The Sun Is a Compass

A 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds

By Caroline Van Hemert. Little, Brown Spark, 2019

Book review by Kathy Kelly-Borowski

If you like stories of adventures, have an interest in birds, paddling or the Arctic this book is worth reading. Caroline holds a PhD in biology, and her special expertise is birds. Her husband and travel companion, Pat Farrell, builds homes.

In their early thirties, the couple set out on an expedition of 4,000 miles from the Pacific rainforest to the Arctic coast.

“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 wildest places left on earth.”

For 176 days, they traveled from Bellingham, Washington to Kotzebue, Alaska. Caroline and Pat spent hundreds of hours in a small tent, with no doors, no privacy and no facilities. They encountered mosquitoes, mountain goats, moose, bear, sea lions, whales, caribou and countless species of birds. They were tired, hungry, and hurting most of the trip, but they had to travel twenty plus miles a day to complete the trek in six months. In the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, they learned to trust the caribou instincts.

“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.”

Before starting this adventure on March 17, 2012, the couple had climbed, skied, paddled, and explored together for more than 10 years. They spent a year planning this backcountry expedition. During this time, Pat was busy building the canoes they used at the start of their trip. Caroline was planning and packing their food. By the time they started in Washington, time had run out and the boats had not touched water and they had not had a chance to operate them.

Weather was an issue for much of the trip: snow, strong winds and rain. Due to a route change they were low on food and the weather caused a delay of their only air resupply. When it finally arrived and they moved on, they experienced a view of the western Arctic caribou herd migration. This almost made being stuck waiting for their needed food worthwhile. On September 9, the duo completed what had been a dream for years.

As people find trail magic along the Appalachian and other long distances trails, Caroline and Pat found locals who were willing to help them out with knowledge of the area, equipment, lodging and food. Learning that people are kind was the most valuable lesson I learned when I hiked the Appalachian Trail. Kindness was found in the people I travelled with and that of complete strangers.

For route information and pictures from the trip:

Book website:

Kathy Kelly-Borowski is a long-distance hiker completing the Appalachian, Long Trail, John Muir and Wonderland Trails. She has hiked in the Canadian Rockies, did a section of the Colorado Trail, walked Rim to Rim of the Grand Canyon, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Pichu in Peru along with the Milford and Routeburn Tracks in New Zealand. Kathy has visited Alaska, Scotland, Slovenia, Antarctica and Hokkaido, Japan.