WHEN CAROLINE VAN HEMERT AND HER HUSBAND PAT FARRELL EMERGED FROM THE WILDERNESS TO SEE THE TOWN OF KOTZEBUE, THEIR FINAL GOAL, IN THE DISTANCE, THEY SAW SOMETHING THAT TOOK THEIR BREATH AWAY. IT WASN’T THE SMALL SLICE OF CIVILIZATION, SITTING ON A GRAVEL SPIT AT THE END OF THE BALDWIN PENINSULA OF ALASKA, HIGH ABOVE THE ARCTIC CIRCLE. AND IT WASN’T THE PROSPECT OF COMFORTS THEY HAD NOT EXPERIENCED FOR MONTHS THAT STOPPED THEM IN THEIR TRACKS. NO, IT WAS A MASSIVE FLOCK OF SWANS TAKING FLIGHT, SWIRLING IN THE AIR, SOON TO TURN SOUTH FOR THEIR ANNUAL MIGRATION FROM THEIR SUMMER BREEDING GROUNDS.
While the two of them marveled at the swans’ beauty, they also recognized that their journey was almost at an end, with only a three-mile stretch of water left to paddle their canoes across. But instead of happiness, they were filled with trepidation at the end of their migration. It had taken them 176 days to cover over 4,000 miles of some of the most remote and rugged terrain on the planet. So, they stopped on the shores of the Kotzebue Sound and dug into their well-worn packs. One last night they would sleep in soiled sleeping bags, shelter in a battered tent, and snack on dehydrated food. They would briefly delay their return to civilization and reflect on the adventures they had experienced and the lessons learned.
How they came to be on that shore is the subject of the recently released book The Sun Is a Compass, a retelling of their 2012 trip. As she was nearing the end of her PhD dissertation, Van Hemert, an ornithologist, realized that she had lost her way. The passion that had drawn her to biology was stifled by the confinement of the laboratory, leaving her disconnected from the natural world and unsure about her path. That, coupled with her father’s diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease and the looming question of whether to have children, motivated the couple to undertake a journey both audacious and unprecedented. They would travel from the Pacific rain forests near Bellingham, Washington, into the Alaskan Arctic, solely self-powered.
They would travel from the Pacific rain forests near Bellingham, Washington, into the Alaskan Arctic, solely self-powered.
Traveling by rowboat, ski, foot, raft, and canoe, they worked their way north until they touched the Arctic Sea, and then turned west to traverse the remote Brooks Range, ending up closer to the Russian Far East than the cities of Fairbanks or Anchorage. Throughout the trip, the two would revel in the natural beauty that surrounded them while enduring hardships that would cause most persons to abandon the endeavor. A delayed food drop left them starving for days, hordes of mosquitos caused them to question their existence, an overturned pack raft brought Farrell close to hypothermia, and a particularly aggressive bear stalked and attempted to eat them.
But it was the sublime encounters with the natural world that were most memorable. Migratory birds embarking on their own impressive journeys, a massive herd of caribou crossing a river, whales breaching nearby, and friendly sea lions were but a few of their companions. The few humans they did encounter—mostly residents of remote communities where they resupplied—shared meals and insights about the land. The journey, which Van Hemert viewed as her own migration, was both trying and enlightening. We caught up with her on a sailboat off Alaska’s coast with her husband and their two young sons to talk about the trip.
A delayed food drop left them starving for days, hordes of mosquitos caused them to question their existence, an overturned pack raft brought Farrell close to hypothermia, and a particularly aggressive bear stalked and attempted to eat them.
• Looking back, how did the journey alter your path?
The trip renewed my commitment to science and biology, and especially my passion for birds. It also helped me appreciate the importance of relationships in my life, which sounds ironic, considering that we only rarely crossed paths with other people, often going weeks at a time between communities or resupply points. However, the connections we made along the way were incredibly lasting, and the mental space afforded by this sort of travel resulted in a sense of closeness, even with family and friends who were physically distant. Moving at human-powered pace—hiking, paddling, or skiing—is inherently meditative. Doing this every day for six months allowed for some serious contemplation!
• What were some of the more challenging aspects of planning the trip, and how did you deal with the unexpected?
The lack of information about specific sections of our journey, including crossing the Coast Mountains by skis and hiking and paddling along the Arctic Coast, meant we had to prepare for the unexpected, and be ready to change plans as needed. Avalanche conditions in the mountains and the mosquitoes and headwinds on the Mackenzie Delta were much worse than we’d anticipated, making for some harrowing and miserable moments. As much as possible, we gathered local information when we passed through villages and other communities. People we met were typically generous in sharing their knowledge about the best routes and potential hazards, which had been gathered over generations of experience in the region.
• Can you tell me about a specific moment on the trip when you were most at peace?
Four-and-a-half months into the trip, as we were crossing the western Brooks Range by foot, I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of calm. This wasn’t a static moment, but instead one borne of constant motion. We were moving relatively quickly, often hiking more than 30 backcountry miles in a day, all without trails or marked routes. I was as physically strong as I’d ever been and mentally grounded in the present in a way that is difficult to achieve in our usual, busy lives. We were subsumed in a landscape that would humble even the most audacious ego, traveling alongside bears, birds, caribou, and wolves. With everything I needed on my back and my partner and best friend walking beside me, I felt utterly content.
• How hard was it to come back to real life?
It took several months before “real life” began to feel even the slightest bit real. Traveling through some of the most remote and remarkable landscapes on the planet greatly heightened my awareness of the essential rhythms—tides, currents, seasons, migrations—that we too easily forget when surrounded by our human constructs. Sometimes the smallest things prompted the most painful reminders of what we’d left behind. Walking on concrete felt awkward and unnatural, and I’d surprise myself by stumbling on the sidewalk. Hearing geese fly overhead from inside a cavernous, white-walled bedroom brought me to tears. The overload of digital information felt dizzying and I craved the moments when we had no one to talk to but each other.
• What were the main lessons you took away from the trip?
For me, the acceptance of uncertainty was an abiding lesson that has carried forward, even years later. It’s served me well during the surprises and challenges of parenthood, and also now, when nearly all parts of our “ordinary” lives have been disrupted with no clear end in sight. The immediacy of challenges in the mountains often requires complete focus and doesn’t leave much time or energy to fret about the future. I’m trying to channel some of this focus now.
I think the main thing I take away from being outdoors and in wilderness settings is a clear sense of perspective. My human anxieties and foibles are dwarfed by the sight of a 60,000-pound humpback whale surfacing nearby or a grizzly bear lumbering past. More than ever, I find myself turning toward the natural world as an antidote to what feels like an increasingly slippery reality.
• How has the lesson learned helped during COVID?
Although the recent news about COVID in Alaska and around the world is rather dismal, I try to remain optimistic. In the face of forces larger than ourselves, we sometimes discover surprising strength and humility, as was the case for me on our journey. I’d argue that this is a positive fact of being human—challenges that push us beyond our perceived limits can often bring the greatest source of personal growth. It remains to be seen whether we can collectively step up to this challenge. I find myself drawing especially on the lessons I learned about embracing uncertainty.