Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “The Sun Is a Compass: A 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds” as Want to Read:
The Sun Is a Compass: A 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

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

4.32  ·  Rating details ·  607 ratings  ·  119 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 environme
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published March 19th 2019 by Little, Brown Spark
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about The Sun Is a Compass, please sign up.
Recent Questions
This question contains spoilers… (view spoiler)

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
4.32  · 
Rating details
 ·  607 ratings  ·  119 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Diane S ☔
Apr 04, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 5000-2019, lor-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
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
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
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
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
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
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, bc, science
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
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
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.
Feb 11, 2019 marked it as to-read
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.
Donna Hines
May 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
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
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.
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
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).
Jun 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Aug 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This incredibly well written book is a trifecta of travel memoir, a biologist's view of the land and the personal choices of how to live a quality life with the values that are most important.
I am drawn to Alaska and love visiting my family there. Through them I've met the author's parents and they are every bit as kind and supportive as she portrays them. She credits them with installing a love of the outdoors (such an Alaskan attribute). But I suspect most outdoor enthusiasts don't undertake
Tim Holcombe
May 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Michael Huang
May 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
May 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
May 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: adventure, nature
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.
Susan Kendrick
Jun 23, 2019 rated it really liked it
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The author is a biologist who decides to embark on an epic journey with her husband. While traveling in the Arctic, she also wrestles with questions about her life work and how impending motherhood (she’s not pregnant, but is considering having children soon) might impact her ability to spend time in the wilderness that is so important to her wellbeing.
Lia Keller
Apr 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Transporting and so well written. Inspiring and beautiful. Read this book!
Nov 27, 2018 rated it really liked it
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
Apr 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing
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.
Mar 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing
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) ...more
Enchanted Prose
Mar 23, 2019 rated it really liked it
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:
Apr 26, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: favorites
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 ...more
« previous 1 3 4 next »
topics  posts  views  last activity   
Mt. Lebanon Publi...: The Sun is a Compass by Caroline Van Hemert 1 1 Jun 11, 2019 04:04PM  

Readers also enjoyed

  • Tip of the Iceberg: My 3,000-Mile Journey Around Wild Alaska, the Last Great American Frontier
  • River Notes: A Natural and Human History of the Colorado
  • Plastic Ocean: How a Sea Captain's Chance Discovery Launched a Determined Quest to Save the Oceans
  • Follow the Money: A Month in the Life of a Ten-Dollar Bill
  • Wine to Water: A Bartender's Quest to Bring Clean Water to the World
  • Dreaming of Wolves: Adventures in the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania
  • The Ponds of Kalambayi
  • The Great Northern Express: A Writer's Journey Home
  • Angry Wind: Through Muslim Black Africa by Truck, Bus, Boat, and Camel
  • The River's Tale: A Year on the Mekong
  • Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter's Son
  • Before They're Gone: A Family's Year-Long Quest to Explore America's Most Endangered National Parks
  • The Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man's Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America
  • Being Caribou: Seven Months on Foot with an Arctic Herd
  • Looking for Alaska
  • Ice Diaries: An Antarctic Memoir
  • The Wonder Trail: True Stories from Los Angeles to the End of the World
  • The Year without a Purchase: One Family's Quest to Stop Shopping and Start Connecting
See similar books…
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