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

4.30  ·  Rating details ·  3,058 ratings  ·  461 reviews
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 environmen
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published March 19th 2019 by Little, Brown Spark
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Average rating 4.30  · 
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 ·  3,058 ratings  ·  461 reviews

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Diane S ☔
Apr 04, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: lor-2019, 5000-2019
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 ...more
Cathrine ☯️
Sep 02, 2019 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Lovers of birds and outdoor adventure
Shelves: group-challenge
4 🐦 🚣‍♀️ 🧗‍♀️ 🏕
What inspires two people to embark on a 4,000 mile arctic journey across remote and treacherous terrain powered only by their bodies and strong wills? A love for birds, and science, and the natural world still clothed in unspoiled splendor. A series of personal losses that wrench you away from carefree youth and sharpen the urgency from a future goal of someday to one of now.
“The morning I heard the diagnosis, sun streamed in the upstairs window and bathed the room with the optimi
May 09, 2019 rated it really liked it
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:

Caroline was thirty-three, her husband a year and a half younger. Four years
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
Mar 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: netgalley
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 ...more
Jul 11, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
This is a remarkable book about a remarkable journey, written by a remarkable person (and, quietly, featuring her equally remarkable spouse), with innumerable cameos of, you guessed it, remarkable people living remarkable lives in remarkable places....

But, in some ways, it's also a beautiful story about life ... and family and self-discovery and coming of age and evolution (or the turning of seasons or the changes in roles) and doubt and discovery and nature, yes, nature, in all of it beauty and
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
TBV (on semi-hiatus)
4.5 stars

"No" I said "I'm not going to read you now. Simply a quick peek..." Haha, a quick peek and I was hooked. In fact I found this book unputdownable.

In March 2002 Caroline van Hemert* and her husband Pat set off on a 4,000 mile journey. However, this wasn't just any 4,000 mile journey from Bellingham, WA, to Kotzebue, AK: “No roads, no trails, and no motors. We would travel by foot, on skis, in rowboats, rafts, and canoes. We would use only our own muscles to carry us through some of the wi
Will Ansbacher
Jul 02, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: travel, science, bc
or “migration restlessness”, is that antsy pressure to get going; the author says she had it in a big way before deciding to plan for this epic voyage.
I get a little jaded reading about extreme adventurers who head out, with massive amounts of sponsorship, book contract in place, for the fame of being the first.

The Sun is a Compass is not that sort of book.
“We wanted to experience the landscape as the birds and caribou did: entirely under the power of our own muscles, without using
Sep 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction-btr
4.5 stars for this book. It made me feel like I was right along with Pat and Caroline paddling around and walking towards the Arctic, the book is mostly based in the personal journey of the couple with an amazing Arctic background. The science part of it its great too, enticing the reader but not pulling too much complexity into it. I really enjoyed this I do every book having to do with Alaska, the Arctic and personal journeys.
Dana Stabenow
Told in the first-person by biologist Caroline, this is the story of the six-month journey undertaken by her and her husband Patrick, who travel from Bellingham, Washington, to Kotzebue, Alaska, via rowboat, ski, inflatable raft, a borrowed canoe, and plain old shoe leather. It's a personal journey, an effort for the two of them to spend time together alone in the wilderness where they are most comfortable and where, they believe, they are most themselves. They meet with great kindness along the ...more
I read this book.because it was billed as being similar to Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. While some parts were interesting and beautifully written, too much of it was repetitive and dramatized. I would have preferred more about the actual journey and the logistics, and less about her indecisions regarding career and children. Listening to it on audio by a very distracting narrator only made things worse.
Katie/Doing Dewey
Apr 03, 2019 rated it really liked it
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
Oct 08, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, memoir, 2019
The author of this book completed an incredible trek across the Yukon and the Arctic. She and her husband rowed, mountain climbed, paddled, and hiked 4,000 miles through wilderness. Their swim across a swollen, icy river hooked me in the prologue, and I was eager to read more.

The book is well written, but I just didn't care as much about the author's personal struggles with career, her decisions about future children, and the like. While she wove those threads through her story well, often usin
Laura Noggle
After reading this book, I've reconfirmed that: a) I am not the type to "rough" it, and b) Alaska is very low on my list of places to visit.

Yes — the photos are gorgeous, and I'm sure it's a magical and ecologically magnificent place, however, there are many other spots I'd rather go first. Living vicariously is enough for me. Also, I'm not a fan of cold weather. If I never saw snow again in my whole life, I would be a-ok.

Van Hemert does a lovely job of chronicling her adventures, and it's hard
Apr 17, 2019 rated it really liked it
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.
Annette Murano
Feb 21, 2020 rated it liked it
I wanted to like this more. Having gone on multiple driving expeditions through the Arctic/extreme remote Canada, I was really interested in her story. I already knew the "why": the call of adventure is in your bones and just pulls you out there.

But I found myself wanting MORE from the story. Planning trips to remote places is a logistical nightmare at best. I wanted to hear more about how they arranged these air drops or calculated the amount of food between resupplies. I wanted to hear more a
Feb 25, 2021 added it
After 100 pages I realized this book spoke to a former self. Maybe that is what it means to be over the hill. I am no longer looking for this kind of adventure, my focus has shifted. Hard core trekking through the wilderness is not for me. I will leave that to my kids or to other readers on that journey.
Paige Ruth
Jan 25, 2021 rated it it was amazing
The adventure this author accomplished is incredible. She is a great storyteller and I highly recommend this one!
Aug 13, 2019 rated it liked it
I found "The Sun is a Compass" to be a good, quick read, with a lot of pluses and a few minuses. This is the first book by author Caroline Van Hemert, and it's a very good first effort. She's a talented writer, has a good sense of pace, and holds the reader's interest. She executed a good plan for a book of this sort; she used her journey as a 'backbone' of the story, then added 'substance' in the form of interesting Alaskan ornithology, ecology, and science. I enjoyed the interplay and feel the ...more
Jan 25, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: books-won
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).
Dec 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
A nice read about a biologist and her husband who go on a personal 4,000 mile trek all the way across Alaska to the Arctic Ocean. There is no sad back story here, but there are many personal insights that were both heartfelt and interesting to read. There are many observations about wildlife and the environment that did not get bogged down in scientific details so if you like that sort of writing, this is a good book for you. An enjoyable read.
Leigh Anne Hancock
Apr 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing
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.
Aug 30, 2019 rated it really liked it
It’s crazy and wonderful that there are people like this out there.
Feb 04, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is the first book I've read in a single sitting in years. It's well written, and, frankly, inspiring. ...more
Apr 20, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Just stunning.
It's rare for a book to transport me so fully, but I truly felt like I was back in Alaska, which in today's climate, was a welcome escape.
Mar 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing
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.
Jun 01, 2019 rated it really liked it
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.
Julia Wilson
Apr 02, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Dec 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing
An absolutely beautiful book if you love nature and exploring adventures. I took immense pleasure from listening to the audiobook warm under the covers during stormy nights, while Caroline and Pat endured excrutiating weather to get to their destination. This is the kind of book that helps you live outdoors-y adventures vicariously if you're outdoorsy only in theory, like me. It was gripping, poetic, emotional and I didn't want it to end. ...more
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Caroline Van Hemert, PhD, is a biologist, writer, and adventurer whose journeys have taken her from the pack ice of the Arctic Ocean to the swamps of the Okavango Delta. 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. When she’s not traveling, she divides her time between a remote

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“And so crossing this river has become necessary, in the way that it’s necessary to kiss a lover before leaving, to pause and look up when the moon is rising. Our bodies know what is essential and what is not.” 0 likes
“In life, we’re always closer to the edge than we like to admit, never guaranteed our next breath, never sure of what will follow this moment. We’re human. We’re vulnerable. With love comes the risk of loss. There are a million accidents waiting to happen, future illnesses too terrible to imagine, the potential for the ordinary to turn tragic. This is true in cities and towns as much as it is in the wilderness. But out here we face these facts more clearly, aware of the divide between today and tomorrow. And, for this reason, every day counts.” 0 likes
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