Books

Across Rivers, Seas, and Mountain Peaks, A Wildlife Biologist Brings Us on an Odyssey

Read one of the more pensive moments from the new book ‘The Sun Is a Compass,’ which recounts the author's trek through the Arctic wilderness.

In March of 2012, Caroline Van Hemert left everything—the lab where she was studying chickadee deformities, her grant applications, the drudgery of civilian life—behind and headed to the Arctic wilderness with her partner Patrick Farrell. With a pair of handmade canoes, they set off from the shores of Bellingham, Washington, and paddled to Wind River, a tributary in the Yukon Territory that would ultimately lead them to the heart of Alaska.

The journey, which covered 4,000 miles over six months, tested Van Hemert's mental and physical limits, along with her relationship with Farrell. But it also strengthened her resolve in science and conservation. Ultimately, the couple survived their mission—and emerged with a fresh perspective on how nature and humanity interconnect, even in a remote place like upper Alaska.

Seven years later, Van Hemert retells every step of her adventure in her debut book The Sun Is a CompassIn the chapter excerpted below, she and Farrell (who's now her husband) wind down their odyssey in the sweeping reaches of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a landscape threatened by oil and gas drilling. Her description of the range and their inhabitats is scientific, poetic, and tinged with apprehension for the future of this irreplaceable wilderness.

Excerpted from The Sun is a Compass: A 4,000 Mile Journey Into the Alaskan Wilds. Copyright © 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York.  All rights reserved.

***

T

he past four months have been blessedly free of sensational headlines and late-breaking news. Broadcasts arrive by satellite phone, if at all, usually days late and distilled by family or friends into manageable sound bites. I feel no less a citizen of the world, but my world extends only as far as I can see. The information we need comes by way of shifting wind currents or looming rain clouds, while our fingers trace contour lines rather than political lines. As a result, it’s easy to ignore the fact that we live in a divided world. Although borders exist everywhere around us—defining one country from another, federal jurisdiction from state ownership, national parkland from private property—there’s little evidence of these boundaries on the ground. We’ve encountered no border patrol stations or survey markers, no “keep out” signs or trespassing warnings. In fact, the only official notice we’ve seen since we reached the Arctic was a week ago: a single metal post, crooked and riddled  with bullet holes, with “CANADA” written on one side, “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” on the other.

Before we left, I was surprised to get unusually human responses to my queries about how to legally transit international borders if arriving via glaciers or tundra. I hesitated to give my name when I called each of the customs offices, for fear that I would be told that remote crossings were prohibited. Instead, in each case, I spoke to real people with kind voices who told me essentially the same thing: just let us know when you get here.

After we stepped into Alaskan territory, signaled by the dilapidated post, I called the border contact on the satellite phone and reached  an answering machine in Fairbanks. I left a message as I had been instructed. “Hello, my name is Caroline Van Hemert, and my husband, Patrick Farrell, and I have crossed the border into Alaska. Feel free to contact me with any questions, although we will have limited communication for the next several months. Thanks for your time.” I never heard anything more. We might have been caribou or geese, passing unnoticed from one place to the next.

But today, it’s impossible to ignore borders. We’ve just landed our boats on the shore of one of the most contested pieces of real estate in North America. Thousands of miles from our nation’s capital, politics are writ large here. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a place that almost everyone has heard about even if few, including us, have actually visited. For decades, it has been made famous by two things: caribou and oil. As I step out of my boat onto the muddy bank, I see neither of these.

I’ve wanted to come here for almost as long as I’ve known the refuge existed. The images I’ve seen are striking: brown bodies of caribou blanketing the tundra like the passenger pigeons that once filled the sky, tens of thousands of animals moving across the land in sinuous waves. Pregnant caribou cows dragging swollen bellies over mountain passes, across raging rivers, and through ice and snow to reach the calving grounds. Calves, lanky and wet, trotting across the tundra just hours after they’re born. The Porcupine caribou herd has become a symbol of wildness; one of the last great migrations of large mammals left on earth. Offering abundant food, safety from predators, and a coastal breeze that keeps mosquitoes at bay, the calving grounds are both a caribou nursery and a place of refuge.

But for all the idyllic images, it’s the divisiveness of this land that draws the most attention. Known politically as the 1002 area, its future is uncertain. Because oil sits beneath the ground, it’s not just another stretch of tundra. It’s one that’s potentially worth a lot of money. As with most other remote places, its fate depends on decisions made far from here, in congressional halls and courtrooms, largely by people who have never set foot in the Arctic.

The coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the main calving and migration corridor for hundreds of thousands of porcupine caribou. Photo: Patrick Farrell

Ironically, many of the political debates in Washington, D.C., center not on what we stand to gain or what we might lose by allowing oil drilling in the refuge, but on the inherent qualities of the Arctic. Certain politicians would have us believe that the 1002 area is a barren, empty wasteland. Many others counter that it’s one of the richest places on earth. There’s some truth to be found in both versions. The Arctic is a land of contrasts. Light and dark. Abundance and scarcity. Lush green and frozen white. There are few places so defined by life. There are few places so desolate. Quiescence is followed by lavish excess. Anyone who lives here, or has ever traveled here, will tell you that this is true. There’s little sense in arguing about it.

Closer to home, the disagreement is not just political, it’s personal. Local villages are split over the best course of action. In Arctic Village, located on the  south side of the Brooks Range, where the Porcupine caribou herd travels in the winter, most people oppose development. For communities that depend on subsistence, caribou are synonymous with life. The Gwich’in of Arctic Village refer to the calving grounds as Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit (The Sacred Place Where Life Begins). In Kaktovik, the village nearest to the calving grounds, most people are in favor of drilling. With few economic opportunities available to them, jobs are precious. Many Inupiaq residents of Kaktovik, like the man we met at the Waldo Arms yesterday, see oil development as the only way forward. From either perspective, a culture is at stake.

There’s no denying the fact that both caribou and oil have a long history here—ancestors of the Porcupine caribou herd witnessed the extinction of wooly mammoths and the rise of human settlements; the oil might have formed 100 million years ago. What’s less clear is how, and under what terms, they will continue to coexist. As I roll up my raft and stare across the coastal plain, I see not a battleground but a quiet patch of tundra basking in the rare warmth of a summer afternoon.

W

e hoist our packs onto our backs and make it only a few hundred yards before we meet our first defender of the refuge. An adult parasitic jaeger dive-bombs me as its two gangly chicks dart across the tundra. The bird’s long, forked tail streams behind it as it swoops from the sky with a warning call that sounds like a cross between an angry cat and an out-of-tune clarinet. A moment later, it comes again, shrieking as it grazes my pack. The third time, the jaeger means business. It hits the top of my hat with its outstretched feet. Damn you, it seems to say in its rage. I won’t let a whole season’s worth of energy be derailed by clumsy human footsteps. I hold my trekking pole to the sky, hoping the bird will attack the aluminum rod instead of me.

The jaeger has every right to be defensive. Raising young in the Arctic is not an easy job. Breeding birds have an impossibly long to-do list: find a mate, select a nest site, lay eggs, keep the eggs warm for several weeks, deliver food to the chicks for several more. This must all fit into an impossibly short window of time in an extreme and unforgiving climate. When birds show up on the coastal plain, ice still covers the ponds. Before they leave, the first snow will likely fall. In late July, we’ve arrived on the cusp of change. Most birds are finishing their duties for the season, and the drive to build nests and raise young will soon be replaced by an equally desperate yearning to leave. Summer is being edged out by fall. There’s an urgency to this place that’s palpable. This jaeger, like the millions of other birds that come here to breed, is going about its usual frenetic affairs.

It doesn’t take a degree in ornithology to appreciate the fact that this is a productive place for birds, even after the peak of the summer has passed. Jaegers are just one of several dozen species that regularly breed here. Many more use the area as a stopover, often arriving at this migratory crossroads from distant locales. When I scan the tundra with my binoculars, I see birds everywhere. Geese, temporarily flightless, wander in molting flocks; loons paddle the margins of lakes; gulls and jaegers hover above us. Unlike many of the birds, the caribou have already left. Only rutted tracks and frequent piles of scat give any indication that, just weeks before, fifty thousand animals covered this landscape. The caribou aren’t headed to a land of warmth, but to one that offers at least a few trees for cover. After calving, the Porcupine herd travels back across the mountains, young animals in tow, to the forested southern flanks of the Brooks Range, where they can more easily find food to eat and shelter from the fierce winter blizzards.

Wary of human presence, a Long-tailed Jaeger flies out to defend its nest. Photo: Patrick Farrell

Standing here now, it’s difficult to imagine the  refuge’s coastal plain marred by oil platforms and the persistent scars of ice roads. The land feels as ancient as the caribou that use it. Lichens, which can persist for millennia, cover many tundra surfaces. Permafrost holds frozen secrets under the peat. Even the cotton grass plants are old, surviving a century and a half or more, their thin roots holding tight to the shallow soil. I try to picture a revised version of Arctic wilderness—caribou calves milling around shiny smokestacks and long-armed drills. Geese nesting next to a helicopter pad. A revolving community of shift workers traveling from as far away as the birds, here not to raise families, but to make a living to support them. No matter how small an environmental footprint oil companies promise with new technologies and more stringent guidelines, the impact of such activities is undeniable.

The jaeger interrupts my thoughts with a cry and another screaming descent toward my head. Visions of petroleum stocks and angry, red-faced politicians are dwarfed by this simplest of acts: a parent defending its child against the big bad wolves of the world.

Leaving the jaeger to care for its chicks, we parallel the Hulahula River, christened more than a century ago by Hawaiian whalers homesick for warmer locales. As we hike upriver, steep peaks rise before us with pale green slopes and anemic glaciers that seem misplaced in this land of persistent ice. Like everything else here, the mountains are unfamiliar, offering a stark contrast to the wet, lush slopes and broad ice fields of the Pacific Coast Ranges we know well. Despite the interesting views, we find ourselves staring constantly at the ground. After several months in the Arctic, our eyes have learned to read clues, however faint, that indicate the presence of an animal trail: grasses leaning sideways, purple stains of crushed crowberries bleeding into ivory-colored lichen, small branches that are bent and broken. Our feet can sense the slight increase in firmness when we’re on route and perceive the springiness of the tundra when we’re not.

Without trails, we would flounder and flail. This landscape is vast and unwieldy. Its riverbanks are too steep, its tussocks too large, its rock faces too crumbly to allow passage without some guidance. Here,  where caribou reign, it’s their tracks we follow. But unlike a human-made trail, which employs a single route by design, caribou have no such notions of exclusivity. Their trails wind and crisscross, stop and start. They make as many paths as the landscape allows. On flat, easy terrain, the animals fan out so widely that trails all but disappear. At natural constrictions, over mountain passes or along narrow river banks, one trail might funnel ten thousand animals. Here, crossing the tussocks of the coastal plain, we have a dozen options to choose from.

A refreshing pause as the adventurers explore the refuge's resources. Photo: Patrick Farrell

C

oming over a small rise, we spot a lone caribou calf twenty yards away. At first glance, I see only its impossibly long legs and wide-eyed gaze, and I pull out the camera to take pictures. Then I notice the details: sharp protruding ribs and open sores where warble flies have burrowed under its skin. The animal nibbles on grass, but at this age it’s clear it won’t survive without its mother’s rich milk. There are no other caribou in sight. As we stand and watch, the calf approaches us hopefully, tilting its head as it sniffs the air. Its message to us is obvious. “Are you my mother?” Somehow, in the flurry of motion that accompanied the post-breeding migration, this youngster has missed the action. Perhaps it became separated from the herd. Perhaps it was a runt, too small and weak to keep up with the masses. Perhaps it simply failed to pay attention. Whatever the reason, the mistake was fatal. Months from now, when we look at the photos, the calf will have starved or, more likely, been torn apart by a predator.

I can only hope the end will come fast. With a whisper of apology, we say goodbye and follow the rutted caribou tracks toward the mountains.

An hour later, we catch a glimpse of the ailing calf ’s future. On the tundra lies the carcass of another young caribou that has already become someone’s dinner. The kill looks fresh, perhaps only hours old, and we search for signs of bears or wolves. But all I see when I scan the tundra is a rusty barrel in a small ravine. I point it out to Pat, who squints and says, “I don’t know, I think that barrel has ears.” Still incredulous, I pass my binoculars to him for a closer look. “Oh, that is definitely not a barrel.” I realize we have been looking at two different objects—one a barrel and one a bear. As the bear rises and turns toward us, two small cubs following tightly behind, I feel my stomach tighten at the sight of the dead calf at our feet. The bears watch us until we reach the next bend in the river.

When we begin to climb into the foothills, the caribou trails we’ve been following taper into five tracks, then two; when the terrain gets steep and narrow, just a single path leads through the scree. It’s well worn into the rubble, and the footing feels solid. We follow easily, thinking little about it until we begin to drop toward the river, first gradually, then sharply, until we have to slide on our butts to continue. The trail ends abruptly at the river’s edge. The water isn’t deep here, but it looks turbulent and cold.

Pat and I put on our warm jackets, grab a snack, and sit down to discuss our route.

“I can’t imagine why caribou would go this way,” I tell Pat. “Do you think it was a mistake? There must be an easier crossing.”

“They usually seem to know where they’re going,” he replies. “But this might be the exception.”

We decide to climb back up the slope and continue without crossing the river. At first the walking is easy, and we’re smug in our decision. Thirty minutes later, our mistake becomes obvious. We reach a constriction where our only options are to climb up and over a mountain that towers several thousand feet above us, or drop into a steep-walled canyon with the river churning far below us. There’s no way forward. We were deluded, however briefly, into thinking that human logic could trump ten thousand years of caribou intuition. We were wrong.

The caribou clearly know things we never will.

The Sun Is a Compass, by Carolina Van Hemert, Little, Brown and Company, 320 pages, $27. Buy it online at Indie Bound.

“The views expressed in user comments do not reflect the views of Audubon. Audubon does not participate in political campaigns, nor do we support or oppose candidates.”