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