Ramblings Of An Old Hiker - Just Plain Lost
By Steve Grant
The other day David Ward and I were talking about how people get lost in the woods and it started me thinking on how it can happen to anyone. The question is; what is the difference between getting turned around in the bush or off the trail for a few minutes when everything works out fine (no story to tell) and the situations we read about where search teams are called in and it makes the evening news?
One winter day when I was dealing with the death of a friend who had recently lost his battle with cancer and needed to clear my head. I had a few hours before I was heading off to the funeral home for visitation so I decided to head into the wilderness for a bit. I grabbed my wooden beaver tail snowshoes, told my wife I would be back in a couple of hours, and headed out the back door, up the road, put my snowshoes on top of the snowbank and headed into a cedar swale. Normally I have a destination in mind when I head out but on this particular day it was about relaxing, thinking and getting my head in the right place. There are some old trails if you can find them but mostly it's just a swamp with a lot of underbrush and visibility of just a few feet, a great place to wander about and burn off some steam.
Soon after I got in there I spotted some fresh moose tracks which I followed, found some moose poop and finally the spot where the moose had bedded down for a nap. From here I headed off in the same general direction as I started and continued my journey continually selecting the path that was easier (or just possible). Before long I came across another set of snowshoe tracks, also old school beaver tails that were running about 45 degrees to my travel so I stopped to ponder who might be back in there since the snow the day before, maybe someone I know. I changed direction onto the tracks and followed them for a while to see where they might be coming from it was a bit difficult to really get a sense of direction with no visible sun in the overcast sky and no ability to see beyond 20 feet through the swamp. All of a sudden I got this surreal feeling, picked up my GPS that was hanging from my belt, flipped to the map to see that I was now walking on my own tracks, I had snowshoed in a complete circle without realizing until this moment. I decided this would be a great time to head back to the road and make my way home.
I consider myself an outdoorsman, I've spent lots of time in the forest from a very young age and have always had a reasonable sense of direction but on this day nature had humbled me again.
I remember a time when I was 12 or 13 years old hunting with my Dad. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon, we parked the truck on the side of a woods road, he picked up his 30-30 Winchester and into the forest we went. At first we were walking a trail but soon we came across some deer tracks that we began to follow. In hind sight we didn't look over our shoulders as I would today, we just kept walking, following tracks and hunting. At a point we stopped had a bit of a discussion about where we were and in my Dad's style he asked me where I thought the truck was so I pointed in a direction and said, “I think it's back that direction”. He responded by pointing and saying, “I think it's off on that direction”. Since we only disagreed by 15 or 20 degrees it gave me confidence that I had a sense of direction as good as my Dad. We headed off with me following my Dad through the woods and when we reached the road we could see the tailgate of the truck a little ways up the road.
I tell this story because with as much experience as I have I know there is always the time when Mother Nature will kick my ass. Without a direction in mind to navigate to, some in attention, lack of a visible sun, dense under growth, or just inattention can put you in the place where you are... That word we all hate... Lost.
It happens to all of us but the secret to it not turning ugly is fairly simple. First, you need to recognize and admit (denial is just a river). Secondly, stop and ponder, you need to fight the urge to panic, run, get angry or whatever your initial emotional response is. Third, survey your resources - GPS, compass or if you were on a marked trail then the trail markers are a resource (maybe returning back to the last seen marker is an option), cell phone. Fourth, create a plan. This might be as simple as returning back to the last seen trail marker, or it might be picking a direction based on some knowledge of where you are (always pick a visible object to navigate to), or maybe the right choice is to use your cell phone to phone a friend, make yourself comfortable and wait.
I was recently out on a day hike with a non-hiking friend that wanted to see a part of the Fundy Footpath and on our return I went a little ways ahead to light the stove and start making lunch. We were on a well-marked trail and I only went a few yards ahead and I realized that he wasn't coming behind me before I got anything out of my pack. When I went back after him I could hear him thrashing through the forest well off the trail. I hollered, got him to respond but he wouldn't stop. I finally got his attention and got him to stop so I could come to where he was and bring him out to the trail. While we were having lunch I was asking him question to establish how things went wrong so quickly. What I found was the he realized he was off trail almost as soon as it happened but he didn't stop and look around. Going back was never an option that crossed his mind. Even then he couldn't admit that he was lost but he knew that he didn't know where he was. He believed that if he continued going (in the wrong direction) he would come back to the trail. He was in an emotional state and didn't take even a minute to gather his thoughts and realize that calling out to me would have brought him straight back to the trail.
Like if you ever find yourself on fire, running is the worst thing you can do... Stop, Drop and Roll. If you ever find yourself lost... Stop, Think and Plan! Running is the worst thing you can do.
Until next time my friends,
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