Book review: The Sun is a Compass || Bellingham to Kotzebue, Alaska

This route looks like it could be adventurous

Nine years ago I randomly met Caroline Van Hemert on a gravely beach along Alaska’s Lynn Canal, between Juneau and Haines. She approached as I was cooking dinner and soaking in a splendid sunny evening. It was kind of dreamy, I won’t lie — I was halfway into my Alaska-Yukon Expedition, and she was the most attractive female I’d seen since leaving Boulder, Colo., three months earlier.

That night I stayed on her property, where her master carpenter husband Pat (shucks) had built a beautiful cabin. The floor of his workshop was less comfortable than the beds of moss to which I was accustomed, but I appreciated its roof and bear-proof walls.

Lingering pack ice along Arctic Coast near Herschel Island

Two years later, Caroline and Pat embarked on their own epic expedition through Canada and Alaska. But, unlike mine, a detailed account of it is retold in, The Sun is a Compass: A 4,000-mile journey into the Alaskan wilds, which Caroline released last month with publisher Little, Brown Spark, part of the Hachette Book Group.

The Sun is a Compass is well written, personal, and frequently harrowing. It’s not a day-by-day diary, which tend to be tedious and to lack introspection. Instead, it’s almost as if Caroline answered FAQ for 150 pages — “Why did you do this? How did you and Pat meet? What did your family think of your plans? What was the scariest part? What’s Section 1002 really like? How many bears did you encounter? What was the largest caribou herd that you saw? What it like to not eat for four days? Did you ever think of quitting, or think you might be unable to finish? Did you decide to have children afterwards? Then, she added plot for another 100 pages so that the story is coherent and chronological, not disjointed.

This “snapshot” approach reminds me of, A Long Walk Home: 4,000 miles by boat, raft and skiby Erin McKittrick. That’s another remarkable couple, another mind-blowing adventure, and another highly recommended read.

Towering granite spires in the Arrigetch Peaks, Brooks Range

If you’re into birds, you’ll especially love this tale — just before starting this adventure, Caroline earned her PhD in ornithology, and the text frequently discusses the subject.

Caroline and Pat now split their time between Haines and Anchorage, and are raising two young boys. It’s another example of a mega Alakan expedition that was the end of an era, not the beginning. Those adventures are hard to top.

Buy now: The Sun is a Compass

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Posted in on April 8, 2019


  1. Travis Briles on April 9, 2019 at 12:32 am

    This looks fantastic. I’m excited to sink into it.

    Actually, when can we expect a book on the AKYE from you? The 40 minute national geographic video is great but there must be soooo much more. 🙂

  2. Jen Beck Seymour on April 9, 2019 at 6:31 am

    Definitely jotted this book (and A Long Walk Home) on my book list (which is a forever-growing list). Love reading about other peoples adventures! Thanks Andrew! — Chica (AT NOBO 2017)

  3. Allan on April 10, 2019 at 11:22 am

    I gotta ask – why mention that she was the most attractive woman you’d seen?

    • Andrew Skurka on April 10, 2019 at 11:49 am

      First, because I was being honest. Second, because I thought most readers would appreciate the entertaining context — I think most people who have been on a 6-month solo expedition would tell the story similarly.

    • Geert van Mourik on May 16, 2019 at 12:29 am

      Allan: I gotta ask – why being so PC?

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