Oh but there was this one moment I was bugged by, where one of their food resupplies came by plane and the pilot was grounded for days because of bad weather and they had no food left in the backcountry. It was a terrible and scary experience and all I could think was, “did you have to have food delivered by plane?!” I didn’t mention it in the review because I don’t know enough about this and my flights to visit family or for vacation surely leave bigger environmental footprints than that, but still. I couldn’t imagine a plane being flown specifically for the sole purpose of bringing me food so I can hike in the wilderness. It blew my mind.


      1. Definitely! And as romantic as some people find living in the wilds of North America, even in, say, an Alaskan town, all of their supplies are flown to them. The environmental cost is huge for a small number of people. I heard a story on NPR about this group trying to make their living on the north pole as environmentally friendly as possible by growing their own vegetables inside the tent. Now THAT I can get behind!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I am definitely someone who is inclined to retreat to the great outdoors whenever I’m stressed, so I do sympathise with the author – but I am not sure I want to read all her musings about jobs and whether or not to have a kid!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You might like the nature parts, they’re well written and interesting. But honestly I started bracing myself when the musing-about-future sections came up, they were just discussed so repetitively, I lost all patience with it! They could be skimmable if the rest of it sounds really good to you, though.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I enjoyed reading your review and all the comments above. But will give this one a miss I think. I am particularly put off by women agonising at great length whether to have children or not, more tactful to keep quiet about that issue..

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great review! I find this kind of nature trekking really fascinating, but GTL brings up a good point that it can be quite destructive for the environment…although walking outside really is so healthy for us humans 🙂

    I must know-why did she pee in a bowl? Why couldn’t she pee outside on the ground?


  5. I’m excited you picked this up too and enjoyed hearing your thoughts, but I’m sorry it didn’t work as well for you! It did sound terribly unpleasant, but I didn’t mind experiencing that – vicariously 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad I read it because I was so curious about it, and I always like learning something else about Alaska. And I did like the nature writing of it a lot, so it had its worthwhile bits!


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