What does it take to plan a journey that spans thousands of miles? Caroline Van Hemert took on the challenge with her partner to cross the Alaskan Wilds on a 4,000-mile human-powered expedition.
Caroline Van Hemert is a biologist, writer, adventurer, and the author of The Sun is a Compass in which she details her journey from the Pacific rainforest to the Alaskan Arctic.
Read on for insights into her strategies for taking on such an enormous adventure and the determination it takes to bring a dream into reality.
Finding the Time to Explore
After taking an incredible adventure canoeing to the Arctic, Caroline and her partner knew they wanted to explore on a grand scale. The trouble was finding time to make it happen amidst work and school. Finally, the two came to a point where they knew that if they were ever going to realise their dream, it had to happen soon.
Caroline had just finished her PhD in wildlife biology and was antsy with all the time she’d spent in the laboratory. This point of transition in her life proved to be the right time for an adventure. Still, other obstacles seemed to prevent the pair from achieving their dream.
When Caroline’s father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, she could have given up her trip, but Caroline saw the event for what it truly was. “Challenges that come from life are things that can stop us,” Caroline says, “but sometimes they're also excuses to take on something really different. That was definitely the case for this trip. My dad being diagnosed was a big change for my family. My dad was a really physical person and still is. So, by example, he showed me how being physically engaged with the world was such an important thing.”
When you’re trying to find the time for a huge expedition, look for the opportunities right before you. What may seem like an obstacle can actually be motivation for you to get out there and achieve your goals.
Planning with a Partner
Caroline and Pat committed to their 4,000 mile adventure about a year before they wanted to set off. The intense planning began about six months before as they squeezed it in after work and on weekends.
As they made their plans, Caroline and Pat used their strengths to work together. “I'm very much the logistics person,” Caroline explains. “I tried to make sure that we had all the pieces that we needed in place. Pat is the dreamer. He can make the parts fall into place as well, but you really need a dream to make initial progress on something of this scale.” As Pat dreamed up ideas and drew on maps, the plan came together. Little by little, the two connected the dots of the places they wanted to see and how they would travel these remote areas.
How does one get everything done for a large expedition? For Caroline, the answer is lists. She relied on lists to figure out what needed to be addressed in a timely fashion and what could wait. Pat and Caroline took different parts of the list and reconvened to plan the next steps. As they planned each stop on their trip, the pair came across places that had no guidebooks or maps. At that point, there was a lot of guesswork and reaching out to people who had experience in the region. Still, there was much they couldn’t figure out in advance.
“That was a really big challenge because I am a planner,” Caroline relates. “I like to know what's coming in advance. The reality is that there was no way we would ever have everything figured out in advance. At some point, we just had to go or it wasn't going to happen. In the end, it turned out to be a gift because I think it's translated into the rest of my life.”
When you plan on doing something out of the norm, there are always going to be a lot of unknowns. Do what you can to find information and then learn to trust your instincts and your knowledge of survival.
Budgeting For the Trip
As she planned their adventure in the remote wilderness, Caroline discovered it was more affordable for them to make this journey than live at home with a mortgage or rent. Such were the perks of sleeping for free every night.
The major costs for the trip were the row boats, which Pat built himself, and the gear they needed to make the trek. “The expense is one of those things that is built up in our heads as a reason not to go,” Caroline says. “Often, for a trip this long, it's not that expensive relative to the amount of time.”
Caroline and Pat used the postal service almost exclusively for their food drops. Then, it was just the cost of shipping from the US to Canada plus the food. “That was mostly food we would have bought anyway,” Caroline adds. “We didn't spend a whole lot of money along the way. It was, in retrospect, a lot more affordable than I had originally imagined.”
Changing Modes of Transportation
For their 4,000-mile journey, Pat and Caroline decided to travel by rowboat, ski, foot, raft, and canoe. What affect did this have on their experience? “It actually worked really well to give our bodies a break,” Caroline says. “It was really helpful to have different modes of transport psychologically too. We never got too bored.”
While the immediate transition to a different form of exertion brought on blisters and sore spots, there were no major injuries throughout the entire trip.
With numerous ways to travel, Caroline and Pat experienced the Alaskan wilderness in many different ways. While planning a variety of transportation means can add a lot of work, it can also add reward.
“Don't be afraid to dream really big,” Caroline encourages. “You can always bring yourself in later, and reach out to other people for support, advice, and logistical tips. Connecting with other people can be a really great way to trust that you can do these things.”
To hear more about Caroline’s incredible 4,000-mile journey, listen to our complete conversation on the Tough Girl podcast.
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