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

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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 environme 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 book explores the bounds of the physical body and the tenuousness of life in the company of creatures whose daily survival is nothing short of miraculous. It is a journey through the heart, the mind, and some of the wildest places left in North America. In the end, The Sun Is a Compass is a love letter to nature, an inspiring story of endurance, and a beautifully written testament to the resilience of the human spirit.


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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 environme 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 book explores the bounds of the physical body and the tenuousness of life in the company of creatures whose daily survival is nothing short of miraculous. It is a journey through the heart, the mind, and some of the wildest places left in North America. In the end, The Sun Is a Compass is a love letter to nature, an inspiring story of endurance, and a beautifully written testament to the resilience of the human spirit.

30 review for The Sun Is a Compass: A 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds

  1. 5 out of 5

    Diane S ☔

    4.5 I love reading adventure stories, especially ones set in cold climates. This is a book that contained so many beautiful descriptions of nature and wildlife, that I could have read it indefinitely. A biologist, working in a lab studying chickadees and the crooked beaks that have been forming on many, Caroline loses touch with the reasons she became a biologist. She really needed to get out of the lab and back in touch with nature. She and her husband plan a 4000 mild trip from the Pacific Nor 4.5 I love reading adventure stories, especially ones set in cold climates. This is a book that contained so many beautiful descriptions of nature and wildlife, that I could have read it indefinitely. A biologist, working in a lab studying chickadees and the crooked beaks that have been forming on many, Caroline loses touch with the reasons she became a biologist. She really needed to get out of the lab and back in touch with nature. She and her husband plan a 4000 mild trip from the Pacific Northwest to the Arctic. Using no motors, boats they make themselves, skiis, and a vast network of planned connections to pick up food supplies and other needed items. Just the planning for this would do me in. The things they see, face, the weather, the soreness, near starvation, run in with a bear, so danger yes, but so many beautiful things. I'll let parts of the book speak for itself. I needed a crash course outdoors to remind myself that life is not merely a tally of days, that what matters most cannot be quantified. The glimpse of a wolf's tawny back, his coat shimmering with dew. "We wanted to hear the crunch of lichen beneath our feet, to smell the tundra after a rainstorm, to understand how it felt to walk in a caribous tracks, or paddle alongside a beluga whale." "Chickadees calls vary in tone and duration. When responding to a predator or intruder, the number of Dee's reflect the level of threat." "By September, the ice should be gone, next winter's pack ice not yet formed. But as the words take shape in my mouth, I see the ice levitate and rise into the sky, shattering into pieces. Swans. Thousands and thousands of tundra swans, with golden necks and wings on fire. Their heavy steps patter against the water as they take flight, a gathering of Angels against the steel blue sky." Gorgeous writing and the very best of armchair travel. ARC from Edelweiss.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Chrissie

    The Sun Is a Compass: A 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds chronicles the author’s and her husband’s journey from March 17 to September 5, 2012. They hiked and skied, rowed, canoed and rafted. Never did they use a motor vehicle. They traveled from Bellingham (outside Seattle, Washington state) to Kotzebue, Alaska. Their itinerary and photos from the trip may be viewed here: https://carolineandpat.wordpress.com/... Caroline was thirty-three, her husband a year and a half younger. Four years The Sun Is a Compass: A 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds chronicles the author’s and her husband’s journey from March 17 to September 5, 2012. They hiked and skied, rowed, canoed and rafted. Never did they use a motor vehicle. They traveled from Bellingham (outside Seattle, Washington state) to Kotzebue, Alaska. Their itinerary and photos from the trip may be viewed here: https://carolineandpat.wordpress.com/... Caroline was thirty-three, her husband a year and a half younger. Four years they had been married. They had not gotten around to children; they were just too darn busy! What motivated her and her husband, Pat, to set off on this trip? He was a successful designer and constructor of houses, a man at home in nature, calm in temperament, self-assured, but not chauvinistic. She had recently completed a PhD in biology. She questioned if she wanted to continue a career in ornithological research. She was sick of the clinical, sterile life of a laboratory. She had gotten away from what had originally drawn her to the study of nature! Her relationship with her husband felt stale. Could this trip be a ticket to self-discovery, back to finding herself? Further complicating her life situation, her father, with whom she felt a strong bond, had recently been diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s, and her sister, younger by 3,5 years was pregnant. What was Caroline doing with her life? Should she have kids? These were the questions she was grappling with. Will they be resolved by the book’s end? And if so, how? Caroline’s and Pat’s respective personalities become clear as one reads the book. The journey—the description of the land traversed is well drawn. What is captured is the wonder, the beauty, the very essence and value of nature, the peace imbibed out in the wild, as well as the inherent dangers that lurk. Many interesting details about birds fill the text. The author is a biologist and birds are what she has been studying for years. At her fingertips is the knowledge of that which makes a particular bird species unique and special. Her extensive knowledge about flora and fauna caught my interest many times. Eiders’ and plovers’ very different approach to raising their young is for me fascinating. This is merely one example of the type of information that can be learned from the book. Who of us has not read about those who have starved out in the wild? Food rations are difficult to calculate. Caroline and Pat have several brushes with death—they are (view spoiler)[stalked by a bear, Pat’s boat capsizes in a storm, they are threatened by flooding and almost eaten alive / driven insane by mosquitoes during the summer when struggling to cross a delta (hide spoiler)] . In September, as they ended their journey, winter was approaching fast. I would not classify the journey as primarily an adventure story, but there are exciting incidents. The book is more a celebration of the value and importance of nature and, in addition, about a woman’s search for herself. The book pulls you in from its first chapter. Then it backtracks, filling in necessary information. Once the journey is started, the telling moves forward chronologically. The end has both an element of suspense and a beautifully drawn episode with caribou, affording wonderful armchair travel. An epilog clarifies how Caroline’s initial worries have been resolved. What I am saying is that the book has a good start and a good finish. Xe Sands narrates the audiobook. When Caroline begins the journey, she is upset and troubled. Sands’ voice trembles and is often close to tears. Caroline’s lack of self-confidence is palpable. Such dramatization is not misplaced but makes listening difficult. As Caroline resolves questions and finds her way, listeners h-e-a-r her inner strength grow. This is well done. Except when Sands sounds all teary-eyed and choked up, the audiobook it is not hard to follow. I have given Sands’ narration performance four stars. The further I got from the teary-eyed sections, the more pleased I became. The audiobook has no accompanying PDF file, thus mapping of the journey and access to the photos are lacking. A map and photos are to be found in the paper book or look at the link provided above. ******************* Other similar books that are very good: *Polar Dream: The First Solo Expedition by a Woman and Her Dog to the Magnetic North Pole by Helen Thayer 4 stars *The Long Exile: A true story of deception and survival amongst the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic by Melanie McGrath 4 stars *Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer 4 stars *The Sun Is a Compass: A 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds by Caroline Van Hemert 4 stars There are more to check out here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/list...

  3. 5 out of 5

    Nancy

    I love a good adventure story and if it involves ice I'm in. Caroline Van Hemert's memoir The Sun is a Compass is a beautiful and thoughtful exposition on her love of the Alaskan wilderness and the 4,000-mile journey she and her spouse shared over six months. The memoir transcends the typical story of man (or woman) vs nature, for Van Hemert also documents her struggle to find her life path--will she be content in a research career, what about children, how long will their bodies allow them to f I love a good adventure story and if it involves ice I'm in. Caroline Van Hemert's memoir The Sun is a Compass is a beautiful and thoughtful exposition on her love of the Alaskan wilderness and the 4,000-mile journey she and her spouse shared over six months. The memoir transcends the typical story of man (or woman) vs nature, for Van Hemert also documents her struggle to find her life path--will she be content in a research career, what about children, how long will their bodies allow them to follow their hearts? Working in the field as a student, Alaskan native Van Hemert became interested in ornithology, and in particular why so many chickadees beaks were misformed. Lab work was soul-deadening. She and her husband Peter, who at eighteen trekked into Alaska and built his own cabin by hand, had long discussed a dream journey from the Pacific Northwest rain forest to the Arctic Circle. Before Van Hemert decided on her career path they committed to making their dream a reality. Their journey took them across every challenging terrain and through every extreme weather imaginable, bringing them face-to-face with predator bear and migrating caribou, driven near crazy by mosquitoes swarms and nearly starving waiting for food drop-offs. But they also met hospitality in far distant corners and saw up close a quickly vanishing ecosystem. It is a story of a marriage, as well; how Peter and Caroline depended on each other while carrying their own weight--literally, with seventy-pound supply packs. I enjoyed reading this memoir on so many levels. Van Hemert has written a profound memoir on our vanishing wilderness and the hard decisions women scientists must make. Learn more about the book, see a trailer, and read an excerpt at https://www.littlebrownspark.com/titl... I thank the publisher who allowed me access to an egalley through NetGalley.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Jeanette

    Others have said it better in review. It's a travelogue of a unique and daring experience. Sincerely, I wanted to like it more than I actually did. The language is at times exquisite and awesome in its "educated eyes" detail. It was appreciated and especially with the birds, just enthralling. But somehow at points in this I just wanted to skim. It was something about the way she posits relationship or dithers in her personal thoughts or something. Very risky. I think I'm too elderly to appreciat Others have said it better in review. It's a travelogue of a unique and daring experience. Sincerely, I wanted to like it more than I actually did. The language is at times exquisite and awesome in its "educated eyes" detail. It was appreciated and especially with the birds, just enthralling. But somehow at points in this I just wanted to skim. It was something about the way she posits relationship or dithers in her personal thoughts or something. Very risky. I think I'm too elderly to appreciate this book. If one of my grandchildren tried this kind of thing at any age- I would voice objection. Bears are the least of it. Cold blizzards, furious storms, fire of forest- impossible to circumvent under these conditions.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Martha☀

    I love an armchair adventure and this one is wild beyond imagination. Within the tight window of Spring/Summer 2012, Caroline and Pat travel from Bellingham, WA, up the coast of BC and into the wilds of the Yukon and Alaska. They use only human power to travel and no paved roads or even trails. They row, hike, ski and packraft the entire 4000 mile distance using infrequent resupply drops or incredibly remote towns to keep them nourished and equipped. Having just completed her PhD in avian zoology I love an armchair adventure and this one is wild beyond imagination. Within the tight window of Spring/Summer 2012, Caroline and Pat travel from Bellingham, WA, up the coast of BC and into the wilds of the Yukon and Alaska. They use only human power to travel and no paved roads or even trails. They row, hike, ski and packraft the entire 4000 mile distance using infrequent resupply drops or incredibly remote towns to keep them nourished and equipped. Having just completed her PhD in avian zoology, Caroline is at a juncture of her life and uses this brief window of time to follow her heart and reconnect with nature while trying to decide if research biology and academia are really for her over the long term. As she paddles along, she gives an unending commentary on the bird life that she witnesses and gives background on migration, nesting and foraging for hundreds of bird species that she encounters along the way - which I found fascinating. She also wonders aloud about her future with Pat and whether or not to have babies - which I found repetitive and somewhat nauseating. There was a lot of skimming during these dull sections. But, on the whole, I admire their ingenuity and courage for taking on such a project and for executing it so well. Besides one breach of communication and one weather-related supply drop, their route and their success was never in question. Personally, I would have liked more details about their packing lists, their camp set-up and their menus along the way, but perhaps that would have changed the lyrical aspect of her writing and made it too inaccessible to the typical armchair adventurer. On an personal note, I clearly remember the violent storm that hit the east coast of Vancouver Island in March 2012 and it fills me with dread to think that they were there, paddling just past my doorstep during those five days, through high seas and gale force winds. That storm shut down our town for a number of days. Incredible! especially since this event happened during the first week of their journey yet they continued on without question.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Katie/Doing Dewey

    Summary: Lovely - full of beautiful nature writing, incredible adventures, fun facts, and moving personal stories. When Caroline Van Hemert finished her PhD, studying beak deformities in chickadees, she felt more uncertain than accomplished. Her years in the lab had left her feeling burnt out. She felt out of touch with the love of nature that led her to study biology in the first place. To try to reconnect with nature, she and her husband decided to pursue a wild dream of theirs - travelling mor Summary: Lovely - full of beautiful nature writing, incredible adventures, fun facts, and moving personal stories. When Caroline Van Hemert finished her PhD, studying beak deformities in chickadees, she felt more uncertain than accomplished. Her years in the lab had left her feeling burnt out. She felt out of touch with the love of nature that led her to study biology in the first place. To try to reconnect with nature, she and her husband decided to pursue a wild dream of theirs - travelling more than 4000 miles through the Pacific northwest to the Alaskan Arctic entirely under their own power. They would spend many months hiking, skiing, rafting, traveling by rowboat, and by canoe. They hoped to finish with some clarity about what came next. I empathized with the author's grad school burnout, but wasn't sure her problems would be compelling enough to make the 'finding myself in nature' story fresh. It turned out that her problems weren't really the point. Her beautiful nature writing, incredible adventures, and frank descriptions of her partnership with her husband were what made this shine. The author drew me in with a fantastic prologue that captured the spirit of the book perfectly. She and her husband overcome life-threatening obstacles as a team of equals. They derive a lot of joy from surviving nature, but also simply from being surrounded by it. She particularly enjoys observing birds in their natural habitat, which I loved. All of these themes appear throughout the book. I was still concerned the author would ascribe a deeper meaning to her experiences that would just feel cliched. Thankfully, she largely avoids that. She talks a bit about her internal work, figuring out what she wants to do next, but doesn't claim some nature-inspired epiphany. She does do some lovely nature writing. Her writing isn't overly flowery, in some cases quite sparse, but she selects the perfect details to make the reader share her sense of awe. Her blend of these visual descriptions with fun facts about animals, wilderness survival and local history was constantly engaging. The bits about her personal life didn't dominate the story of her adventures and did make me more emotionally invested. I'm incredibly impressed that the author balanced all these different threads so well. This worked for me as a memoir, as a natural history, and as a source of inspiring nature writing. I'd recommend it to fans of any of these genres.This review was originally posted on Doing Dewey

  7. 4 out of 5

    F.

    4.5 stars Trekking 4000 miles across Alaska. It’s a wonderful and thoughtful adventure. and it shows how much survival is luck rather than any cunning or skill. One of my favourite moments is the author’s realisation that to lighten each other’s load is a greater gift than any material wealth.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Jypsy

    The Sun is a Compass is an adventure story. It's a true story of an incredible journey that is dangerous across Alaska. I always like this type of story because the characters always learn something valuable about themselves. It's a great story. I enjoyed it. Thanks to NetGalley for an arc in exchange for an honest review.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Donna Hines

    Perfect for the outdoor enthusiast, nature lover, birds of fancy admirers. I loved this story from the second I read it and couldn't put it down. I grew up with a variety of boats on a lake in rural area of Bear Creek in the northeastern part of PA (near the Poconos) which was 30 minutes from civilization. Seasonal residents was the norm and living off the land and enjoying mother nature was part of the excitement. So I get this wholeheartedly and have dreamed of going to Alaska for a visit. This is Perfect for the outdoor enthusiast, nature lover, birds of fancy admirers. I loved this story from the second I read it and couldn't put it down. I grew up with a variety of boats on a lake in rural area of Bear Creek in the northeastern part of PA (near the Poconos) which was 30 minutes from civilization. Seasonal residents was the norm and living off the land and enjoying mother nature was part of the excitement. So I get this wholeheartedly and have dreamed of going to Alaska for a visit. This is the story of Pat and Caroline both extremists in their own right who decided to travel by rowing, hiking, skiing more than 4k miles from Bellingham WA to Yukon and Alaska with occasional supply drops and replenishment along the way. The experiences they endured and captured along the way were beyond words. The bird migration and the idea of wondering what one's legacy will be with thoughts of procreation was all part of this journey. It was captivating, breathtaking, beautifully illustrated by a well educated PHD graduate and her spouse here. The notion that we live in a world that doesn't take the time to 'enjoy the view' is part of this process and we need to truly 'stop and smell the roses' and become one with nature. It's something we often take for granted but if we continue on the current path with climate change, global warming, and destruction of our environment we may not have this beauty to enjoy much longer. I highly recommend this read.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Leigh Anne Hancock

    Raised in Alaska, I loved the adventures of Caroline and Patrick. Her writing is easy, beautifully descriptive and makes me want to continue to explore the world. The ending made me tear up as they approached Kotzebue and she sees her father. Well worth the read.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Amanda

    I loved this memoir. The first few chapters had me asking myself, “how crazy ARE these people??”. But as the journey continued, I found myself longing for the wilderness described. I loved the descriptions of wildlife and birds. I loved reading about Caroline and Pat’s relationship and their struggles together. This really is an adventure and a love story.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Franziska

    This book is the proof that there’s still real adventure out there: Caroline and her husband Patrick decide to cross Alaska by foot, canoe, packraft and on skis. They come across many, many wild animals, unforeseen challenges and rough weather. It’s a beautiful read for every armchair adventurer. I guess 99% of all people are not capable of any similar adventure.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Julia Wilson

    Listening to this tale of endurance did not make me want to hike across the Arctic inlands but it did give me a strong appreciation for the incredible variety of bird, and animal life that is found there. Author Van Hemert is an ornithologist and she appreciates every encounter with nature that she and her husband Patrick have, from the smallest chickadee to the majestic swans. Xe Sands was an able narrator for this journey and the book would be a great gift for anyone who loves adventure even t Listening to this tale of endurance did not make me want to hike across the Arctic inlands but it did give me a strong appreciation for the incredible variety of bird, and animal life that is found there. Author Van Hemert is an ornithologist and she appreciates every encounter with nature that she and her husband Patrick have, from the smallest chickadee to the majestic swans. Xe Sands was an able narrator for this journey and the book would be a great gift for anyone who loves adventure even the arm-chair variety.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Jenn

    I won a copy of this book. I have a friend and his wife who love to do things like this. I wouldn't even know how to go about beginning to take a trip this epic. The book is very well written and I just wanted to sit back and enjoy the ride (from the safety of my couch, of course; I'm not that adventurous).

  15. 5 out of 5

    John

    This is a great book. The author and her husband, four years married, undertake a crazy, off-the-wall journey, row boating, skiing, backpacking, packrafting, and canoeing over 4,000 miles in Alaska and Canada. They decided to start from Washington state in rowboats, rowing the first leg to Alaska. Oceangoing rowboats are commercially unavailable? Well build your own, of course. While Caroline finishes her Ph.D. dissertation, Patrick completes some housebuilding and remodeling projects, and they This is a great book. The author and her husband, four years married, undertake a crazy, off-the-wall journey, row boating, skiing, backpacking, packrafting, and canoeing over 4,000 miles in Alaska and Canada. They decided to start from Washington state in rowboats, rowing the first leg to Alaska. Oceangoing rowboats are commercially unavailable? Well build your own, of course. While Caroline finishes her Ph.D. dissertation, Patrick completes some housebuilding and remodeling projects, and they both plan the six-month odyssey, they build two rowboats, too. Why not? But the book is much more than an amazing physical journey. It is a discourse on humans impact on the arctic region, an ornithological review of all the birds sighted along the way, a discussion with natives about the past and the present (and of course, the loss), and the personal challenges they faced and overcame. Caroline worries about her career and what they should be doing as a couple. She is incredibly open about this, even analyzing a fight she picks when feeling a tad insecure about weight distribution in backpacks. Its openness makes it all the better. While not the same, it shares some of the power of Aldo Leopold's "Sand County Almanac," and the introspection of Sue Hubbell's "A Country Year." I am very thankful I came across this work. I think it will become a classic. Thank you, Caroline Van Hemert.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Tim Holcombe

    This was a great read. In today’s frenetic world and constant immersive communication it is easy to lose sight of the natural world and our place within it. Juxtaposed with these daily, mostly urban realities, are the timeless and unrelenting natural processes afoot, such a caribou migrations and wild rivers flowing north to the Arctic Ocean. While these processes are seemingly impervious to human activity Caroline makes a cogent argument for how we are not divorced from the natural world but ra This was a great read. In today’s frenetic world and constant immersive communication it is easy to lose sight of the natural world and our place within it. Juxtaposed with these daily, mostly urban realities, are the timeless and unrelenting natural processes afoot, such a caribou migrations and wild rivers flowing north to the Arctic Ocean. While these processes are seemingly impervious to human activity Caroline makes a cogent argument for how we are not divorced from the natural world but rather integral to it and shows how we must continue to strive to protect the natural world. The book does a fabulous job of conveying to the reader the sense of place and time, making it feel as though you are right there with her and Pat on their epic odyssey. Highly recommend read.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Michael Huang

    Making a journey that long by human power alone is a really interesting idea of the author's. You'll find out how it turns out -- spoiler alert -- they didn't die. But they did encounter some pretty aggressive bear, nasty weather, and boating/swimming accidents. For the author who is a budding biology researcher, this was a soul-searching journey to connect to the wilderness that she loves. There is a lot of action as well as introspection, the latter of which does not necessarily resonate with Making a journey that long by human power alone is a really interesting idea of the author's. You'll find out how it turns out -- spoiler alert -- they didn't die. But they did encounter some pretty aggressive bear, nasty weather, and boating/swimming accidents. For the author who is a budding biology researcher, this was a soul-searching journey to connect to the wilderness that she loves. There is a lot of action as well as introspection, the latter of which does not necessarily resonate with me. But it's still a hellova story.

  18. 5 out of 5

    LeeAnn

    4.5 stars. When it comes to travel essays/memoirs, those where you feel the rhythm of ocean swells, feel the biting cold of a forded stream, feel the terror of a stalking bear, feel the wonder of caribou streaming past inches away, feel the grandeur, the beauty, and the underlying wildness of the land being traversed . . . those are the best. Van Hemert's tale is one of those. Blending biology, ecology, geography, sociology with a relatable journey of self-discovery, this is a tale that will dra 4.5 stars. When it comes to travel essays/memoirs, those where you feel the rhythm of ocean swells, feel the biting cold of a forded stream, feel the terror of a stalking bear, feel the wonder of caribou streaming past inches away, feel the grandeur, the beauty, and the underlying wildness of the land being traversed . . . those are the best. Van Hemert's tale is one of those. Blending biology, ecology, geography, sociology with a relatable journey of self-discovery, this is a tale that will draw you in and keep you turning pages all 4,000 miles. Highly recommended.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Andrea

    Really loved this book about getting burned out with Grad school and needing to take a break into the wilderness. Caroline told a wonderful story and loved all the birds mixed into it. The only thing missing would of been more maps and pictures.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Lia Keller

    Transporting and so well written. Inspiring and beautiful. Read this book!

  21. 5 out of 5

    Katelyn

    Wow. I loved this nature memoir. Whenever I had a spare minute, I eagerly picked this book up. While finishing her graduate degree, Van Hemert was feeling disconnected from what had drawn her to science in the first place: observing and being in the natural world. She was spending her days in labs with caged animals and it didn't feel right. Her husband--who at 19 traveled to Alaska, asked around for a place where he wouldn't be bugging anyone and built a log cabin by hand--is a huge nature lover Wow. I loved this nature memoir. Whenever I had a spare minute, I eagerly picked this book up. While finishing her graduate degree, Van Hemert was feeling disconnected from what had drawn her to science in the first place: observing and being in the natural world. She was spending her days in labs with caged animals and it didn't feel right. Her husband--who at 19 traveled to Alaska, asked around for a place where he wouldn't be bugging anyone and built a log cabin by hand--is a huge nature lover and builder. They decide to take an epic trip starting in Washington and traveling through Canada and the Alaskan wilderness, traveling only by canoe and walking. While traveling for months, Van Hemert contemplates the job options awaiting her when she gets home. Should she make a go of it in Alaska, or take the competitive grant funded job she applied for and was awarded at Princeton University, working yet again in a lab? I loved the day by day accounts of Van Hemert's trip and while she was rowing through storms and using her coat as a pillow, I especially appreciated that I was able to read this book from the comfort and warmth of my bed. Highly recommended to fans of nature memoirs.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Brian

    I enjoyed this book greatly. With "Wild", I knew some of the places hiked and I could appreciate the difficulties, but I could not relate to Cheryl. In this work, I understood better the personal struggles: with earning a PhD, decisions about children, and so I could relate much more with their journey. I am glad to pulled it from the shelf and taken the time to read.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Caroline

    I have loved wilderness adventure stories since I was a kid reading (and rereading) Caddie Woodlawn and My Side of the Mountain; The Sun Is a Compass is a fantastic addition to the genre. I would never dream of trekking 4,000 miles, as Van Hemert and her husband did, from the Pacific Northwest to the Alaskan Arctic, but reading about how --and why! -- they did is totally gripping. From the details of the food they packed (Snickers, Crisco, and ramen noodles all figure prominently in their meals) I have loved wilderness adventure stories since I was a kid reading (and rereading) Caddie Woodlawn and My Side of the Mountain; The Sun Is a Compass is a fantastic addition to the genre. I would never dream of trekking 4,000 miles, as Van Hemert and her husband did, from the Pacific Northwest to the Alaskan Arctic, but reading about how --and why! -- they did is totally gripping. From the details of the food they packed (Snickers, Crisco, and ramen noodles all figure prominently in their meals) to the people they met and animals they encountered along the way (an aggressive bear, a flock of trumpeter swans, an enormous herd of migrating caribou) -- I could not put this down. It's beautifully written, carefully observed, and an amazing testament to endurance in the face of rough weather, hunger, and marital irritations.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Enchanted Prose

    Extreme adventure that reads like unimaginable fiction (Washington, Inside Passage and Arctic Alaska, Canadian Territories; six months 2012): If a picture is worth a thousand words, take a look at the video Caroline Van Hemert and her husband Pat Farrell shot during their six-month, mind-boggling expedition covering 4,000 miles of stunning and death-defying landscapes in the northernmost reaches of North America – the subject of this thrilling and beautifully written memoir: https://vimeo.com/606 Extreme adventure that reads like unimaginable fiction (Washington, Inside Passage and Arctic Alaska, Canadian Territories; six months 2012): If a picture is worth a thousand words, take a look at the video Caroline Van Hemert and her husband Pat Farrell shot during their six-month, mind-boggling expedition covering 4,000 miles of stunning and death-defying landscapes in the northernmost reaches of North America – the subject of this thrilling and beautifully written memoir: https://vimeo.com/60622639 If you cannot imagine adventuring through the Inside Passage of southern Alaska to the Arctic Circle, and doing so entirely with your own “muscles” (travel by an “expedition-style rowboat” Pat built, an inflatable packraft, skis, hiking), in some of the most “bear-dense landscapes on earth” (no gun, just bear spray), amidst “hurricane-force winds,” avalanche dangers, glaciers, snow-covered boulders, mud like quicksand, in temperatures that plunged as low as negative 50 degrees Fahrenheit, across remote backcountry few (if any) humans live, then reading The Sun is a Compass is like watching a National Geographic Special with eye-popping wows. You’ll also find yourself thinking, like the author writes in her planning notes, “Is this crazy?” The answer is an unequivocal yes; this wild journey undertaken in 2012 was CRAZY! Maybe not quite that absolute for a couple cognizant that “wilderness has become the silent partner in our marriage.” The author has a way with words that brings awesome wilderness to our doorsteps. Coupled with amazing courage, endurance, persistence, and risk-taking, this is an amazing story of recognizing “certain things in life don’t offer second chances.” How two extreme adventurers achieved what they’d set out to do (with four months of planning that wasn’t enough), prepared for, experienced, and survived is the stuff of legends. In fact, I googled to see if they’d received any kind of explorer award, surprised not to find any. The memoir should attract wide attention to compensate for that, though it seems highly unlikely these adventurers care much about that. They are the real deal. Honestly, I don’t know which aspect of their journey stands out the most. I’ll mention some, let you decide. The author, who submitted her doctoral thesis the night before they set off, is a wildlife biologist specializing in ornithology. Surely her knowledge enriched what the couple saw and felt. Being able to identify a long list of birds acclimated to frigid climates and birds in the midst of the miracle of migration – birds with “remarkable feats of memory and problem-solving” – added immeasurably. So many birds, which you’ll find listed in a detailed index. Warblers, godwits, chickadees, kittiwakes, trogons, gulls, goshawks, guillemots, gyrfalcons, plovers, tussocks, and many more. Enough to satisfy a birder’s life list! But the purpose of spotting them and telling us a little about them is meant to highlight moments “filled with “wonder.” The bird image that sticks with me is the time they came upon a single “trumpeter swan taking a bath” in a glacial lake at five thousand foot elevation. Seeing these birds in their natural habitats brought the author closer to the field work she’s passionate about, not the academic research she’s dispassionate about – one reason among several this journey was so important to her. Van Hemert was thirty-three when she and her husband made this expedition, a fork-in-the-road time in their personal and professional lives, expecting it would clarify decision-making especially for the author who “needed a crash course outdoors to remind myself that life is not merely a tally of days, that what really matters cannot be quantified.” Pat’s path, on the other hand, seemed somewhat determined. A builder of things, he ended up founding an Alaskan company that custom-designs homes for unforgiving climates. The author, who tends to worry compared to her unusually optimistic husband, currently works at the US Geological Survey in Anchorage, Alaska after much soul-searching. Van Hemert tells her story when she was at a vulnerable stage in life, unsure of her career direction and motherhood (her sister gave birth shortly after the expedition began), concerned, rightfully so, as to how a child would fit into/constrain extreme adventuring. But family is precious to her; she poignantly stresses about her active father’s recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. The trip may be off-the-charts unknowable to most of us, but the personal conflicts and worries are awfully familiar. While Pat’s arrival in Alaska came via upstate New York (he content to “live in the woods”), the author was raised in Alaska by highly supportive parents who loved and encouraged the outdoors. Van Hemert is devoted to them too, touched they’d think nothing of driving 1,000 miles north to deliver and exchange supplies. Care packages always included much-needed food that was never enough and, except for calorie-laden treats they devoured on the spot, quite dissatisfying (dehydrated and dry food) to reduce the heavy loads strapped on their backs. Imagine how many calories expended in a day! Many times nourishment ran seriously low, one time the author so starved she could barely move. A couple of times the two were saved by “Arctic hospitality,” generous strangers they met in sparsely populated, remote villages or tiny outposts. While the birds are lovely to read about, it’s the bears that give most pause. They encountered 47 bears; only one was so aggressive they’re lucky to be alive. Perhaps more impressive was witnessing herds of porcupine caribou crossing waters, “one of the last great migrations of large mammals on earth.” Also unforgettable was the first 1,200 miles of their trip paddling in over-sized, sleek yet 100-pound, 18-foot rowboats. They were sailors, kayakers, canoers used to staying close to each other; these oars were too long to permit that. Sometimes they rowed without seeing the other – daunting aloneness when dealt with unpredictable, fiercely raging Spring weather when they left from Bellingham, Washington. We’re talking six foot waves, “rowing in the dark through the biggest tide of the decade.” Those images bring to mind another indelible scene: paddling amongst 40-ton humpback whales breeching. And yet, when a goat falls off a mountain and recovers gracefully, reminding the author to relish not fear the beauty engulfing them, that graceful goat serves as a symbol of wondrous, fleeting moments. That some of “the most precious things in life are those that don’t last forever.” Above all those vivid scenes, the climate change message we mustn’t forget. Given the threat to endangered species the Trump Administration endorses, so utterly contrary to grave scientific global warming predictions, observing musk oxen return to the Arctic having vanished after 90,000 years on earth is an encouraging sign that maybe it’s not too late, yet. The “entire Arctic Marine ecosystem is in peril,” the author writes, evidenced by paddling alongside gigantic ice floes broken off from what used to be “land of persistent ice,” and discovering the relics of creatures lost to the climate’s warming. “Bleached white bones are everywhere as if an entire museum collection had been emptied onto the beach.” The prose ought to alarm. Species are endangered because our environment is endangered. You don’t have to go to such extremes traveling to the “land of extremes” to believe this. (Colorful, glossy photographs tucked inside show how extreme. The very last picture is a spoiler, so suggest you finish then peruse.) Still, we should applaud two brave people who went to extremes, now warning those who’ve gone to extremes to deny climate change is upon us. Lorraine (EnchantedProse.com)

  25. 5 out of 5

    Katelynn

    Van Hemert's writing flows with frequent vivid imagery and personal reflections. It got a tad repetitive at times, but human thoughts have a tendency to do that, and I finished the book with a real sense of her conflicts, her thought process, and her passions. Also, if you're not science-oriented and you're worried about reading a Biologist's memoir--don't be. While Van Hemert used technical names for some of the plants and animals she came across, it wasn't dense or confusing. In fact, I feel l Van Hemert's writing flows with frequent vivid imagery and personal reflections. It got a tad repetitive at times, but human thoughts have a tendency to do that, and I finished the book with a real sense of her conflicts, her thought process, and her passions. Also, if you're not science-oriented and you're worried about reading a Biologist's memoir--don't be. While Van Hemert used technical names for some of the plants and animals she came across, it wasn't dense or confusing. In fact, I feel like I gained a great amount of knowledge about the PNW, and am currently fanning a flame to learn more.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Lissa

    I’ve become skeptical of memoirs based on a big journey because they sometimes feel forced, taken on for the purpose of writing a book but Caroline and her husband, Pat’s, journey feels much more authentic. They are Alaskans who spend their summers in a log cabin they built themselves on the outskirts of a glacier. They are people who clearly enjoy outdoor adventure and this is definitely one big adventure. After the author finishes her dissertation, she finds herself disillusioned with the lab I’ve become skeptical of memoirs based on a big journey because they sometimes feel forced, taken on for the purpose of writing a book but Caroline and her husband, Pat’s, journey feels much more authentic. They are Alaskans who spend their summers in a log cabin they built themselves on the outskirts of a glacier. They are people who clearly enjoy outdoor adventure and this is definitely one big adventure. After the author finishes her dissertation, she finds herself disillusioned with the lab based science in which she has be immersed in for the last years. In order to connect once again with the outdoors, she plans a trip starting in Washington state, ending in the far reaches of the Alaskan Arctic. The trip involves rowing, hiking, and mountaineering and takes months. Along the way, we learn the geography and nature of the land they traverse. At times, the descriptions of the animals and land are so vivid, they are easily imagined. The only negative is that I tired of hearing her inner dialogue of what her future plans should be, but besides that, I thought this a great tale of adventure. I received a digital arc of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Askaline

    Adventure, nature writing and relationship all in one,. The atmosphere is so well rendered that you can feel the drops of cold rain running down your skin. I also had a few AHA moments reading thoughts such as "how having no or little news of the rest of the world can be liberating yet still feeling like a citizen of the world". I love how the journey is dotted with references and facts about birds, making it a book that you also learn from. It is one of those rare books that I buy the paper cop Adventure, nature writing and relationship all in one,. The atmosphere is so well rendered that you can feel the drops of cold rain running down your skin. I also had a few AHA moments reading thoughts such as "how having no or little news of the rest of the world can be liberating yet still feeling like a citizen of the world". I love how the journey is dotted with references and facts about birds, making it a book that you also learn from. It is one of those rare books that I buy the paper copy of after having bought the ebook just so I can open it at random to reread a paragraph here and there just for the pleasure of it. One of my top five favorite, right beside Rowing to latitude by Jill fredstone. Ps. English is not my mother tong and I found The sun Is my compass easy to read and almost free of Americanisms.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    I could not put this book down. I felt like I was on the 4,000 mile journey with Caroline and her husband. I cheered for them, laughed with them, and cried with them as they traveled across the arctic. It is a journey of self-discovery and their own journey as a couple. This book is for anyone with a wanderlust spirit or feels a little loss in their current life. While not everyone will be inspired to travel 4,000 miles, the book certainly encourages the reader to do something out of your comfor I could not put this book down. I felt like I was on the 4,000 mile journey with Caroline and her husband. I cheered for them, laughed with them, and cried with them as they traveled across the arctic. It is a journey of self-discovery and their own journey as a couple. This book is for anyone with a wanderlust spirit or feels a little loss in their current life. While not everyone will be inspired to travel 4,000 miles, the book certainly encourages the reader to do something out of your comfort zone.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Sue

    "There is always a certain level of risk involved in negotiations with wild places and wild elements. Even those places that seem tame, or familiar. . . The key is finding a balance - trying to determine whether the risk is worth the reward." -Caroline Van Hemert Caroline Van Hemert and her husband, Patrick Farrell have reached a pivotal point in their lives. Life-long naturalists,  experienced wilderness trekkers and residents of Alaska have found themselves defined by their jobs and miserable. "There is always a certain level of risk involved in negotiations with wild places and wild elements. Even those places that seem tame, or familiar. . . The key is finding a balance - trying to determine whether the risk is worth the reward." -Caroline Van Hemert Caroline Van Hemert and her husband, Patrick Farrell have reached a pivotal point in their lives. Life-long naturalists,  experienced wilderness trekkers and residents of Alaska have found themselves defined by their jobs and miserable. Caroline, after years of academic study is a research wildlife biologist "locked" inside a science lab peering into a microscope. Patrick, a home builder, yearns to see the trees still rooted in nature and simmers with repressed wanderlust. They now face the end of what I call their "immortal" years. That spry time where you dream of what you want to be when you grow up and live life to its fullest pushing decisions that must be made aside for the time being. Unencumbered by children or full-time careers, Caroline and Patrick were free to dream and travel the world at leisure to experience the thrill of discovering what lies around the next bend. But now they have reached their mid-thirties and they discover themselves sitting at the top of the roller-coaster staring down at all those weighty thoughts they put off thinking about.  Do we want a family? Have we reached that point in our lives where we live day-to-day repeating our activities like Ground Hog Day? They realize that they can't answer those questions without taking time off to reflect. They are still strong and capable of physically challenging adventures and if they are to take one last fling at living life on the edge, it is now or never.A long neglected plan created by the duo to travel over 4000 miles from the rain forests of Washington state to a remote point on the frozen shores of the Alaskan Arctic Ocean was dusted off, reexamined and with the help of family and friends carefully laid out. They were planning to "go where no man had gone before". Traveling wild areas, some uncharted and vaguely described on maps. Testing their mettle in ways they could not have imagined. Meeting strangers and experiencing kindness and generosity unimagined. Armchair adventurers, you are in for a treat. Caroline has a gift for writing that will have you breathless with excitement, slack jawed with awe, and dumbfounded that anyone would take on such a challenge to face starvation, marauding bears, and extreme weather conditions. Her descriptions of awesome beauty found in a single flower or the burst of birdsong flood your mind. The words so carefully chosen that the reader is engaged fully in Caroline's journey physically and emotionally. She lets it all hang out and it is her honesty and sincerity that makes the book so special. The uninitiated backwoods traveler will be surprised that within the isolation and raw weather extremes, the mind slips into a zone where the issues that led you into the wilderness will surface giving true meaning to the phrase- finding yourself. We share her tears, laughter, joy, sorrow, thrill of discoveries, and love of life shared with her partner and husband, a man whose incredible skills seem to good to be true.  Everyone needs a man that can look at a fallen log and see a canoe - and makes it so! The epilogue is icing on the cake; it would seem she found the answers to her mental questions. Recommended reading. Received ARC from Edelweiss in exchange for my honest review.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Susan

    Caroline and husband Patrick dreamed of making a 4,000 mile journey across the Alaskan Wilderness for many years. The time finally came to set out with the plan of traveling only by boat, skis or on foot. They set off from Bellingham Washington, with the hope of reaching Kotzebue on the western side of Alaska six months later. Caroline had just finished a Ph.D. but was unsure where she wanted to go with her career as a scientist. She felt a need to reconnect with nature and appreciate why she wa Caroline and husband Patrick dreamed of making a 4,000 mile journey across the Alaskan Wilderness for many years. The time finally came to set out with the plan of traveling only by boat, skis or on foot. They set off from Bellingham Washington, with the hope of reaching Kotzebue on the western side of Alaska six months later. Caroline had just finished a Ph.D. but was unsure where she wanted to go with her career as a scientist. She felt a need to reconnect with nature and appreciate why she wanted to be a biologist in the first place after spending numerous years doing lab work. Along the way, the couple encountered caribou herds, numerous bears and migrating birds. There was also a close encounter with a black bear who seemed eager to stalk the intrepid travelers. Luckily for them he lost interest after a while and disappeared. The couple also met some fascinating and generous people along the way, living in vast but changing environments. I can't imagine having the confidence to undertake an adventure across 4,000 miles of some of the most remote territory. But Caroline and Patrick seemed to thrive in the challenging and isolated environment. The Sun is a Compass, is not just a recap of a physical trek in the wilderness; it is also a journey of heart and mind. One which made me want to head out into nature and enjoy what's around. It will no doubt encouraged other readers to see and experience the beauty of nature that we so often take for granted. Thanks to Little Brown Spark for allowing me to read this in exchange for an honest review. More reviews at: www.susannesbooklist.blogspot.com

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