The Sun is a Compass – one couple’s adventure 4,000 miles into the Alaskan wilds

“Wilderness has become the silent third partner in our marriage, and here is where it all began…”

While hiking 160km across Greenland on the Arctic Circle Trail last month, I happened to read two books about Alaska: Paddling North by Audrey Sutherland and The Sun is a Compass by Caroline Van Hemert.

With their shared focus on Alaska, the two travel memoirs have some overlaps in route. And, of course, both hold adventure, self-sufficiency, and the wild close to every page. But while Paddling North is a solo adventure, The Sun is a Compass is couple’s journey – and not just in a boat. Caroline and her husband Pat ski, hike, canoe and row 4,000 miles from Bellingham to Kotzebue.

The Sun is a Compass has quickly become one of my favourite adventure books.

It’s the perfect book for reading on an adventure, but perhaps even more suited for when you’re back at home and happy to enjoy the world from an armchair.

Caroline and Pat’s challenge was a vast dream to imagine, let alone turn into reality. Although they’re both fit and competent outdoors people, their route would be a push even for the most experienced adventurer.

I needed a crash course outdoors to remind myself that a life is not merely a tally of days, that what really matters cannot be quantified. The glimpse of a wolf’s tawny back, his coat shimmering with dew. The sound of my dad’s voice on the satellite phone, holding steady and sure. The look Pat gives me when he knows my pack straps are cutting into my shoulders and my spirit is waning, his expression encouraging me that I can do the impossible.”

A quick look at their personalities and backgrounds hints at success, however. Pat decided at age nineteen to build a cabin in the middle of nowhere in Alaska – without knowing how to build a cabin. Caroline’s parents climbed Denali in the seventies and brought her up in the backcountry. They had both scaled mountains and grown up with plenty of fresh air, to say the least.

Caroline writes,

“Framed at my dad’s office was a picture of my four-year-old brother, perched on the foam seat of an outhouse with the thermometer near his head reading thirty degrees below zero. This was just what we did, no questions asked.”

The route of Caroline and Pat’s 4,000-mile human-powered adventure to the Arctic.

What’s truly impressive is not the dreaming and planning, but that they actually had the courage to make it happen – something that few of us can muster. They pondered “why not?” with a cheeky grin rather than tripping over all the ways the adventure could go wrong, while still ticking all the boxes for preparation.

Throughout the planning and the trip, they both kept a cool head and steady composure, ready to react when the unexpected or unprepared for stood in their way. Which, of course, on a 4,000-mile human-powered journey, it did.

“In the city, Pat seemed shy and awkward, but outdoors he was mature beyond his years. I could see already that he would challenge me in ways I hadn’t experienced before. His vision carried him much farther than remote field camps and wallowing through mud in hip waders with a crew of other aspiring biologists. He wanted to find places where he would be the only human for miles. I was also drawn to wilderness, but much less boldly. Where I dipped a toe, Pat plunged. He was willing to risk everything for a dream. Would I do the same?”

You read this book and think, dang, #relationshipgoals. They’re one badass pair of seemingly awesome, warm, and balanced people. With a dose of endearing and youthful crazy in there for good measure without diminishing their competence one bit.

We discovered that we were most fully ourselves in wild places. That our love was strongest among rocks and rivers, trees and tundra. Since our first summer together, when we spent two months camped on the bank of a remote Arctic river, we had dreamed about another grand adventure.

The Sun is a Compass tells of an adventure that seems unimaginably difficult, until you see it tackled day by day and moment by moment.

Each page celebrates the precious wild places left in the world and the magic they cast upon us humans. It’s an ode to the creatures we share these places with, especially the birds that Caroline knows, loves, researches and looks up to in both a literal and figurative sense.

Like Caroline and Pat trekking across America, we hear about the avian adventurers crossing continents through sheer willpower and an against-the-odds balance between size and endurance worthy that makes them worthy of any role as fiction’s beloved underdog.

“I felt, more than ever before, a kinship with birds in the springtime as they bide their time, waiting for the perfect moment to launch on a journey that will take them across continents or counties, over oceans and forests. For birds, the urge to move can’t be contained. Its pull is so intense that a sandpiper’s organs atrophy to accommodate the demands of migration. Its siren song lures godwits from New Zealand to Alaska.”

Caroline’s adventure memoir is easily one of my favourite books of the year. It’s also close to the top of my pile of adventure reads. There aren’t many expedition reads written by women, nor many this compelling and memorable.

Yet my very favourite aspect is that it’s about a journey as a couple – about a relationship that’s given the space to flourish in the wild, creating a bond so much stronger than four walls and a roof would allow. It helps that Pat is such as kickass and fascinating artist, cabin builder, and construction business owner. But this is Caroline’s story as adventurer, writer, biologist, and all-round remarkable person. I’m so glad she told it.

The Sun is a Compass: A 4,000-Mile Journey Into the Alaskan Wilds was released in March 2019 and is now available to pick up and lose yourself in, whether on a cosy weekend on the sofa, during your way to work, or tucked in our sleeping bag on your next adventure.

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