This essay appeared in The Locator (the official newsletter of Search and Rescue Manitoba), Jan-Feb 2014
I spent a lot of time alone in the woods this fall. Much of that time I had only the vaguest idea where I was. Being out in the forest taught me many things, but comfort with being more-or-less lost was the most exciting.
This was first time I've set off by myself into, well, not really the wilderness, but close enough for now. I was out in the woods because I recently took up hunting. Hunting, unlike many other outdoor pursuits, isn’t based on getting somewhere specific, and so doesn’t follow a set path or route. Learning where animals are and why requires exploring as the local flora and fauna dictate. Knowing where you are and how to get home is very much up to you.
Agassiz Provincial Forest is my hunting ground. It’s relatively close to Winnipeg and can be accessed by forestry roads that are mostly navigable in a car. As forest goes, Agassiz is tame but expansive, extending for ten or more kilometres in any given direction from where I wandered. The terrain rises and falls by only a few metres per kilometre, meaning there is no high or low ground to offer vantage points or landmarks. Visibility is restricted to the immediate understory and trees. Hiking more than several meters from a path or road means being swallowed by the disorienting uniformity of the bush.
I’ve taken courses in map and compass orienteering, but classroom learning only made real sense after I went confusingly astray in the real world. I experienced two of the classic navigation errors while out in the woods: walking in a circle and heading in exactly the wrong direction.
Books often point out that people are bad at following a straight course without the help of a landmark or compass bearing. This fact became real when I was out roaming and had the classic shock of coming across my own tracks in the snow. I had walked a circle perhaps 200m in diameter without any idea I was doing so.
Another day, I had been out scouting all afternoon when I realized I better head back if I wanted to return before nightfall. After some hiking I figured I was likely only a few hundred meters northeast of the car, took a southwest compass bearing, and set off. About ten minutes later, I took another bearing and found I was striding vigorously northeast, in precisely the opposite direction I intended.
My 180-degree turn taught me that it’s possible to accidentally and unwittingly get completely and unknowingly disoriented. In fact, it took a moment for me to believe that it was true. Which is another key lesson: trust your compass. It, and not your flawed sense of direction, has to be in charge when there are no landmarks. Not trusting my compass would have seen me walking directly away from my nearby vehicle and out into hundreds of square kilometres of trackless wild.
Trusting and using my compass was only helpful because I was navigating to a known destination: the north-south road where I parked. This road extends several kilometres into the forest, so as long as I headed in even approximately the right direction I would eventually find it and get out. A well-defined feature like a road, trail, or body of water provides what orienteering calls a “handrail”—a structure that can be easily found and that will lead you where you want to go, be it your final destination or another handrail. I relied on a number of handrails over the course of my explorations: roads, railway tracks, and cut lines all acted as boundaries of the great unknown. Learning to trust my compass and my handrails freed me to explore relatively far and wide.
Just these few navigational realizations allowed me to lose myself in the experience of being in the woods. Although I might wander for hours with very little idea where I might be, I always knew that when it came time, I would be able to get home.