The Sun Is a Compass
A 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds
S W I M M I N G T H E C H A N D A L A R
I’m standing on the bank of the swift Chandalar River in the Brooks Range of northern Alaska, trying to gather the courage to swim across. My husband, Pat, is by my side. We’re alone, as we have been for most of the past five months.
The sky is a depthless sort of overcast, no definition in the clouds, no glimmer of sunshine. The temperature hovers just above freezing and the air is damp after a night
of rain. I grip the straps of my pack, my fingers raw from the chill, and lean against Pat as we look down at the river that flows in a wide channel sixty feet below us. The only sound is the steady rush of moving water. I push away the voice in my head that echoes a single question. What are we doing?
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.
We have a thousand miles ahead of us, but for now all that matters is this river. On the map it looked harmless, squiggly and blue. As I stare down at it now, it’s the color of mud. From our elevated vantage, the water’s opaque surface appears smooth, but when Pat throws a spruce bough from the bank, it bobs in the small waves, spins once, then vanishes quickly downriver.
In the first months of the journey, our destination was so distant that it seemed almost peripheral. Kotzebue. A small village on the shores of the Chukchi Sea. A place on the map as arbitrary as any other. We were consumed by each day, distracted by aching muscles and whales and the simple act of moving. Always moving. But the stakes quietly grew, shapeshifting from a tally of miles into something much more. Only now am I beginning to see this trip for what it is. A celebration and a letting go of youth. A reawakening of the biologist in me. A reckoning between us and the land. Something we must see through to the end.
And so crossing this river has become necessary, in the way that it’s necessary to kiss a lover before leaving, to pause and look up when the moon is rising. Our bodies know what is essential and what is not.
* * *
Before we left, people asked us why we were taking this trip; they wondered what compelled us to want to “disappear” for a while. I tried to explain that escapism wasn’t our goal—neither of us was running from a broken marriage or drug addiction or academic failure. We weren’t trying to set a record or achieve a first. We were simply trying to find our way home.
Shortly after Pat and I met in 2001, we discovered that we were most fully ourselves in wild places. That our love was strongest among rocks and rivers, trees and tundra. Since our first summer together, when we spent two months camped on the bank of a remote Arctic river, we had dreamed about another grand adventure. Increasingly, though, time in the outdoors was taking a backseat to more mundane endeavors. Our trips were shrinking, our commitments growing. Even worse, I had just finished a Ph.D. in biology feeling more distant than ever from the natural world. Five years of study had started as an act of love and turned into pure drudgery.
My research focused on a strange cluster of beak deformities that had recently emerged among Alaskan chickadees and other birds. The afflicted birds grew curled and grotesque beaks that resembled something from a dark version of Dr. Seuss. When I began my graduate project, I was sure I could find answers to the mystery of the beak deformities, and that the resulting facts would matter. I fancied
myself something of a wildlife detective, searching for clues that would help me crack the case. But instead I quickly learned that the most basic information about the anatomy of a bird’s beak was not yet available, and I had no choice but to ask the simplest questions first. I began with the tedious, unglamorous work of slicing beaks into impossibly thin pieces using miniature knives and examining them under high-powered microscopes. I housed chickadees in a laboratory and studied the way their beaks grew, feeling remorse each time I stepped into the room and stared at two dozen pairs of eyes that would never again see birch leaves fluttering in the wind or probe a tree’s bark for spiders and beetles.
The tiny black-capped chickadees whose familiar calls belie the fact that they are actually one of the most remarkable species on earth were first my inspiration and then, later, my bane. When my advisor toasted me after my dissertation defense, I cringed, knowing I had failed in the most fundamental
of ways. This wasn’t a failure in the traditional sense—my calculations stood up to scrutiny, my experiments worked, my chapters were well written. But underneath it all was the ugly fact that I simply didn’t care anymore. Between hundreds of hours peering under a microscope and observing
chickadees in cages, I had forgotten why I’d wanted to be a biologist in the first place.
During the years of my graduate research, Pat dedicated himself to several building projects and spent more time communing with hammer and saw than with forests or mountains. Since he was a boy, he had been driven to build things. His elaborate childhood forts eventually gave way to cabins and houses, and he had created a fledgling, but successful, design-and-build company. But he was tired of
managing budgets, juggling material orders, and shoring up leaky foundations. He questioned why he wasted sunny afternoons buried in drywall dust only to realize that building houses, even those he designed, would never be enough.
In our commitment to education and jobs, we had neglected what mattered most to us. Our calendars were shaped by academic deadlines and construction schedules rather than tide cycles and seasons. We missed the freedom that came with sleeping outdoors for weeks or months at a time. Recently, decisions about whether to have children and how to care for aging parents had started to feel pressing.
My dad had been diagnosed with a degenerative neurological disease. My younger sister was pregnant. The career that awaited me felt increasingly like a sentence rather than an opportunity. Still, I wasn’t entirely sure what all of this had to do with our trip or what I hoped to find along the way. I didn’t yet understand how traveling across four thousand miles of wilderness would help me face my looming adulthood or a job I wasn’t sure I wanted. I didn’t realize I needed to find my way back to biology by the same means I had first discovered it.
Only months after we left did I begin to appreciate that this trip offered what ordinary life could not. Clear edges. Truth. Acceptance. An understanding that living with uncertainty is not only OK; it is the only option. Before we started, I wanted nothing to do with the facts that were staring back at me. Life is tenuous. Love is risky. We have so much to lose along the way. I had forgotten the converse side of this equation, that the most precious things in life are those that don’t last forever. I needed a crash course outdoors to remind myself that a life is not merely a tally of days, that what really matters cannot be quantified. The glimpse of a wolf ’s tawny back, his coat shimmering with dew. The sound of my dad’s voice on the satellite phone, holding steady and sure. The look Pat gives me when he knows my pack straps are cutting into my shoulders and my spirit is waning, his expression encouraging
me that I can do the impossible.
We hadn’t originally planned to swim across anything. But now we’re perched at the edge of a cold Arctic river without our packrafts; they are on a mail plane heading west. Several days ago, we decided we would shed the extra weight of our boats to lighten our loads. We’ll pick them up again in the village
of Anaktuvuk Pass, two hundred miles to the west, after much of the steep terrain is behind us. Winter is only weeks away and we need to move quickly if we’re to reach Kotzebue before freeze-up. The first season’s snow fell last week as we woke to caribou milling around our tent, a small band traveling south. Before we got to the river, our decision to ship the boats seemed like a good one. Now, I’m not so sure.
As we watch the water swirling below, I try to guess how long it might take to swim to the other side, two hundred yards away. Five minutes? Ten? Just as I realize that the distance is equivalent to several laps in a very cold pool, Pat interrupts my calculations by asking where I think we should cross. Before the bend or after? Where the river is widest or narrowest? I see him looking downriver. He is thinking
the same thing I am. Where will we end up if we get carried downstream?
We climb down the bank and find a spot to enter, right past a large elbow in the river, and I empty the contents of my pack, searching for the thin waterproof bag that contains my extra clothes. Out comes my sleeping bag, sleeping pad, three stuff sacks of food, satellite phone, rain gear, cooking pot, and
camera. When I find the clothes, I begin to undress, goose bumps rising on my skin in the cool air. I re-layer with almost everything I’m carrying—wool long-underwear tops and bottoms, fleece pullover, synthetic vest, nylon pants, and a wool hat—and wiggle into a plastic trash bag with holes cut for my
head and arms before pulling on my rain jacket and pants. We know the water will penetrate our layers, but are hoping the rain gear and plastic bag will help to preserve our body heat against the cold. Like an improvised wet suit, Pat explained when he came up with the idea.
I volunteer to go first, not because I’m feeling especially brave, but because one of us must do it. Pat isn’t one for chauvinism; still, he hesitates for several moments, staring across the water. He only agrees when I explain that it will be easier for him to rescue me than the reverse. Just in case, I add.
Late last night, curled in our sleeping bags, I tried to envision our crossing. I told Pat that if it seemed too dangerous to swim maybe we could hike back to the nearest village and find someone to give us a ride to the other side. But even as I said this, both of us knew it wouldn’t happen. It would mean
we had failed.
When we committed to this project—to travel from rainforest to ice-filled sea, from the edge of the continental United States to the edge of the earth—we decided it would be completely on our terms. No roads, no trails, and no motors. We would travel by foot, on skis, in rowboats, rafts, and canoes. We would use only our own muscles to carry us through some of the wildest places left on earth. This wasn’t
a mandate borne purely of stubbornness, though Pat and I each possess a healthy dose of that trait, but because it would allow us to know the landscape as intimately as we knew each other. Just getting to remote places wasn’t the point. We could have hired a plane to drop us off at any number of locations
that would qualify as the middle of nowhere. But we wanted something different. We wanted to hear the crunch of lichen beneath our feet, to smell the tundra after a rainstorm, to understand how it felt to walk in a caribou’s tracks or paddle alongside a beluga whale.
For years, adventure was simply a part of our lives. It hadn’t yet taken on the urgency that arrived, in my early thirties, like a loud and obtrusive neighbor, as my perception of time shifted from lazy and boundless to precious and finite. With it came the understanding that youth is only a temporary
pause, a whistle-stop on the train that barrels along, leaving the aging and frail and ill—in the end, all of us—behind. When we first started planning, I had an inkling that this trip would matter more than all of the others we’d taken in our ten years together. Not just because of its scale, which was quickly growing to outrageous proportions, but because if we didn’t do it now, we might never have another chance.
We knew our bodies wouldn’t stay strong forever. Inevitably, our responsibilities would grow; our freedom would shrink. I would never again be a thirty-three-year-old on the brink of finishing her Ph.D., childless, disillusioned by the prospect of an academic career, and convinced that whatever it was I needed could be found between two distant places on the map, one a coastal town where I had met my husband, the other a remote, ice-locked land I’d never seen.
I’m shivering before I step into the river. When I begin to wade, the mud soft and forgiving beneath my feet, icy water seeps quickly up my pant legs. My muscles stiffen in response, my knees suddenly wooden, my groin aching. Several steps later I lose contact with the bottom as the current tugs on my hips.
Immediately, I’m being carried downstream, farther from Pat but no closer to the other side. I need to start swimming, and fast. I lace my arms backward through the straps of my pack and attempt to balance my chest on top of the buoyant load as though it is a kickboard. For a moment, this seems
to be working. I’m floating and kicking. But my upper body is perched so high above the surface that I can’t get any purchase with my flailing legs.
I try again. Lowering my body and leveraging my chin against the bottom of my pack, I kick like hell. I can barely see above the pack, and when I crane my neck, breathing hard, I realize I’m paralleling the shore. I reorient myself and try once more. I flutter my feet but nothing happens. I kick from my hips, but I only move farther downstream. This isn’t working. Hurry up.
As I’m floundering, I think of my mom, queen of the breaststroke. Frog kicks? Maybe? After my first contorted attempts, I find a way to use not just my legs but my arms, sliding abbreviated strokes through the shoulder straps. I direct my pack with my chin. It works. I can move and steer and begin to propel myself toward the middle of the channel. Soon, Pat yells from the bluff above that I’ve made it halfway.
I cheer myself on silently, focusing the only part of my gaze that isn’t blocked by my pack onto the trees that are growing larger with each stroke. I can see my progress. Better. Almost there. A surge of confidence follows, and I slow my frantic motions enough to catch my breath. Seconds later, I hit a stiff
eddy line. A dozen yards from shore, the swirling water leaves me nearly stationary. Pat shouts something unintelligible. I try to stand up, but a small creek joins the river here and the
water is surprisingly deep.
Pat yells again. This time, I hear “Get up!”—but I can’t. I’m suddenly afraid. And starting to tire. My inner voice wavers. If you stop now. You. Will. Wash. Away. Act, don’t think, Caroline. I force my mind to go still. Robotic. Kick hard. Harder. I try to touch down again, but feel only water beneath my feet.
I close my eyes and channel everything into my legs. Do it. Or else.
After several more attempts, I feel a release. I have finally managed to break through the eddy. As soon as I find contact with the muddy bottom, I wade out of the water and flop onto the shore. I take several breaths lying down, staring up at the sky. When I raise my head and look across the river, I see Pat pump his fist into the air, celebrating for me. I’m only partially relieved. The swim was much worse than I had
imagined. Now I have to watch Pat take a turn. He’s a strong swimmer, but the river’s stronger.
As I stand up and move away from the river’s edge, Pat finishes stuffing the last items into his pack. It takes forever. He seals his pack, then opens it up again, retrieving something he left behind on the ground. He arranges and rearranges his load, my anxiety building with each adjustment. When he finally
scrambles down the cutbank, he looks small and the river huge.
Within seconds of wading into the water, he’s kicking his legs and windmilling his right arm, holding the pack with his left. But I’m not sure his one-armed crawl is working. All but the top of his head is obscured by splashing. Partway across, he switches arms. He slows for a moment and begins to drift
downstream. “Come on, Pat,” I yell, willing away the excruciating minutes of watching him struggle, and he begins to windmill again. When he’s finally near enough for me to see his face, his expression terrifies me.
He’s wide-eyed and intense. Fighting. Hard.
“Are you OK?” I shout. No response. He hesitates and changes arms. I shout again. Nothing. Fifty yards from shore he’s practically at a standstill. I scream that if he doesn’t answer me I’m coming in after him.
“Hold on to your pack, I’ll be there in a second!” Still no answer. He’s moving toward me so slowly he looks stationary. I wade into the water and begin to breaststroke through the eddy, cursing myself for waiting so long. If the current carries Pat much farther, I might not be able to reach him in time.
And even if I do, I’m not sure I can help.
I barely notice the cold this time as I pull against the gray water. Beneath the surface the current churns and grasps. Even without my backpack, it takes all of my energy to fight through the eddy again.
Pat stares intently at the shore and mumbles that he is tired, so tired. Fatigue is only part of the problem. Nearly ten minutes in the frigid river is long enough for hypothermia to set in. When I’m close enough to touch him, I grab his pack and position myself behind him. Without the pack, he can use both of his arms and paddles more smoothly. At the eddy, he glances back at me before stroking hard for shore. I’m right behind him, harnessing the strength that comes with fear. Finally, we stumble out of the water and collapse together on the riverbank.
Horror at what could have just happened replaces the adrenaline coursing through me.
“Damn,” Pat says and shakes his head, his eyes shining against the leaden sky. He shivers as he explains that his jacket had filled with water, making it difficult to lift his arm with each stroke. Suddenly, I understand exactly how much I stand to lose. Underlying all of our choices is the fact that if something happened to one of us, the other would have to face the consequences. At times like these, it’s impossible not to question whether the risk is worth the reward. Whether we are asking too much of the land, and of ourselves. We stand up, hug each other tightly, and begin to strip off our sodden clothes. Pat jumps up and down to warm himself. I help him with the zippers of his jacket, then work on
my own layers.
As I’m wringing out my shirt, contemplating what we’re doing here, I hear a sound I’ve never heard before. I pause, grab Pat’s arm, and put my finger to my lips. Listen, I whisper. Silence. And then I hear it again. A familiar chick-a-dee-deedee. But from behind the voice emerges something entirely
new. Coarser, more nasal, perhaps an extra scolding tisk at the beginning. The differences are subtle, and I strain to hear each note.
“Oh my god, Pat. I think it’s a gray-headed chickadee!”
A moment later, I see not just one bird but an entire family of chickadees flutter onto a nearby spruce tree. Perched on a branch, watching us, are two adults and four fuzzy young.
A gray-headed chickadee is anything but glamorous. As the name describes, it’s gray. And small. And very, very hard to find. So hard, in fact, that several teams of researchers and hundreds of hours of surveys devoted to searching its presumed range in northern Alaska yielded only a single data point: one bird. Genetically, gray-headed chickadees are closely related to black-capped chickadees, the commonest of backyard species, which I have also spent half a decade studying. In other ways, they couldn’t be more different. Seeing a gray-headed chickadee is special not because its feathers shimmer with iridescence or because it has just arrived from Polynesia but because almost nothing is known
about these tiny birds. If I hadn’t been paying attention, if I hadn’t tuned my ears to the patter of wings and the echo of silence, I would have missed it entirely.
I watch the chickadees as they flit and glean, pulling invisible insects from the needle-clad branches. I take careful note of the shades of gray on the adults’ heads and study the contrasting patterns of their feathers, fully aware that I may never see another one of these birds in my lifetime. At the edge of a river that nearly claimed us, I feel the soul-stretching awe that comes with discovery. I feel like a
biologist again. Today’s rare sighting validates the many latenight computer sessions, the endless hours of packing and planning, every instance of my not feeling smart enough to be a real scientist or strong enough to be a real adventurer. It even makes swimming across the Chandalar River seem like a decent idea. Here, right now, there is only me, Pat, and a family of tiny gray-headed chickadees above us.
Eventually, we leave the birds behind and begin to hike up a steep slope, sweating, our bodies finally warm from within. When we crest a rise, views open broadly into the next valley. The tundra blazes red and yellow beneath our feet. My arms swing more freely with each step, shaking off the morning’s
scare. Pat’s pace is matched perfectly to mine.
For the rest of the afternoon, all the answers I need are in front of me. The sky as big as we are small, our forms dwarfed by mountains and rivers and wide-open spaces. The way Pat and I stop in unison to watch a bear trundle across the valley, each of us reverent and wordless. The scientist in me, having
shed the degrees and statistics, once again filled with wonder. The realization that if we weren’t doing this, now, we would always be missing something.
—Barbara Natterson Horowitz, MD, coauthor of Zoobiquity
—Paul McSorley, 2019 Banff Mountain Competition Jury