Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Conversation with Caroline Van Hemert, Part I: Where she went on her wilderness journey

Photo copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
Today is the day that Little, Brown Sparks publishers rolls out what I think is the greatest birding epic of all time, Caroline Van Hemert’s superb The Sun Is a Compass: A 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds. Caroline Van Hemert allowed me to interview her by phone last week. I wish my engineering and production skills were worthy of the wonderful conversation, so bear with me. Here Caroline reads a couple of paragraphs from the Prologue, when they were about three quarters done with their journey (Listen to today's conversation here):
It’s the fifth of August, 2012. Over the last 139 days, we have traversed nearly three thousand miles, most recently through places so lightly traveled our topographic maps have little to say about them. Only the highest peaks are labeled, and then solely by elevation. The Brooks Range is the northernmost major mountain range on earth and has retained its integrity in ways that few places have. Many of the creeks and valleys are nameless, their curves and riffles left unexplored. There are no soft edges here, no boardwalks or trails or park rangers. It’s wild, empty, and gritty.   
We’re here because we’re attempting to travel entirely under our own power from the Pacific Northwest to a remote corner of the Alaskan Arctic. We’re here because we need wilderness like we need water or air. Like we need each other. For me, this trip is also a journey back to trees and birdsong, to lichen and hoof prints. Before leaving, I had lost my way on the path that carried me from biology to natural wonder. I had forgotten what it meant, not only in my mind, but in my heart, to be a scientist.
Photo copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
Caroline and her husband Pat did this entire trip without any motorized transportation, entirely on their own. This week she’ll be telling us about some of her encounters with wildlife and her wonderful chickadee research. But to start out, today she’ll explain exactly where they went.
We started in Bellingham, Washington, in the northwest corner of Washington State, and took rowboats up the Inside Passage to a remote cabin we had built several years before, in southeast Alaska near Haines. And from there we left our rowboats and swapped those out for skis and pack rafts. For any listeners who aren’t familiar with pack rafts, they’re these amazing little rubber rafts that you can roll up and put in your backpack—they’re very lightweight and allow you to be amphibious, which can be really handy in certain places in Alaska and the North in general.   
We took our pack rafts with our skis strapped on across the water to cross the Coast Mountain Range by skis, and then got into the headwaters of the Yukon River, where we picked up a canoe and canoed to Dawson City, and then continued from there by pack raft and on foot, east into the Wind River drainage and up into the Mackenzie River drainage and eventually made our way to the Arctic coast.  
From the Arctic coast we headed west to the Alaska border, hiking and pack rafting as we went until we hit a community called Kaktovik, which is essentially the gateway to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We crossed through the refuge and got into the Brooks Range Mountains and then traversed west across the Brooks Range until we hit the headwaters of the Noatak River, this amazing river that flows kind of northwest and comes out into the Chukchi Sea. Eventually we went to Kotzebue. The Noatak River was the other section we canoed, reaching Kotzebue just before freeze-up in September. 
Photo copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
Caroline Van Hemert told me a lot more about the trip, including logistics of packing for such an adventure and planning and packing for anticipated and unanticipated dangers. I’ll share some of that part of our conversation next time. The Sun Is a Compass is being released today.

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