After spending a lot of time in the "woods," I've always felt I have a pretty good sense of direction. Given decent weather and reasonable visibility I've always been confident in my ability to find my way home, back to camp, or wherever I'm headed. It's never been much of a problem. I don't mean to sound cocky-I've little doubt other folk's abilities exceed mine, but a sense of direction is just a given for anyone who has spent a lot of time in the great outdoors. You learn to keep your bearings without even thinking about it. It's about as natural as walking for a lot of folks.
I recall one time, heading home by snowmachine above the timberline, the wind had picked up, snow started coming down thick, and visibility was not much more than a dozen yards or so. My biggest concern was not where I was, but the possibility of driving off an obscure cornice or ledge. In whiteout conditions, depth perception can be non-existent. I just slowly plugged along, getting off the snowmachine several times to walk on ahead to see if the trail was smooth snow or a precipice. I found both, and altered course a time or two to avoid riding into thin air.
It took a couple of hours to cover the five miles or so home. While a good part of the time, I didn't know EXACTLY where I was, I knew approximately which way I was headed. It was only a matter of time until I hit the North Fork, as expected, and everything was right on track. However, there have been a few times when I've really had to question ... "Where am I at ... exactly?" It's a humbling feeling, but can also be a good learning experience.
Once, years back, I was coming home with our dog-team late at night at dark-thirty. It was pitch black. As if the darkness wasn't enough, my vision was obscured by a thick snowfall, and the batteries in my headlamp were low so I could only switch it on from time to time to be sure the dogs were on the trail. They always were, just trucking along like it was broad daylight. I really did not know where we were ... but with total confidence in our dogs, I was basically along for the ride. We cruised until after a long flat straight stretch I thought, "We must be on lake ice..." I looked up to see the propane light in the living room of our home. Buck, our lead dog just trotted down the trail, looped around and into the dog-yard, just like normal. While I had been around the dogs for years, their instincts still kind of amazed me. They always knew where we were. Talk about a sense of direction-they have it.
The most screwed up in direction I've ever been was interesting. And humbling. I was coming back over the mountains with a small group of clients. It was an awesome trip, an easy three day, twenty-five to thirty mile hike above the timberline in just drop-dead beautiful country. On trips like these I have to remind myself, "This is my job. I'm working." On our last night out, on the other side of the pass and maybe ten miles from home, we went to bed with the wind picking up and gathering clouds. The morning, after breakfast, found us breaking camp in a hard wind and a sideways rainfall. The clouds and fog were as thick as pea soup. "No worries," I thought. I knew where we were and where we needed to go. We headed out through the fog, wind, and rain and an hour or so later, came out on the pass right where we needed to be. We took the ridge top along the cliff face, the route I always take, and it was good hiking for another half mile or so until we reached the broken rocky scrabble angling down along the top edge of the cliffs. With the rainy conditions the rocks were slicker than usual. Folks were having trouble with them and I started pushing ... just a bit ... to the east and higher, to get out of the scrabble field. The bad weather continued, as did we. When I looked up to our left I saw a towering peak above us. There was not supposed to be anything much above us, let alone on our left. I was very surprised, and a bit baffled. My gut response was to yell, "Holy Cow!" (or worse) "We're in trouble now!" Being the chief guide at the time, a response like that really would not be of any benefit, so I substituted it with, "Snack break!" which everyone liked.
I threw up a rain fly to get everyone out of the weather, and casually looked around trying to figure out exactly what happened and where we were. Then I remembered I had, for the first time in my life, a compass in my pack my son bought me for Christmas. I discreetly pulled it out along with a candy bar and turning my back to my guests, took a heading ... northeast. About one hundred and eighty degrees from where we should've been headed. I was surprised to say the least, and still baffled. I told our guests to hang within sight of the tent fly shelter. The fog was thick enough to make it easy to lose direction-I had just proved that. I told them I would be right back, discreetly took a southwest heading, and walked that way. One of our guests, Michael, from France, who was with us for his second time, followed along and seeing my compass said, "Is there problem Mike?" I said "No, just getting my bearings a little," to which Michael replied, "Do you like GPS?" That got my attention. "You have a GPS?" I asked. He said, "Yes." Without hesitation I told him, "Haul that puppy out here." I had never used one but within a minute we had a compass and GPS heading southeast, straight home, and "eight point two miles" away. I gathered our hikers, hung the compass around my neck, using it frequently, and we shortly broke out under the fog looking straight home to the lodge. Cool. Another lesson learned.
It was on another one of these trips from what we've come to call, The Back Lake, when I got a real education. It could've been a real disaster, but through a good bit of luck and no doubt help from the man upstairs, everything turned out okay. The night before flying to get dropped off with our guests, I noticed helicopters flying over to the east of us. Weather was quite poor and I wondered what was going on ... but just wrote it off as nothing. The next day was beautiful but quite windy. As our pilot dropped us off at the remote lake he mentioned, "Oh, by the way, I dropped off four people out here a few days ago, one wandered out of camp and is missing ... keep an eye out for him..." Really? In all the years I had been out in this remote country east of Talkeetna I had never seen a human other than the folks with me. Finding someone out there in a million acres of wilderness? Not likely.
The plane departed and we headed out as well with my mind mulling over what we would do if we did find him. We were pushing thirty miles from anywhere. If he was fit to travel, we divvy up the food, I could share my tent and sleeping bag over us, it would work. If he was not fit to travel ... well, we ain't gonna find him anyway ... so we pushed on. We hadn't been going an hour and were hiking along nicely, when I heard a faint odd noise. There are a lot of whistling marmots in the high country, and I first thought it was one of them, but it didn't sound right. I kept hiking but continued looking above us, scanning the country. I heard it again, but this time it was a faint but clear, "Help!" My next thought was, "Well, we found him." I picked him out far above us, stumbling down through the alpine tundra and boulder field toward us. We dropped our packs and headed his way. It was obvious he was in bad shape. When we reached each other he collapsed on the ground, put his head into his hands and began to cry softly. We got him calmed down, assured him he was safe, that he was alive and would be for some time. After a short rest, we got him to where we left our packs and gear, then we moved a short distance to the highest ground around us-the easiest to see from and to be seen. But even in that open high country, it is so huge, you are a needle in a haystack.
It was obvious the man wouldn't be traveling far anytime soon. We got him into dry clothes. One of my guests offered a pair of extra pants, another a pull over sweater, and I dug out my spare heavy wool socks. We tucked him into a warm sleeping bag, raised his comfort and confidence, then started getting his story, which was pretty simple really. He was in his mid-thirties, born and raised in Manhattan, a computer guy who decided to go on an adventure to Alaska. On the first or second night out, he hiked up the mountain out of camp to get a sunset photo of Denali, saw some sheep and took off after them ... and never looked back. Literally. For the next two days it sounded like he just panicked, he was all over the mountains, with no clue where he was. In fact, when we ran into him he was less than a half mile or so from where he started from. If we hadn't found him he would have spent his third night alone-he figured he would've died there that night. I think he would have survived that night ... highly unlikely he would have made it through another.
I learned a lot just talking and listening to him. At one point, as he was relaxing, knowing he would live, was warm and reliving what he had been through, he said something to the effect of, "This country is so big, so vast, so beautiful ... and it is SO unforgiving!" Yeah, we who live in it know ... if you get careless, it will bite you, no question about it. He also pointed out that while he was "very environmentally conscious," and didn't "step on plants or anything" (how can you not?) ... on the second night he was "Ripping things out by the roots" for cover to keep from freezing to death.
Sunrise at the lake.
One of the last impressions he left me with was him looking at my pack, which had my compact .45-70 caliber bear rifle leaning on it. He asked me, "Do you think I was in danger of bears out here?" I told him it was highly unlikely, "I think bears were the least of your worries." And they were.
The most important thing for all involved was that he was safe. The next was how to get him "rescued," out to civilization. He was barely fit to walk. To make a long story short, we got very lucky, like the odds in the lottery, and a passing National Guard helicopter that was searching for him saw us, with our enthusiastic tent fly/sleeping bag waving. The bird landed, the no longer lost man returned the borrowed pants and pull over, informed me he was keeping my warm socks, walked to the helicopter and I never saw or heard from him again. I do think of him though. The first time was about two days later when I got up to put on my only pair of wet stinky socks.