A Conversation with Biologist and Adventurer Caroline Van Hemert

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By Michael Restivo

Photo: Pat Farrell

Caroline Van Hemert is a biologist, adventurer, and author, who’s book The Sun Is a Compass, documenting a 4,000-mile journey from the Pacific Northwest to the Arctic, was the winner of the 2019 Banff Mountain Book Competition for adventure travel.

She and her husband, Pat, endured icy waters, stalking by bears, a delayed food drop, and the wildest lands in North America, to complete their extraordinary journey.

Caroline will present her story and film at the American Mountaineering Center on Monday, February 10th, but we caught up with her before the show to talk about her journey, the harrowing moments of her crossing, and how her adventures have changed with a family.

Colorado Mountain Club: Tell us about your biology background and the work that you did with chickadees? Did this have an influence on your trip?

Caroline Van Hemert: I was studying a strange cluster of deformities that had appeared in Alaskan birds, leaving their beaks curled and long, like a grotesque version of something you might see in a Dr. Seuss book. I began my PhD research with the hope of unraveling a scientific mystery and helping to solve a problem that affected thousands of black-capped chickadees and other bird species. However, I found instead that I was stuck in the lab staring through a microscope and still stumped by what turned out to be an incredibly complex problem. By the time I finished I felt incredibly disconnected from the birds and other wildlife that had originally inspired me. This was certainly part of the impetus of the trip, which turned out to be an essential step in rediscovering birds and my love of science.

CMC: In planning for this expedition, did you take inspiration from prior and similar trips? Who were some of your heroes and inspirations growing up?

CVH: We certainly did, although part of the fun was planning a route that hadn’t been done before. In my mind, the best kind of adventure brings many surprises and unknowns. We gathered advice and inspiration from others who had traveled through some of the places we hoped to go—everything from tracing lines on a map to gear suggestions to discussing bear behavior in specific regions. Even though I grew up in Alaska doing plenty of outdoors activities, I wasn’t a natural explorer as a kid, except through books, which I devoured. I was especially drawn to stories of wildlife and northern landscapes, and people who followed their own paths. My parents provided plenty of inspiration in the form of their own adventures (in the 1970s they climbed Denali after accessing the mountain by dogsled) and, later, our family’s outdoor rambles. It was my local heroes that influenced me most.

CMC: Were there any moments on your trip where you thought about how those people you admire would handle a particular situation?

CVH: I rarely thought about how distant heroes would behave, but I often thought about the advice my dad had given me whenever anything felt especially difficult in my life: “This, too, will pass.” He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease three years before our trip and his strength and positivity in dealing with this degenerative illness was certainly an inspiration.

CMC: How did you instill the same spirit of exploration in your children?

CVH: Fortunately, kids are very able guides when it comes to exploration—the distances we cover with them are much more modest than they would be if we were solo, but the discoveries are not. Kids are also incredibly adaptable and we’ve alternatively based ourselves on a boat, in a tent, in a van, in an off-grid cabin, and in a more ordinary house. At their ages (3 and 5), home is wherever family is. By bringing adventure into our family life we’ve all managed to stay connected to the wild places and experiences that inspire us. We did a ten week sailing expedition up the Inside Passage when our boys were one and a half and four—as you can imagine, there were plenty of challenges (i.e., the chaos of dirty diapers, crying kids, flagging sails, howling winds, and endless messes crammed into the size of a child’s bedroom) but also incredible rewards. Here’s a link to a recent article about our Inside Passage trip in the New York Times.

CMC: What kind of outdoor activities do they enjoy?

CVH: Basically anything outside that gives them the freedom to make discoveries. Entertainment comes in the form of sticks, mud, creeks, snow, and tides—with these basic items they dream up some impressively elaborate games. Travel with kids, especially in the backcountry, is certainly challenging and requires a necessary adjustment of expectations, but can also hugely expand our perspectives. So far, they seem to thrive on family adventures, which involve being outdoors, interacting with wildlife, and spending lots of time together (sometimes in rather confined spaces!).

CMC: At one point in your journey you had to swim in a particularly harrowing experience. Can you tell us what happened?

CVH: For most of our traverse of the Brooks Range, which stretches for 1,000 miles across the Alaskan Arctic, we carried pack rafts for river crossings and boating. However, there was one section of the traverse that would largely follow the crest of the mountains (essentially a northern extension of the continental divide), so we decided to mail our rafts to the next village 200 miles away. We reasoned that having lighter packs would be safer and faster for this long, mountainous leg. However, the single river crossing we faced near the beginning of this traverse turned out to be much bigger, colder, and scarier than we’d ever imagined. I swam first, floundered for a while, and eventually managed to find a stroke (similar to a frog) that worked for me. When it was Pat’s turn, he began to struggle immediately because his jacket had filled with water, weighing him down. The ten minute swim felt like an eternity and I ended up having to come in after him. It was a moment that clearly set the stakes of a trip like this, and made very real the prospect of losing the person I love most in the world. As a postscript, I’ll just mention that what we found on the other side of the river made the swim, and the risks we take, sudden seem worth it (join me to find out why!).

CMC: Did your biological research play into this trip? Did you have any memorable wildlife encounters?

CVH: I see everything through the eyes of a biologist, so part follows me on all of my adventures and expeditions. I didn’t have any specific research goals on this trip, other than recording what I saw in terms of birds and other wildlife. Most days we had memorable encounters with wildlife—much of the landscape we traveled through hosts incredible abundance of birds and other species. We crossed paths with wolves, muskoxen, bears, beluga whales, Dall sheep, sea lions, a hundred-plus species of birds, and so many more critters. Our most intense wildlife experience (besides being stalked by a predatory black bear) was being enfolded in the migration of an enormous caribou herd. We happened upon them as they were crossing the Noatak River, and for hours were surrounded by caribou, so close they were stepping over our outstretched legs and sniffing us, just inches from our faces. After following the trails of caribou for months (and after almost starving after a delayed food drop), witnessing their migration so intimately was truly a gift.

Photo: Pat Farrell

CMC: How did the landscape change from Northwest rainforests to Arctic glaciers? Was it sudden or did you view any fascinating gradual changes as you moved farther north?

CVH: So often we travel to “destination” locations but don’t seek out the places in between. One of the most interesting and unique things about our trip was the fact that we actually got to experience those transitions in the landscape. From the perspective of a biologist, it was fascinating to see how animals used these diverse ecosystems, and the strong connectivity between seemingly distinct places. For example, we could see clearly how the glaciers of the Coast Mountains are linked to the boreal forest and eventually the Arctic Ocean, nearly a thousand miles away. In most cases, shifts happened gradually as we traveled, although sometimes the transitions were abrupt. For example, as we skied off of the Coast Mountains into the interior of Canada’s Yukon, the difference was stark. Just on the other side of the mountains was the world’s largest temperate rainforest, and suddenly we had dropped into dry pine forests and an entirely different ecosystem. The same was true when we reached the Arctic Coast—from muddy sloughs, bushes, and mosquitoes to a whole new world.

CMC: At one point you had a food resupply that arrived late. Could you share that experience and how you adapted until it arrived?

CVH: I don’t think I’d say we adapted so much as we endured! We had only a single resupply drop that would require air support and it almost turned disastrous. Near the end of our trip, after we’d just completed the Brooks Range Traverse in mid-August, we had arranged for a food and gear drop at the headwaters of the Noatak River. However, the weather had been horrible, with lots of early season snow and three weeks of wet, cold weather. We were already stretched very thin on our food because we’d had to change our route multiple times to get around the snow, making for a much longer section. A miscommunication combined with un-flyable weather meant that the pilot couldn’t reach us. We had only a few tablespoons of olive oil, a packet of dried ramen, and two granola bars between us for almost five days. During that time, we tried to harvest wild foods but besides dried-up crowberries we had few options and because of the heavy rain and cold temperatures, we couldn’t afford the extra energy it took to move and travel. Our bodies were at their limits, and we started to feel the effects of starving—dizziness, rapid pulse, pain. Of course others have experienced much worse, but it was a humbling experience that highlighted just how risky it can be to rely on external support (which we’d so far avoided in 6 months and nearly 4,000 miles) in remote settings.

Photo: Pat Farrell

CMC: How do you balance family outdoor activities with your own personal ambitions? Do you find time to plan and execute grand expeditions such as this?

CVH: We do a combination of family trips and personal (adult) trips, though our adult trips have necessarily been shortened. Pat and I both feel strongly that any family trips should be a positive experience for everyone, not just an excuse to pursue our own adult passions. Our most recent solution has been to travel by sailboat with kids, allowing us to get to remote places while also having a home base. Other forms of boating (packraft, canoe) also work well with kids because they allow us to move ourselves and our gear without carrying it all on our backs. However, we’re constantly adjusting our style and our expectations as our family transitions into new phases! In the coming years, we will continue to spend time living remotely at the off-the-grid log cabin Pat and I built and have plans to do a larger sailing expedition.

CMC: What would be your words to families who want to balance life and adventure?

CVH: Honestly, I don’t believe that “balance” is a realistic expectation for those of us who have passions in adventure, family, and our work, all of which present complimentary but often competing demands. Accepting that it’s impossible to do everything well at once, and that an element of chaos is inherent to the diverse elements in our lives, has helped me embrace the constant juggle. I think there are two key elements for adventure with a family: start small and be willing to make sacrifices. Just like with larger solo expeditions, following an unconventional path with children requires giving up some of the comfort and stability of ordinary life. I don’t say this lightly and certainly understand the challenges inherent to this from a financial, logistical, and family standpoint. Pat and I both work in professional capacities—he designs and builds houses; I’m a writer and a research biologist. I know it’s always easier to stay put than to go, but making that initial leap is almost always worth it.

Join us on Monday, February 10 at 7:00 PM, for Caroline Van Hemert – The Sun is a Compass, at the American Mountaineering Center where Caroline will present images, film and readings from her book. Her book will also be available for purchase and signing.

Tickets are $7 for members and $10 for non-members.

Buy Tickets Here

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