Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Conversation with Caroline Van Hemert, Part II: Planning and Packing for an Adventure

Photos Copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
When I go on a birding road trip, I like to have the flexibility to check into an inexpensive motel or quiet campground as needed. I hardly rough it—I grind my coffee ahead of time and use a pour-over funnel and a washable, reusable filter, so all I need is 2 cups of boiled water to make a superb cup of bird-friendly coffee each morning. I keep an air mattress, sleeping bag, and pillows in my car, and sometimes a small tent. I fill two gallon jugs with fresh water before each trip, refilling as needed, and keep a supply of Fig Newtons handy. There were two or three days of my Big Year when I ate nothing else. I pack for whatever the weather may bring, and of course add my binoculars, cameras and bird recording equipment. In other words, I try to be prepared, but always figure I can get help and supplies as needed on the road. 

When Caroline Van Hemert and her husband Pat Farrell left on their 6-month, 4,000-mile journey through the Alaskan wilderness by rowboat, skis, boots, pack rafts, and canoes, they not only couldn’t count on picking up supplies just anywhere—everything they brought, they had to be able to carry on their backs through vast parts of their journey. When I interviewed her about her new book, The Sun Is a Compass, I asked her how they made decisions about how to get about on each leg of the journey and how to manage having the supplies they needed throughout.
It was a combination of trying to come up with the best way to travel through a given area but then also minimizing the number of transitions. We were relying on the postal service for most of our food resupplies and any gear swaps that we needed to do, with just a couple of exceptions. My parents did a gear pick-up for us in Dawson when we needed to get rid of our skis and get more of our backpacking, hiking equipment. And, like I mentioned, we slept at the cabin to do another gear swap.   
Photos Copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
And we had one air drop in the western Brooks Range that almost turned disastrous. In general we tried to choose modes of transport that works best for that particular landscape or body of water without requiring us to do crazy logistical things to get boats from one place to another.  
Photos Copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
Specifically, we chose the rowboats for coming up the Inside Passage because we really wanted to use our entire bodies, not just our upper bodies, because we were going to be transitioning to skiing and hiking. We knew that if we were sitting in kayaks for six or eight weeks with our legs just kind of atrophying it might be a really difficult transition. So that was one of the motivations for rowing. We were also interested in stable they would be, because we knew it would be a pretty stormy spring period. They’re pretty “beamy” boats; they have 10-foot-long oars so you have essentially these large outriggers. They ended up being very stable in even pretty big seas.  
Photos Copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
The big disadvantage, we discovered when we were planning, was the fact that expedition-style rowboats are just not commercially available. We had already mentally committed to the idea of rowing at that point, and the only thing we had come up with was the option of Pat building the boats. Fortunately, he is a builder by training. It wasn’t a job that he needed to take on at that moment, but he did, and the boats were pretty amazing assets to have on the trip, but they came at a bit of a time cost.    
The pack rafts were a pretty obvious decision because they allowed us to cross over so many different drainages and cover large swaths of Alaska that wouldn’t otherwise be possible if we were just hiking or just boating. 
Photos Copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
Photos Copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
The canoeing—those were sections where we had the luxury of being able to get a boat available to us; between White Horse and Dawson City is a pretty popular canoeing route and so there was already a rental company in place that we could easily pick up a boat and drop it off, and it was logistically straightforward. That was nice, and it was a luxury to have all that space rather than being in our little pack rafts. The same thing for the Noatak River—a canoe was very preferable to the pack rafts, and we were able to get an airdrop there with a canoe in it.  

Photos Copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell

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