Monday, November 9, 2015


I am not lost, just a little unsure of my exact location.

“Not all those who wander are lost”
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

What is lost? The dictionary defines the state of being lost as “having gone astray or missed the way; bewildered as to place, direction, etc.”

I have certainly gone astray. I have even missed the way and been a bit bewildered as to place, direction, etc. But I’ve never been lost.

I was on an outer coast kayak trip once with a friend. We paddled from Sitka to Pelican, often camping on the small barrier islands between the coast of Chichagof Island and the open ocean. One evening we had some time to kill before dinner. My friend chose to stay in camp while I decided to take a walk. I started along the shore for a while, then thought I’d save some time and cut across what appeared to be a very small piece of forest to the other side and cut back to camp. Meanwhile, I’d tell my friend that I’d walked all the way around the island. Big mistake. It soon became obvious the island was bigger than I first thought, and I quickly became disoriented in the woods. I managed to beat my way back to the shore, but by then I wasn’t at all sure where I was situated in relation to our camp. So I started walking. My theory was that I was definitely on an island, and if I just started walking in one direction, sooner or later I would stumble into camp. When I arrived hours after my friend expected me to show up for dinner, he accused me of getting lost. No, I said, I wasn’t lost. I was just a little unsure of my exact location. But the entire time I felt certain I was going to get back to camp. It was just going to take me a little longer than I first thought. And then and there, I developed my whole philosophy about being lost.

When I’m a bit unsure of my exact location, other people might want to be quick to say “I am lost!” I guess the difference is I’ve never doubted that I could find my way back, and don’t panic if I realize it’s going to take me longer than I originally planned.

In the early 1980’s, I skied across the Juneau icefield with three friends, traveling from Atlin to Juneau. We successfully navigated through whiteouts and crevasse fields, confidently using map and compass each step of the way and reaching Camp 17 at the foot of Cairn Peak right on schedule. The next day all we had to do was hike out Blackerby ridge, and we’d be home. In those days we didn’t have the well-worn foot path along the ridge and down through the steep forest that exists today, thanks to the hordes of ultra-runners and hikers who regularly travel there now. And it was a little cloudy and foggy on the ridge. And we were anxious to get home. We made it partway down the ridge when our group of four slowly split apart and became two groups of two, with my girlfriend and me in the back. We got a little lazy and decided to take a short cut along the ridge, which we figured would take us to the forest route the same as if we stayed right on the ridge to reach it. Big mistake. We were deep into the impossibly steep woods before we realized we were not going to find the trail and that we were going to have to somehow beat our way down to Salmon Creek without falling off a cliff or becoming hopelessly entangled in devil’s club and thick alder. Tears were shed, packs taken off and pushed through the dense brush, curses spoken. But never at any time did we sit down and say “We are lost!” We made it down to Salmon Creek in one piece, although we did lose an ice axe somewhere in the scramble. We crossed the creek, climbed up the slope on the other side, and fifteen minutes later we were on Egan Drive, just a couple of hours behind the other half of our group.

Really? Never lost? Hey, I made it home o.k. and no one had to come and help me, so my answer is no, I have never been lost. Pretty embarrassed, very scratched up and tired, but not lost.

The list goes on, I’m sorry to say.

My first summer in Juneau, I hiked up Mt. Troy with my boyfriend and we decided to take a shortcut down from the summit. That was my first real introduction to impossibly steep brush and devil’s club. The devil’s club on that epic misadventure was so thick and the slope was so steep that we ended up climbing hand over hand down a rocky creek running with icy cold water. That was a great incentive to learn to study topographic maps much more carefully and pay attention to those little contour lines when they tended to crowd closely together.

One winter afternoon I found myself skiing around Spaulding Meadows in circles for hours during a total whiteout, desperately trying to locate the trail out before dark. There were three of us, and we took turns convincing the other two that we knew where we were going, until it became obvious that we didn’t. A map and compass would have helped only minimally in this situation since we hadn’t taken any bearings when we first came up into the meadows and by the time the fog and clouds rolled in there was nothing to take a bearing on anyway. We were right on the brink of settling in for the night by digging a snow cave when I suddenly recognized a group of trees and somehow convinced the others that we were only a few hundred yards from the trail. It was pitch black by the time we were halfway out and none of us had a headlamp, but we made it home o.k. Even if we hadn’t, we would have survived the night camping in the snow – snow caves can be surprisingly cozy – and safely traveled out the next morning. We weren’t lost, just a bit disoriented as to our exact location, and we knew it was going to take us longer to get home than we originally planned.

From the sound it, you might assume that I was blindly going out and getting myself in trouble on a regular basis. At times that was true, but it wasn’t because I was ignorant. I spent a great deal of time learning to use a map and compass properly, practicing on easy hikes where the trail was obvious. I learned about true north and magnetic north and memorized the declination for the Juneau area. I took sightings and figured my exact location on a map by drawing a triangle from two known points using my compass and checking the angle from my line of sight. My mistakes happened when I got careless and wasn’t paying close attention because I thought I was on known or easy terrain, or because I was tired and looking for a quick shortcut.

Now we have a wealth of GPS devices and, dear lord, we have cell phones. I carry a cell phone whenever I go out, and I have a very cool GPS app on it that I will refer to when I’m a little confused as to my exact location. But I think the most important piece of equipment that I carry with me is my brain. I watch the trail or terrain I’m travelling much more carefully than I did when I was young and reckless. I look ahead to where I’m going and I look behind to where I’ve been, noting landmarks around me that I might need to refer to again on the return trip. I still carry a map and compass, because as cool as my GPS app on my phone is, it still needs a battery and batteries have been known to fail.

As I was putting the finishing touches on this story, I ran into a group of hikers from the UAS outdoor studies program hiking down the Montana Creek road. I had mountain biked up the road and was on my way back down when I ran into them. I hadn’t seen them on the way up so I wondered where they had come from. One of them told me they had hiked down through the steep woods from Spaulding Meadows using only map and compass, deliberately navigating through unmarked terrain. I was impressed. That is some tough terrain, brushy and steep, just the kind of terrain where you could get lost. They not only found their way down to the Montana Creek road successfully, they still had a bounce in their step, were in good spirits, and still had many hours before dark. Here was a group of a dozen college age adventurers who were learning solid navigation skills. They will probably never have to call for help because they thought they were lost, although they might be a little unsure of their exact location and might get home a bit later than they originally planned at times. That’s just part of the adventure.
Late for dinner again