Getting lost

It’s nice to know how to use a compass whether you’re in the endless wilds of bear country in Alaska or wading a creek in a low country swamp. It can get you home when nothing else can.

Just Thinking by Mac McLeod

It makes no difference whether it’s the hills and valleys of the Cumberland Plateau, the Rocky Mountains of Montana, the seemingly endless terrain of the Alaskan tundra or the swamps of South Carolina, every one of us who have spent time in the out of doors have had at least one moment when you were “not lost” but had a lot of questions of just where you were.

If you’re one who loves to leave the trail of tranquility and venture into the depths of the unknown, whether it’s hunting or just taking a walk in the wild, you can recall perhaps more than once when you had to stop and think just where you were and in what direction do you need to go to get back to the “pavement”.

If you ever wondered just how the early settlers managed to get through the wilderness without maps, keep in mind that most of the time they were going out and not coming back. They were going out and resettling. Home is where dark overtook them.

In the case of the early explorers of this country like Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett, they were born in the wilderness, grew up there and learned the tricks of the trade of how to get around and get back. It was second nature to them.

Someone once asked Boone, who had ventured through the wildernesses of Pennsylvania, western North Carolina, and almost all of Kentucky, had he ever been lost during his lifetime of wandering, hunting and exploring, and he replied, “I was never lost, but I was once bewildered for three days.”

Lost can be described in different ways.

In my days of hunting and fishing, just about everywhere I could get to, from the swamps of Florida to the fish infested creeks of Alaska, I can truthfully say I was never really lost, but I had several times when the sun was starting to go down that I really thought I wasn’t going to sleep in my nice warm bed that night.

There’s an old saying that “you’re never lost as long as you still have gas”. Well, most of the time in the woods, you are on foot, so I always felt like I was “never lost until it got dark”.

There was a time on a hunting trip in Alaska when I really wasn’t lost, but I sure felt all alone. There were three of us and we were after caribou. On the tundra one can see for miles since there are no trees or other landmarks, and on this particular day, we had ventured into a herd and taken two, and a third was wounded and got away.

Since we had been walking since early morning, I told my two friends I would skin out the two on the ground and they could go after the wounded one. After about an hour of field dressing two caribou, I stood up and looked around. For the very first time in my life, I was truly ALONE. Here I was, in the middle of big brown bear country with two bloody animals and only one bullet left in my rifle.

To say the least, I was a little nervous, but gathered my thoughts, tried to figure where I was, pulled out my old Boy Scout compass and found my way back to the river almost exactly where our raft was tied.

Prior to going to Alaska, I had done most of my hunting and fishing in the swamps of lower South Carolina, and it was here that, for the very first time, I really thought I was lost. I had been in the exact spot several times before, but on this afternoon, in December, I experienced the feeling of actually being a little more than “bewildered”.

On this afternoon, I had brought along a friend who was on his first trip into the swamp, and needless to say, his first duck hunt. We were actually going to shoot wood ducks this afternoon, which is actually a glorified dove shoot. The wood ducks will come back to the trees in late afternoon to roost, and like doves, they fly hard and fast, dodging in and out of the cypress trees. You have to be on your toes to get a shot.

Oh yeah, this was my friend’s first trip in the swamp. He had grown up in Columbia, SC. A real “city slicker”.

We put our little 12-foot jon boat in the creek, went about 1,000 yards, then turned back into a little slough to the right – nothing hard about this and certainly nothing new. I had done this little exercise a hundred times and very near this very spot.

We pulled the boat up on the bank, got our guns ready, then started across the little wooded section that would bring us out to an old logging road. Here we would have pretty good open area and could get some shots as the ducks came blistering through.

By now, dark was closing fast and shooting time was very short. Actually, you almost had to break the law to get in legal shooting time. When the ducks should have flown, they didn’t, so I motioned my friend to get up from behind an old tree stump and let’s head back to the boat before pitch dark.

As we headed back, we crossed the clearing and went back into the woods, but what should have taken no more than 10 minutes to the boat was now getting longer, and it was getting darker and darker.

Finally, I stopped and asked the “foolish question of the day”: “Dexter, where’s the boat?”

Dexter didn’t have a clue. He had relied entirely on me to get him in and out of the swamp and never considered to pay attention to where he was going.

“I don’t really know” was the answer I didn’t want to hear.

Okay, just get your thoughts together and figure where you are. It’s only about 100 yards across the flat from the opening where we were hunting to the front of that boat, so where have we gone wrong.

“Dexter, you stand right here,” I said, “and I’m going to walk over there to see if I can figure where we are. If I can’t, we’ll just have to find a stump above the water (the water was about knee deep)and build a fire and wait to daylight to get out.”

From the look on his face, I realized that wasn’t the answer he was looking for, but from my experience, when lost in the dark, sit down and wait. The more you move the “loster” you get.

I had my ole trusty Boy Scout compass with me once again, so I pulled it out of my shirt pocket then started walking. If I can find the creek, I’ll know where we are and then go to my boat.As I walked, it kept getting darker, then suddenly I saw an opening in the tree tops. That indicated a creek or a road. This was what I was looking for, but when I got to the “creek” it turned out to be the old logging road we had left some 15 or 20 minutes ago.

Avoiding thick undergrowth and briars, we had walked in a semi-circle and were back on the road, but the good news was, I knew where I was, and better still, I knew where the boat was.

“Dexter,” I hollered, “walk to me.”

With a grin as big as the recent bright moon on his face, Dexter popped out of the woods and came right to me. He didn’t have to ask, he knew we weren’t going to spend the night keeping warm with a fire on the top of an old stump.

With my compass in hand, I picked a direction and followed it, not dodging briars or bushes this time, instead walking right through them, and then there it was, the white cover on my Johnson 6-horse motor.

What a beautiful sight. Ten minutes later we were back at the landing, loading the boat and heading home.

Just like in Alaska, my Boy Scout training when I was only 11 or 12 years-old, paid off. For years, I carried that trusty compass every trip out west and any time I was in the outdoors. I’ve still got it, and every now and again, I’ll walk by it, pick it up, have a wonderful thought, then put it back down and move on.

Like Danial Boone before me, I really don’t think I’ve ever seriously been lost, but on several occasions, I certainly have been “bewildered”.