Book Review:  The Sun Is a Compass: A 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds by Caroline Van Hemert

The Sun Is a Compass is a wonderful book. I enjoyed it through and through. In it, a young couple travel by rowboat from Bellingham, Washington up the Inside Passage to a town called Haines, hike and canoe through the Yukon all the way to the Arctic Sea, follow the seacoast on foot, plunge inland and travel southwest through the Brooks Range, and finally take the Noatak River to a town called Kotzebue on the Alaskan west coast. They leave Bellingham in early spring and reach their destination in early fall just as the icy grip of winter is beginning to spread over the Arctic.

On the way, Caroline and her husband Pat encounter many difficulties: storm winds on the Inside Passage, a frigid swollen river they have to swim across with all their gear, a capsized raft in the Arctic Ocean, and swarms of ravaging mosquitoes. They are charged by a grizzly bear and stalked by a black bear. To top it all off, their last food drop, which is supposed to be flown to them by a bush pilot, is delayed by inclement weather, and they have to fast for four days before the pilot finally shows up.

Despite these difficulties, though, for Caroline and Pat the trip is a glorious adventure. Caroline is an ornithologist and delights in identifying and describing the many wild birds they encounter, but her descriptions never lapse into dry scientific commentary; they are more in the nature of poetry as she marvels about the migratory journeys the birds are able to make from Canada or Alaska to the far corners of the globe. At the end of their journey is another natural high point as they witness a herd of thousands of caribous making their way south across the Noatak River.

Caroline and Pat are alone for most of their journey, but they occasionally meet benevolent people in some of the most remote areas of the Arctic who are happy to share what they have. I also found this to be true on my travels through the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and the Indian Subcontinent: often when I was in need, strangers helped me out and asked nothing in return.

One thing I liked about this travel book in contrast to other famous travel books I have read recently such as Riverman, Into the Wild, and The Adventurer’s Son, is that in this book, the protagonists survive until the end. It seems to be a trend with popular travel books in recent years that they deal with journeys ending in tragedy and disaster. It is refreshing to read about some adventurers who set an ambitious goal and achieve it. They had numerous difficulties along the way, yes, but they ultimately overcame them and triumphed. I can relate to that in my own adventures too; as I look back and consider some of the dangers I encountered, I marvel not only that I went to some of those places and did some of those things, but that I lived to tell the tale.

In its culmination, the book parallels my story as well. Caroline and Pat have a child, and when he is only ten weeks old they are off on another hiking adventure, babe in arms. My five sons were born in five different cities and three different countries as my wife and I continued our far-flung travels.

All in all, The Sun Is a Compass is fun, exciting, heart-touching, and very well-written. Highly recommended.

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