At the recent Banff Mountain Book and Film Festival, I was privileged to meet Caroline Van Hemert and her husband Pat Farrell. This pair of Alaskan Renaissance people, highly accomplished in the fields of adventure, art and science, are outliers you’ll rarely find in any city. Their wild, intentional lives can only be properly expressed on the fringes of this planet.
In her page-turning, thoughtful and provocative book The Sun is a Compass (for which she won the 2019 Banff Mountain Book Competition: Adventure Travel), Van Hemert details an audacious six-month, 6,400-kilometre journey she and Pat carried out in 2012. They rowed, skied, hiked, pack rafted and canoed from Bellingham, Washington all the way to the Brooks Range in the far north of Alaska—an epic journey that boggles the mind and fires the soul.
Throughout the book, Van Hemert skillfully brings you into her and Pat’s intimate world of movement and survival. You are there with them every step of the way, through all the physical and personal struggles a journey like this presents. Not just a pure adventure piece, the book blends the science of ornithology seamlessly into the narrative, displaying the connections we have and the lessons we can learn from the migrating bird populations of this planet. The writing is powerful, honest and engaging. It's an incredible piece of work from a new force in the world of non-fiction writing.
I had a chance to interview Van Hemert about her incredible adventure and the experience of writing The Sun is a Compass.
Did you set out on this journey with the intention of writing a book, or did it become evident you had great fodder for one as the journey progressed?
A bit of both. My day job is a wildlife biologist studying birds in the Arctic, but I have a background in creative writing and always wanted to return to this other professional passion. I knew the scale of the journey we were planning could support a larger writing project, and I was interested in exploring this possibility. I kept a detailed journal throughout the trip and wrote almost every evening, often huddled under my sleeping bag or scribbling in gloves in a frosty tent. Though I began with a creative project in mind, the journal functioned more as a naturalist’s log than the frame of a memoir and ended up being useful primarily as reference material (turns out it’s hard to be poetic with numb fingers at the end of a sixteen-hour day!). Still, it was my first real commitment to the idea of a book. During the trip, I ended up in situations I never expected—shaping these experiences into a cohesive narrative pushed me intellectually and creatively to think beyond a basic travelogue. However, the larger vision for the book’s structure emerged only after I began writing.
It took 7 years for your book to come out since the adventure was completed. How did the journey of writing the book compare to the actual trip you wrote about?
Similarly epic! Except that the writing process required much more endurance in the end. I didn’t know anything about how a book came into the world when I began, so the writing happened first and the logistics of publishing much later. I found I had to retrain myself from a scientific writer, which had been my focus in the preceding years, into a storyteller. At the beginning, I worked primarily on recording the details of my observations, perhaps focusing a bit too much on relating facts. I subsequently cut much of the “science-y” material, some of which I reintegrated when I realized that my experiences as a biologist were complimentary to the story. However, only after birds became key characters in the narrative did I feel I had discovered the right voice for this book. From a practical standpoint, juggling other commitments challenging throughout the writing and publication process—I became a mother (twice) and continued to work as a researcher during this period, so it was often difficult to maintain the project’s momentum. There were plenty of days when I wondered if the book would ever find a home. I was fortunate to have some excellent and supportive readers along the way and eventually landed in very capable hands with my agent and editor.
You draw parallels between the migratory habits of various bird species and your own long journey throughout the book. These various species of birds cover mind-boggling distances. Which is your favourite species of long-distance traveller and why?
I’m partial to the Bar-tailed Godwit, which travels each year between Alaska and New Zealand and introduced me (by way of my ornithology colleagues) to the wondrous feats of long-distance migration. E7, a bird I mention in the book, was one of the first godwits to wear a satellite tracking device and demonstrated that she could fly nonstop for eight days, covering nearly 12,000 kilometers. No rest periods, no sleep as we know it (birds can sometimes employ hemispheric sleep, meaning they allow part of their brain to “sleep” at a time) and no food or water along the way. Such a journey makes our own human “endurance” expeditions seem meager by comparison.
Last winter I spent two months in New Zealand with my family and had the opportunity to watch large flocks of godwits on their wintering grounds, which [displayed the reality of] migration. I also love the story of juvenile Northern Wheatears that migrate from the Arctic to sub-Saharan Africa. The young birds set out after the adults have already departed, meaning that just a few months into life they find their way across the globe without any guides or navigational aids beyond their internal ones. Truly remarkable!
You were inspired by your parents’ grand adventures from when they were your age. Do you see evidence that your own sons will follow in your footsteps in a similar way when they grow up?
The single most important lesson for me in parenting is the element of uncertainty, so I’m sure we have lots of surprises ahead! Our boys are three and five—in love with sticks, rocks, cardboard creations and anything wheeled—so it’s impossible to know what passions they might pursue in adulthood. So far, they seem to thrive on family adventures, which involve being outdoors, interacting with wildlife and spending lots of time together (sometimes in rather confined spaces!). However, I don’t think they know any differently at this point! I hope to continue to incorporate backcountry travel into our lives, which requires thinking creatively about ways to embrace remote experiences that work for all of us. Fortunately, kids are very able guides when it comes to exploration—the distances we cover are much more modest than they would be if we were solo, but the discoveries are not.
You express concern about the wilderness and wild places throughout the book. These are extremely special places you’ve travelled through. Do you have hope that these areas will still be wild when your sons are grown up so that they may experience the wild wonder of these areas?
I have hope, but I also feel great trepidation. The rate of change is occurring on a scale that I had never imagined as a child growing up in Alaska, nor as a scientist trained to work in the Arctic. Just recently, I was trail running in the Chugach Mountains near Anchorage and stumbled onto a willow ptarmigan whose white feathers stood out against the brown tundra like a neon fast food sign. The bird stood frozen in place as I approached, trusting on instinct its usual camouflage that instead shone brightly against the snowless ground. This single image—a bird so perfectly adapted to cold, waiting patiently for the winter that didn’t come—captured the sense of bewilderment and disorientation that many of us feel right now. In just the past year, temperature records for most parts of Alaska have been obliterated, and we’re heading toward the start of a new year with almost no snow, open rivers and above-freezing nights. The term ecological grief—a sense of loss due to environmental degradation and climate change—resonates for me, and I’m grappling with the vision of a “new north.” There are many layers of complexity to this issue, including the challenges of indigenous communities undergoing dramatic social and ecological changes and our non-human neighbors that face a barrage of threats. However, lack of hope isn’t an option when living with small children, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of resilience. As an Alaskan, a writer, a mother and a scientist, I feel a strong sense of responsibility to not only observe change but to figure out how to move forward in its wake.
You faced all sorts of obstacles along the way—brutal mosquitoes in the Mackenzie Delta, rowing through ocean storms, being stalked by a black bear, nearly starving when a food drop was extremely late… of all these experiences (or one I may not have mentioned) which was the absolute worst and why? What did you learn from it?
Hands down, the Mackenzie Delta was the worst! It was by no means the most dangerous or physically demanding experience of the trip, but it was emotionally trying in ways that pushed me to my absolute limit. For those who haven’t read the book, the Mackenzie Delta involved a ten-day section of packrafting in the Canadian Arctic with intense mosquitoes, horrific mud, a constant headwind and water flowing in the wrong direction (forcing us to paddle “upstream” to travel downriver). The pure drudgery of the experience, the daily mental battles and the fact that there was no way to get out of it except by our own means inspired my only real desire to quit during the whole six-month journey. I gained from this experience a very basic lesson in endurance—the faith that eventually a new day will come, and the misery will end. This serves me well when I’m at the edge of exhaustion or dealing with a difficult situation without an obvious solution. I can force a mental escape of sorts just by remembering those endless days on the Mackenzie Delta. Of course, apathy isn’t a particularly useful response to crisis, but, at times, controlled mental blankness can be a beneficial coping strategy!
Like the deformed beaks of the chickadees you study, there are indications that many bird species are under stress. From your research and experience with birds, how would you suggest everyday people can help bird populations flourish on this planet?
I think a critical first step is to pay attention. Action follows from the things we care about, and until we allow ourselves the space to be amazed and inspired, it’s difficult to muster up the energy to fight yet another environmental or social battle. I need those recharge moments, which allow me to find wonder in small places (like watching birds at a backyard feeder) or, in more remote locations, to experience the natural world going about its business without much regard for our human encumbrances. Education is also essential. Kids are our next generation of ornithologists and conservationists so sharing these moments of observation with them is not only important but refreshing. As a scientist, I believe in the power of research, but I also know it’s not enough to simply gather information. Using our collective passion and public voice to advocate for birds can be a very effective way to incite positive change. For example, recent research on light pollution and bird migration showed that certain prominent displays led to massive numbers of bird deaths when the timing overlapped with key migration days. In response to public pressure, some cities have chosen to make relatively minor adjustments in the light schedule and, as a result, birds can pass overhead much more safely. However, none of this would have happened without public awareness and a call for change. Science can provide necessary answers, but it’s political and social will that ultimately matters. There are many excellent organizations working on bird conservation issues and I support their efforts however I can—by volunteering my time, donating financially and promoting education.
You express at the end of the book that you’ve adapted your adventuring into your role as parents. What’s your outlook on personal adventure these days? Are you open to taking on another journey as enormous as this one in your future?
Since having children, we’ve fed our need for adventure by adapting our journeys to fit into a family context while continuing to take personal “adult” trips (skiing, packrafting, etc.) on a smaller scale. Neither of us is willing to be away from our kids or each other for multiple months so any extended expeditions are done as a family. Pat and I would both love to take on a similar adventure to the one described in the book, but safety margins, physical demands and daily schedules have to account for the needs of little people. We both feel strongly that any family trips should be a positive experience for everyone, not just an excuse to pursue our own adult passions. Our most recent solution has been to travel by sailboat with kids, allowing us to get to remote places while also having a home base. We did a ten week sailing expedition up the Inside Passage when our boys were one and a half and four—as you can imagine, there was challenge (i.e., the chaos of dirty diapers, crying kids, flagging sails, howling winds and endless messes crammed into the size of a child’s bedroom) but also incredible rewards. On another trip, we managed to combine sailing with backcountry skiing and look forward to more of these creative multisport ventures. Other forms of boating (pack raft, canoe) also work well with kids because they allow us to move ourselves and our gear without carrying it all on our backs. However, we’re constantly adjusting our style and our expectations as our family transitions into new phases! In the coming years, we will continue to spend time living remotely at the off-the-grid log cabin Pat and I built and have plans to do a larger sailing expedition.
You and Pat make a great team and planned and executed a brilliant vision of a route. Though you have an obvious scientific and analytic approach to the journey, you also have an extremely creative side in the way to express yourself with your writing. Pat, with his building and sketching abilities is highly creative too. How important do you think creativity is, not only in planning a journey like this, but in executing it?
Thanks for the nice compliment! Creativity has always been a necessary part of the adventure process for us. The seed of an idea typically emerges through intense brainstorming sessions in which we give ourselves license to think outrageously. When we begin to sketch out a route, I tend to be the planner in our relationship, while Pat is the dreamer. However, we each possess elements of the opposite trait and have a strong drive to push our own limits, which makes tackling big objectives possible. During the actual execution of a trip, Pat and I balance each other well in terms of practicality and vision. Being able to respond to adversity, which is inherent to backcountry travel, requires a great deal of creative problem solving. Pat excels at this element, and there’s no one I’d rather be in a tricky situation with, both because of his calm demeanor and ability to think far outside of the box. I realized the depth of his unconventional thinking on our first big trip together in northern Yukon, when we hiked to the headwater of the Wind River with the intention of building a bark canoe. We weren’t able to find the birch trees we’d hoped for but when we stumbled onto a rotting horse carcass, Pat saw no reason why we couldn’t build a skin boat and I suddenly found myself in the middle of the wilderness with a madman (albeit a fairly clever one). In the end, we managed to make a canoe from spruce bark (thus sparing me from cutting into a bloated belly and saving our relationship) and I paddled out sixty days later knowing I had found a partner unlike anyone else I had ever met.
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