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Summary and book reviews of The Sun Is a Compass by Caroline Van Hemert

The Sun Is a Compass

A 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds

by Caroline Van Hemert

The Sun Is a Compass by Caroline Van Hemert X
The Sun Is a Compass by Caroline Van Hemert
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2019, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2020, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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About this Book

Book Summary

The gripping story of a biologist's journey from Washington State to high above the Arctic Circle - traveling across remote and rugged terrain solely by human power - to rediscover birds, the natural world, and her own love of science.

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 book explores the bounds of the physical body and the tenuousness of life in the company of creatures whose daily survival is nothing short of miraculous. It is a journey through the heart, the mind, and some of the wildest places left in North America.

In the end, The Sun Is a Compass is a love letter to nature, an inspiring story of endurance, and a beautifully written testament to the resilience of the human spirit.

Prologue
SWIMMING THE CHANDALAR

I'm standing on the bank of the swift Chandalar River in the Brooks Range of northern Alaska, trying to gather the courage to swim across. My husband, Pat, is by my side. We're alone, as we have been for most of the past five months.

The sky is a depthless sort of overcast, no definition in the clouds, no glimmer of sunshine. The temperature hovers just above freezing and the air is damp after a night of rain. I grip the straps of my pack, my fingers raw from the chill, and lean against Pat as we look down at the river that flows in a wide channel sixty feet below us. The only sound is the steady rush of moving water. I push away the voice in my head that echoes a single question. What are we doing?

It's the fifth of August, 2012. Over the last 139 days, we have traversed nearly three thousand miles, most recently through places so lightly traveled our topographic maps have little to say about them. Only the highest peaks are labeled, and then ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Van Hemert's writing is engaging, and she's able to capture the essence of her adventure flawlessly. The book will appeal most to those who enjoy travelogues, memoirs and works about interacting with nature, although the account is so enthralling it will likely appeal to a much broader audience...continued

Full Review Members Only (674 words).

(Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

Media Reviews

Library Journal
This inspirational memoir is riveting. Reading it will incite wanderlust.

Kirkus Reviews
For all the readers' vicarious thrills and Van Hemert's admirable writing, it is the author's candor regarding her doubts and her appealing vulnerability that make this memoir so resonant. One follows this engrossing adventure feeling as eager as the travelers to see what's around the next bend in the river, on the next island, across the next coastal passage, or over the next mountain pass.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. [Van Hemert] leaves nature lovers with a story - of adventure, of environmental awareness, and of personal discovery - worth savoring.

Author Blurb Barbara Natterson Horowitz, MD, coauthor of Zoobiquity
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

Author Blurb Sy Montgomery, author of The Soul of an Octopus
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.

Author Blurb Bernd Heinrich, author of Mind of the Raven
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.

Author Blurb Bill Streever, author of Cold
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.

Author Blurb John Marzluff, Professor of Wildlife Science and author of Welcome to Subirdia
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.

Author Blurb Barry Lopez, author of Horizon and Arctic Dreams
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.

Author Blurb David Rothenberg, author of Nightingales in Berlin and Why Birds Sing
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.

Author Blurb Jill Fredston, author of Rowing to Latitude and Snowstruck
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.

Author Blurb Lynn Schooler, author of Walking Home
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.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Kotzebue, Alaska

Aerial view of Kotzebue, AlaskaCaroline Van Hemert's memoir, The Sun is a Compass, chronicles a 4000-mile journey that concludes in northwest Alaska in the city of Kotzebue.

Kotzebue is located on a three-mile-long sand spit at the end of the Baldwin Peninsula, where the Noatak, Kobuk and Selawik rivers converge. Although it was named after Otto von Kotzebue (1787-1846), a German explorer and fur trader in the employ of the Russian Empire, the area was a central trading hub for the native population for at least 600 years before it was "discovered." The indigenous name for the area is Kikiktagruk, which means "almost an island." Trade expanded as Russian fur agents and missionaries arrived, and whalers and gold miners further supplemented the population.

Kotzebue ...

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