Tag Archive 'land navigation'

Jun 15 2010

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A Sense of Direction

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It wasn’t easy getting up for a hike as rain gathered on the windshield of my car, but I knew I’d see things differently once I was in the thick of things.  My dog, Matika, didn’t care.  She’s up for a hike anytime, anywhere, in any weather.  So I parked my car, grabbed my rain hat, and stepped into the woods.

At first I thought I’d just follow the overgrown skidder trail a short distance beyond the beaver pond, then turn around.  But my legs wanted more.  Despite the bugs, drizzle and tall, wet grass, I was enjoying the walk.  So I kept going until I reached a small clearing illuminated by gray light.  There the skidder trail fragmented into several sketchy paths shooting different directions.  And there, true to my natural inclinations, I chose the path less traveled and ventured deeper.

I recognized the path.  I had walked it a year earlier until it had completely disappeared into the brush.  Shortly after that, I had been turned around for an hour or so.  With that in mind, I checked the compass dangling around my neck.  Yeah, this time I was ready for the wily ways of French Hill.

I followed the fading path until it crested a ridge.  Then it vanished.  I bushwhacked down the far side of the ridge until I came to a long, narrow wetland.  I was tempted to cross it and almost did out of sheer impulse.  My sense of direction told me to turn right.  My compass told me to turn left.  “That can’t be right,” I mumbled.  My dog waited patiently for me to make a decision.  I followed my compass.

Anyone who has ever been in this situation knows the rest of the story.  The compass was right, of course.  I soon tagged a game trail that veered back towards the beaver pond.  When I passed through a familiar gap in an old stone wall, I knew where I was again.  And I was back to my car fifteen minutes later.  Of course.

A compass isn’t infallible, and a certain amount of skill is necessary to use it properly.  Yet it has served me well on countless occasions when my “sense of direction” would have led me astray.  There’s a lesson to be learned here, no doubt, regarding subjective and objective thinking.  But I’ve said enough already.  I’ll leave it to others to draw whatever conclusions they so desire.

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Jul 07 2009

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Bushwhacking without a Compass

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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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Oct 14 2008

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Land Navigation

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Every once in a while, I get this urge to wander aimlessly through the woods. Don’t get me wrong.  I like gliding along a well-worn trail as much as the next guy.  But sometimes I have to leave the trail and walk that ragged edge between knowing exactly where I am and being lost.  I find it quite instructive.

A second-class dirt road took me to a height of land where I could access the main spine of the Cold Hollow Mountains.  After parking my car in a logging yard, I followed a skidder trail halfway up the nearest mountain.  Then I followed an ATV trail to the summit.  On the south side of that summit, the ATV looped back towards the road and I had a choice to make: either follow the ATV trail where I didn’t want to go, or set forth into the trackless forest.  The next summit was about two miles south.  I checked my compass then stepped off the trail.

Hiking a trail is sweaty work; bushwhacking is harder.  I tramped through the woods, following a compass bearing due south, hoping to find a game trail along the way.  No such luck.  I followed a set of fresh moose tracks for a while but lost them in a wetland that suddenly cropped up.  It sprawled across the saddle between the summit I’d just hiked over and the one I was headed towards.  Wetlands aren’t easy to navigate, not even relatively small ones like this one.  I read the vegetation and muddled through it the best I could.  Then I started climbing the next mountain.  About ten minutes into the climb, I tagged a game trail following the remnants of a woods road that was at least half a century old.  It crept laterally up the side of the mountain, so I changed my compass bearing.  Yeah, land navigation is tricky that way.

I stopped for lunch halfway up the mountain, resting on a rocky outcropping that sported a fair view of Jay Peak and other mountains to the northeast.  My dog, Matika, helped me drink the better part of my two-liter water supply.  That and the dark clouds blowing in from the northwest forced my hand.  So after catching my breath, I headed back the way I’d come.

Every morning, the newspaper reminds me that a major financial crisis is still underway. What was a national problem is now a global one, and no one’s quite sure what to do about it.  Every pundit keeps to his or her philosophical traces, of course.  The liberals blame the current mess on evil corporations, and the conservatives blame the liberals for gumming up the free market system with their meddling.  Meanwhile, the average guy on the street wants to pin it all on a handful of greedy bastards.  Truth is, the global economy is a big, complex system and no one is really in control.  We want our fearless leaders to navigate us through this mess, but confidence sags when they slip back into the kind of partisan bickering that we’ve all heard before.  So we listen, wait rather impatiently, and hope they’ll come to their senses.

I missed a landmark on my way down the mountain and had to radically adjust my course in order to reach the saddle between the two summits.  It was a humbling experience, certainly, but at least I had sense enough to abandon the game trail I’d been following, admit my mistake, and change direction.  I was greatly relieved to tag the familiar wetland and slowly ascend the first summit.  I congratulated myself when finally I stepped onto the ATV trail.  Then I eased back to the parked car.

If my dog had used her keen sense of smell, I could have relied on her to find my way out of the woods.  But she was oblivious to her surroundings – too busy chasing chipmunks back and forth to even know how close we’d come to being lost.  It’s for the best that she remained oblivious.  I didn’t want to follow her anyway.  It’s better that I had to navigate on my own, thus keeping those skills up to snuff.  After all, you never know when you’ll suddenly find yourself off the familiar and well-worn trail.  This happens more often than any of us are willing to admit, and it’s never wise to rely too heavily on the aptitudes of others.

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