These weeks leave us anxious, holding our breath, too worried to hope, but desperate to hope. A terrific book changes the subject.
When they came to visit in the Before Times, friends of our younger son brought Caroline Van Hemert’s book, “The Sun Is A Compass: a 4,000 Mile Journey into The Alaskan Wild.” Van Hemert was their high school classmate, and her life took a turn – she made her life take a turn – that none of them expected.
Van Hemert’s book is the tale of the trek she and her husband made in 2012, traveling those 4,000 miles under their own power – by foot, by ski, by canoe, raft, and rowboat from Bellingham in the Pacific Northwest to Kotzebue on the shore of the Bering Sea.
Trading time in front of a computer studying data for her real love – the outdoors and all it contains – Van Hemert describes the decision to attempt this epic journey. In one of my favorite passages (and there are so many), Van Hemert and her husband, as they leave the coast and head into the mountains, sit on a snack break and together identify birdsongs. She writes: “But today the graphs and calculations fall away as I inhale the scent of dirt and spruce needles. Out here I am half scientist, half disciple. I’ve left the laboratory far behind and, with it, the need to quantify and contain. In its place, I’ve reconnected with the simple act of observation.”
Observation, yes, and treasuring every day. Toward the end Van Hemert writes: “In life we’re always closer to the edge than we like to admit, never guaranteed our next breath, never sure of what will follow this moment. We’re human. We’re vulnerable. With love comes the risk of loss. There are a million accidents waiting to happen, future illnesses too terrible to imagine, the potential for the ordinary to turn tragic. This is true in cities and towns as much as it is in the wilderness. But out here we face these facts more clearly, aware of the divide between today and tomorrow. And, for this reason, every day counts.”
Picturing her exhausted in the tent at day’s end, scribbling in her journal, I marveled at how she kept the saga’s rich detail in mind. She is the finest of writers, scientist and poet, with an ability to capture the landscape, the animal life, and the action. And her knowledge of and love of birds is thrilling.
But you can’t help reading it as a page-turner as they traverse this unthinkable distance, by sea and river, over glacier and mountain, and hummocks of tundra. Crossing shockingly cold Alaska rivers, frigid with glacier melt in tiny packable rafts, encountering bears and a caribou migration, and surviving hunger, a terrifying dunk in the Arctic Ocean, and discovering the kindness of strangers.
I often identified with Van Hemert’s parents, supportive with love and logistics, but uneasy as the left behinds. It tickles me that now Van Hemert has children, she will learn what it’s like to be the one at home. Our younger son wrote to me, “I can’t imagine what her boys will do to one-up her, but I’m sure they’ll figure out something.”
As children do. And same for Lord B – Professor Snape now – adventurer-to-be!