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The Sun Is a Compass: My 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds (Paperback)
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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
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.
"What a marvelous book. An enthralling blend of adventure story, insightful memoir, and keen-eyed nature observation. Van Hemert is a fearless spirit and a master storyteller, to be admired equally for her astonishing grit and her elegant, compelling prose."—Jennifer Ackerman, author of The Genius of Birds
"A truly astounding journey, beautifully written. Caroline Van Hemert follows in the tradition of wilderness adventurers John Muir, Margaret Murie, Cheryl Strayed, and Robert Macfarlane, but she is not one to stick to well-trodden trails. Alongside her husband, she faces predatory bears, roaring rivers, and 4,000 miles of the world's most remote, wild country. She also weaves in her doubts, questions, and insights as a woman and bird biologist. An edge-of-your-seat thrilling read, but with a refreshing humility and grace. My favorite book of 2019, and one the best Alaskan books I have ever read."—Eowyn Ivey, author of To the Bright Edge of the World and Pulitzer Prize finalist The Snow Child
"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."
—Barbara Natterson Horowitz, MD, coauthor of Zoobiquity
"Caroline Van Hemert has written a riveting book full of birds, danger, beauty and wonder. Her intrepid travels with her equally adventurous husband left me breathless with awe."—Sy Montgomery, author of The Soul of an Octopus
"I thoroughly enjoyed The Sun Is a Compass. It is an exciting modern adventure story in the far north that will appeal to anyone with a yen for experiencing wild nature."—Bernd Heinrich, author of Mind of the Raven
"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."—Bill Streever, author of Cold
"Ornithologist and naturalist Caroline Van Hemert has written a thrilling account of an epic journey from the Pacific Coast to the Arctic Ocean. A triumph in wilderness travel, scientific curiosity, and adventure writing that exposes the sublime thrill and loving touch to be found in nature and our fellow human beings."—John Marzluff, Professor of Wildlife Science and author of Welcome to Subirdia
"I was thoroughly charmed by Caroline Van Hemert's memoir of arctic travel. The astonishing length of the journey she and her husband chose to make -- on foot, by rowboat, and on skis -- leaves you shaking your head in wonder. Her honesty about her own anxieties, her informed thought about fearful and beautiful encounters along the way, and the gritty determination with which she and her husband faced each day offer us a rich and compelling story."—Barry Lopez, author of Horizon and Arctic Dreams
"The Sun Is a Compass is an adventure story, but also a love story. It is thrilling, uplifting, and hopeful, both as a journey across northern wilds and as a diary of a couple growing ever closer together. Caroline and Pat's epic journey will rekindle your faith in human endurance, and intimacy."—David Rothenberg, author of Nightingales in Berlin and Why Birds Sing
"Caroline Van Hemert has crafted a book as remarkable and dimensional as her epic journey. She is able to offer a scientist's insight into the natural world while writing of danger, beauty, and love without ego and with refreshing grace and honesty. Her book is a gift not just to those who like to venture on the wild side, but to anyone intrigued by the possibilities of strong partnership, imagination, and curiosity. This is unlikely to be a book you just read; it is one that will make you soar."—Jill Fredston, author of Rowing to Latitude and Snowstruck
"In a time when stories of extreme outdoor adventures have become commonplace, Caroline Van Hemert's The Sun Is a Compass stands out because it is at heart a love story. A remarkably skilled and experienced wilderness traveler, the author writes in the clear language of a scientist who observes her world through the eyes of a poet, across 4,000 miles of risk and endurance, in concert with an extraordinary man. It's a hell of a read."—Lynn Schooler, author of Walking Home
"Imagine trekking four times farther than Cheryl Strayed did in Wild, without a trail, through swarms of mosquitoes thick enough to suck caribou dry. In this marvelous tale of grit and grace, ornithologist Caroline Van Hemert leaves behind a lab full of caged chickadees to embark on her own epic migration to the Arctic, reconnecting with the reverence for nature that drove her to science in the first place. For those of us less skilled at fashioning our own sea kayaks, dodging avalanches, and fending off hungry bears, this intimate book is a precious window into a remote wilderness of formidable beauty."—Emily Voigt, author of The Dragon Behind the Glass
"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."—Lyanda Lynn Haupt, author of Mozart's Starling
"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."—George Dyson, author of Turing's Cathedral
"Van Hemert leaves nature lovers with a story--of adventure, of environmental awareness, and of personal discovery--worth savoring"—Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
"This inspirational memoir is riveting. Reading it will incite wanderlust"—Library Journal
"A beautiful and utterly engrossing book...Caroline Van Hemert so clearly loves our world, with all its challenges, beauty, and mysteries. Her book is a welcome invitation to do the same."—Nancy Lord, Anchorage Daily News
"Van Hemert's six month, 4000 mile, odyssey along the Pacific Coastal Ranges and into the Alaskan wilderness, is the very definition of rugged. This book is a candid insight into the struggles of harmonizing her work as a scientist with human partnership, and ultimately finding home in the wilderness. Fantastic!"
—Paul McSorley, 2019 Banff Mountain Competition Jury