All is generally well and good for me when the only order of the day is walking through the woods. If my mind is free to wander as it will and my eyes left to take in whatever they happen upon while the feet and legs keep churning away down below, I can and will most often turn back and make a beeline for the truck at the end of the day. My brain, while not especially adept at handling differential equations or Farsi, has been conditioned to note and remember waypoints and landmarks as a matter of second nature. I've been doing this for a pretty long time now. Somehow, after years of practice, many outdoors folk can continually create a fairly accurate 3D map in their minds, as they progress through the day over hill and dale. I happen to fall comfortably within that category most days.
We all acquire some tricks of the trade, of course -- sighting methods used to keep oneself aligned and on course relative to a big landmark or the sun. In fairly open country the easiest thing to do, obviously, is to pick out a feature like a ridge or lone tree in the distance, and walk to it. You can't get more simple than that. In more dense or hilly terrain, we often line up two or three closer trees, sighting down them like stacking them up against one another, in order to maintain a course. Deliberate error is also a handy play to master when navigating to a line such as a road or stream. If you consciously nudge your back bearing off a few degrees in a purposeful direction, you'll know for certain that the tent or the truck is, say, downstream as opposed to upstream when you get to the road or river. Much easier to find. I use that one all the time.
Dad taught me a decades ago to stop every few minutes when bucking cross country, and turn around to look at the way you've just come. I still do it. It helps to cement a visual image of the country as it will look coming back the other way, so things don't look so foreign on the return.
Still, with education and experience, even the most practiced among us sometimes do end up wandering around in a meadow that isn't supposed to be there or gazing bewildered into a river valley that surely eroded in behind our backs after we'd passed that very way earlier in the day.
If you walk around outside long enough, you will eventually crawl up out of a thicket somewhere. That small spark of elation at finally seeing the sky after an hour shouldering through cover not fit for human travel will blossom in your chest, only to be slowly and inexorably crushed by the realization that you have no idea where you are.
A nice enough shot, but I took it because I fully expected a certain kettle lake to be there when I crested that hill. They moved it, apparently.
It is most often when other tasks are added to the agenda, more mental energy spent on other things, that we can fail to keep track of our way. On a very short walk through the northwoods with Frisbee years ago, I got a little turned around.
We'd parked on a sandy road that makes up one side of what we casually call "the loop." I believe we were looking for a spot to put up a tree stand, though I no longer recall whether it was his or mine. Maybe we were both looking for a spot. It was a month or so before gun deer season, with all the accompanying contentment and excited jitters that time of year brings to the hunter's heart. I remember the chill wind being strong enough to bring on the goosebumps for one of the first times that season, and the angling sun as it shone through the turning leaves. I also remember walking back out to the road, and discovering that the truck had been beamed up by aliens. Or stolen in a preemptive strike by the deer we were preparing to hunt.
Those were my first suspicions, anyway, though I was quickly yanked back to reality by Mr. Occam. In a quick, if slightly befuddled, review of my actions to that point, I realized that I'd committed the gravest of outdoor follies during our mini-hike. I'd distrusted my compass.
Any woodsman worth his salt doesn't leave the bermed gravel turnout in big country without a compass. I carry two, one pinned to my vest for quick access and a spare in a vest or backpack pocket. I use them constantly on the long grouse pushes we make through spruce and balsam so thick you sometimes have to turn your back and bull in reverse. There is no lining up of landmarks to maintain a bearing when you can't see past the end of your gun. Not a lot of shooting either, but that's a subject for another time. The compass is the single most invaluable tool in our arsenal, should we choose to leave the easy confines of tarmac and road signs. It is the first thing on my pre-hunt checklist after food and water.
The modern GPS is a fine instrument, and can no-doubt be a useful tool at times. I use one for certain things, and it has yet to fail me, but it probably will someday. When I fail to replace the batteries or slip on a damp rock and crush the screen, most likely. Or drop it down an ice hole. It's much easier and cheaper to carry a backup compass.
Which brings us back to our fateful day seeking hunting spots, and The Case of the Vanishing Truck. As I said, I'd committed the most serious (and flat-out dumbest) navigational faux-pas earlier that morning. I'm a righty when I shoot, so I keep that compass pinned just above the left breast pocket of all my vests so it won't foul up a startled gun mount. It's perched inches from my face. A normally functioning adult bushwacking in unfamiliar country would glance at it every minute or so, and base his or her movement off that observation. Instead, that morning I was suddenly struck with the sure-hearted conviction reserved almost solely for the irrational that the compass was wrong. It wasn't, of course, and so as I continually bumped our course further away from the correct return bearing, I felt justified, proud even, in having realized that my compass was somehow malfunctioning and I, consummate woodsman, had not only noticed this, but reacted in a manner suited to solve the problem.
Until we got back to the road, and the truck had been absconded with by alien deer.
Unless you're traveling in areas considerate of extreme magnetic declination or random huge mineral deposits, always believe the compass. It's not wrong, you are. If you really doubt it, take out the spare you should be carrying and compare them. It's not wrong, you are. That was the lesson learned that day, and the mantra I repeated to myself as Frisbee and I hoofed it through the sugar sand to the truck, a half mile the wrong way down the road.
Not many years after that, Caleb and I decided to take a ride up to the river, and have ourselves a little mid-week hunt in fresh country during the gun deer season.
A favorite view of the river
He had a big rock he wanted to sit on, a perfect vantage point looking out over mixed hardwood and popple thickets interspersed with stands of balsam. I, on the other hand, had no plan or idea, and as such, struck out almost directly east from his postition to see what I could see.
I walked for a few hours, combining the still hunter's glacial pace with occasional fits of over-the-peak-itis. Not a condition suffered by the old farts in camp in this case, OTPI is the strong urge some of us suffer from, whether hunting or not, that drives us up to the peak of the ridge, and the next one, and the one after that; in a singular quest to see what lies beyond. It's very similar to around-the-bend-itis, a condition more often suffered in a canoe or kayak, but resulting in the same symptoms and outcome. Those being, the sufferer, often in a state of endorfin-induced bliss, ends up way the holy cripes too far away from campsite or vehicle as dusk begins to fall.
That is exactly what happened to me on the hunt along the river with Caleb. I'd seen what I thought were a doe and a fawn through the slashings sometime around what photographers call the "golden hour," that period of time when the sun is setting and everything takes on the soft hue and cast of autumn. I'd then hunkered down for the last few minutes of light in the hopes that they would return or a buck would follow. None of that transpired, but I did suddenly realize I was quite a long way from the truck in country I did not know, full dark quickly approaching.
To be completely honest, I had a moment, as they say. I could suddenly feel my heart pounding in my ears, and the hair start to stand on end. I was alone in the wild, unprotected in the dark. The most profound of our primordial fears. Fortunately for me, a process that began when we dropped out of the trees and started growing bigger brain pans eventually lead to the ability to reason, and a few hundred thousand generations down the pike, the invention of the LED headlamp.
I had two additional things on my side, combating my heedless flight into the dark. I was prepared, and I'd learned to always trust the compass years before with those martian Cervids. It was a simple matter of donning my headlamp, and following the compass straight back west through the big woods to the road. I was amped, a little frightened by my poor decision making, but fully confident that I would be fine in a lean-to with a campfire and frozen Snickers dinner if it came to that. It didn't. I walked right out to Caleb's truck, and found him sitting in there with the heater running, wondering where my big buck was, that being the hopeful assumption of every deer hunter when his buddy returns late from the field. I was puffing a bit, and sweaty from pushing it a little too hard on the way back. I was also content to have found my way out of the darkness, and looking forward to the comforting glow of the wood stove and a nip or three of brandy.
Most of my experiences with getting spun around in the fields and woods are nowhere near that intense or prolonged. Often, when you've had your noggin to the ground tracking an animal or in the clouds simply getting loose for a while, there suddenly comes a wait just a second moment. An alarm born of instinct and experience reminds you to snap out of it, and take stock. It hits with a little shock, but fades quickly as you assess and correct. Hang on. Where's the sun? What's the wind doing? Is that little pond still where it should be? OK. And you comfortably resume the tracking or shroom hunting or my personal favorite, mindless wandering. It's important to stop and check in with the macro view once in a while, in outdoor pursuits just as in life. Fail to do so, and you may quickly find yourself lost.
I failed to do so a little more than year ago. A scant few miles from where I sit typing there is a DNR public hunting ground with a river running through it. One of those small, wandering woody rivers with plenty of backwater that looks as if it should be fairly bristling with wood ducks come hunting season. I'd been up and down it a number of times with Selma Kayak, and I knew the general layout of things, but I wanted to get in there and have look from the banks. I wanted to get a little sweaty and muddy, and check things out for duck hunting.
So I did. After a couple hours of poking a prodding along the banks on foot, occasionally fighting boot-sucking river muck, it was time to head for the shack. I veered up out of the bottoms and back into the light, put the sun on my right cheek, and got to making time across the mixed prairie beset with small stands of hardwoods.
I hadn't studied the maps or aerial images of this particular area too closely before leaving home. It's relatively small, and there's a river bisecting it. If you get spun up anywhere near the middle, just make for the river. Then it's simply a matter of knowing whether you need to walk upstream or down to get home. Nor did I bother with the compasses. "Practice what you preach" was apparently not in session that day.
But as I cut across country through the grass taller than me, in a bit of a rush to get home to a nice cool shower, I was rudely and quite suddenly cut off by a river that shouldn't have been there. And it was running the opposite direction from what it should have been. I stood there slack-jawed, utterly stunned. There's no river here, and certainly not one that runs uphill.
Looking back on myself standing there now, I'm reminded of that picture you sometimes see of yourself, taken from an odd angle when you weren't paying attention. I tend to live under the cheerful delusion that I have things pretty well under control and put together, at least a portion of the time. Then I see myself in the periphery of one of those off-hand pictures and realize again from my unguarded countenance, I'm just another open soul, sometimes confused, less often truly content and sated.
That's how I'm sure I looked standing on the bank of that stream that shouldn't have been there. Confusion with a chaser of surprise. I stood still until I could hear the whisper of the Interstate in the distance. Using that as my guide, I made some big loops, half circles along the bank of the mystery river, until I figured out, at long last, that it was in fact the same river. I'd simply walked directly into the crook of an oxbow I hadn't known was there. Had I cut the bank fifty yards in either direction from where I did, that towering prairie grass blinding me from any meaningful perspective as it was, things would have made much more sense initially.
As it happened, I was forced to make a couple five minute detours to reacquaint myself with what was actually happening. As I got my wits about me and and a picture in my mind, Venus began to shine brighter, and the western horizon caught flame. Time to boogie. I made for the railroad tracks that I knew edged one border of the public land, and made my way back to the parking lot under that jostling gait you can only achieve walking on the tracks. An extra hour of bumbling around in wilds, minutes from the state capitol building, it was just the sort of mini adventure that can crop up close to home when you get out there, and explore.
A little mud, well earned
I never really worry about getting lost because I'm pretty damn good at it. And thus far, I'm OK at getting un-lost too. We'll see what this fall brings. Following an eager flusher through the heavy bird cover is one of the easiest ways to lose oneself, and I hope to be doing plenty of both come October.