Jul 07 2009

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Bushwhacking without a Compass

Posted at 8:35 am under Blog Post

Yesterday I slipped into the woods with my dog, Matika, hungry for a challenging hike.  I went to a nearby patch of wild country called French Hill.  Since it’s only a few miles square, and familiar terrain for the most part, I didn’t bother carrying a compass.  After all, I’ve been in there many times before.

When I was younger, I religiously carried a compass even on familiar trails.  My hiking companions have marveled at this quirk over the years.  It seems so unnecessarily cautious.  But I know from experience how easy it is to get turned around in the woods, especially if one is in the habit of leaving the trail and bushwhacking cross country as I am.  On lengthy excursions into big woods, I still carry a compass.  Locally though, I’ve gotten into the habit of doing without.

Frogs and toads jumped out of the way as Matika and I charged down the overgrown logging trail.  A great deal of rain has fallen in Vermont during the past couple months and the understory is thicker than usual.  No matter.  We forged ahead, dodging ruts full of water as we ventured deep into the woods. We picked up a fresh set of moose tracks and followed them even deeper, both of us excited when we passed a fresh pile of droppings.  Then I lost the moose tracks along with any semblance of a trail.  No matter.  I navigated by sun, gradually bearing south towards a known beaver pond.  I was confident that I’d stumble into familiar turf soon.

French Hill is more of a long, wide ridge than a hill, with plenty of knolls and ravines.  It’s a good place to get turned around, actually, and that’s exactly what happened when the sun slipped behind the clouds.  The maze of ATV trails that I ran into didn’t help.  I followed them until I was thoroughly disoriented.  I kept reaching for the compass that wasn’t there.  Still, I was too proud to pop out of the woods when I spotted a house.  I knew there would be a road just beyond it, but I was determined to exit the woods at the same point where I had entered.  So I turned away.

I wandered around for a while, ripping my pants in some thick brambles and taking lots of scratches.  I kept my cool, still confident that I’d stumble into familiar terrain.  Then I slipped in a mud hole and fell down, ramming the butt of a downed tree into my side.  That’s when I took the situation seriously.  I sat down and carefully considered my next move.

Matika was not happy.  Neither was I.  With a heavy sigh, I accepted the fact that it was time to follow a “lost azimuth” due south to the road.  I used the moss growing at the base of trees to maintain a steady southern bearing.  Imagine my chagrin when I popped out of the woods at the exact same house I’d turned away from an hour earlier.

Yeah, I got my challenging hike, and then some.  Good workout, and good training for a big hike in Maine next month.  But never again will I enter the woods without my compass.  Let my hiking companions marvel at the primitive device dangling from a lanyard around my neck – I don’t care.  No bushwacker with any sense steps into backcountry without one.

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