Navigating big woods without GPS

For obvious reasons, if your safe return absolutely depends on accurate navigation in the woods, you should already know that the battery-dependent GPS unit is not an ideal choice.   The only certain navigation system/technique is with an accurate, scaled map (laminated if waterproofing is needed) and an advanced folding compass that has a mirror and a rotating friction dial, for allowing you to “set” (or lock in) the bearing or azimuth for a full day’s navigation. The system is absolutely foolproof and simple; here is how this all-but-lost art worked then and works now:

We used Silva Ranger compasses and USGS Topographical maps to successfully navigate most of northern Maine’s boreal forest. That’s right, I have safely and accurately traversed most of Maine’s northern boreal forest with this technique you will learn right now. When I say I traversed most of it, I mean way back into the “willywags”. Before we get started…..I think I know what you’re thinking: “Way back into the big woods?”    “I could get attacked back in there!”  Nope….. you won’t.   Yes, I suppose you could…but no, I am certain you won’t.  :)    

The more likely ill-fate would be a tripping or falling injury from passing through all that slash from a woods operation.  The slash is most often very deep (even to mid-thigh!) and in the Summer months it is super-hot when crossing one of those slash “fields”.   I am surprised there has not been a forest fire ignition in one of these slash fields. In the Summer they are tinder boxes, packed with dead fuel. In a Summer drought or in the dry Fall, it would be impossible to stop a forest fire in Maine’s northern woodlands.

In those north woods, I encountered a moose (sometimes with two calves) about twice a week and sighted a black bear every few weeks to a month. I have encountered moose in close quarters many times over many years and several of those have been large bulls during the late Summer to Fall months. They never bothered me…not once.

Once, during the Summer, I had a close, stressful encounter with a cow moose and her two calves. The family was lying down in a small, well-lighted meadow, inside heavily timbered forest. She looked at me, immediately got up…. and her hackles began to rise (the very long guard hairs on the shoulders) to let me know that she was all business and was prepared to attack me if I did not get out of there. I became very alarmed and immediately gave her a very wide berth. There is no doubt that this cow moose would have trampled me, if, out of harmless curiosity, I had persisted at getting closer to her family.

Unknown to most people, the American black bear (Ursus americana) is a very passive,  very shy and benign-natured bear species that will do whatever it takes to avoid you.  This is not your Grizzly Bear (unpredictable and temperamental!) or your Polar Bear (will eat you for supper!)   When a Black Bear detects you in the big woods (and it will)…….it will quickly put distance between you and it.  I know, because with all the time I spent roaming those deep woods (Actually it was more like stumbling and crackling through the brush and slash), I  never saw a black bear………….inside the woods.  Outside, yes, but not inside.   You spend so much time, over a series of years, traversing the big woods that you finally realize that these bears are detecting you early and getting out of your way without you knowing they had been in the area.  You conclude that you needn’t worry about bears……..because they are real scared of you.  Now how about that?   :)

A black bear is gifted with an incredible pair of ears, a sense of smell superior to a bloodhound’s……..and zero curiosity.

All the black bears I have seen have been from across an open field or crossing a gravel road at a long distance or at a bend.   And I have never encountered a mother with cubs. In Maine’s northern woods in later Summer, it is common to find yourself coming into a red-raspberry patch, along the forest edge.  Red raspberry is one of the pioneer species, quickly becoming established along edges, following a timber harvest   But I do not recall finding berries in any of them.  In fact, I thought it was odd because there was never any berries on any of the bushes.   It dawned on me that the only reason for this has to be that the bears have already eaten all of them as soon as they ripen in late Summer…..or even before.  Here, the berry bushes have been trampled over by bears and along with that, bear droppings or scat are commonly seen, on the floor, inside the berry patches.   Bear droppings are brown when fresh, turning black over a few days, and they have seeds throughout.   And so bears are a principle vector for moving seeds of those fruit-bearing plants throughout the forest.   Black bears are highly omnivorous and without any doubt, their diet consists much more of vegetable material than animal.   But of course there is local variation to this, and all bears are opportunistic.

So, you do not have to worry about “jumping” any black bear do you ? …..NO WAY! :)     You will be very lucky if you even get a glimpse of a black bear. Unlike most other creatures in the big woods, the black bear has no curiosity upon detecting you, and will disappear in a hurry.   Any other characterization of this shy animal is doubtful.   I have read many hunting stories of how aggressive, vicious and dangerous a black bear was.  These are hunting tales and in reality, it is always because the bear had been wounded and has decided to fight for its life.   Imagine that.  And most of the time the wounded black bear will not even do that.  Now of course, I am sure that there are those rare instances that contradict this. But…..just LOVE the very passive American black bear! Because I just gave you a fair and full characterization of its temperament.  

On the other hand, a wild cow moose encountered with calves, that has not previously become positively conditioned to humans (and so has not learned to trust them) is a potentially dangerous animal. Give her a wide berth and do it immediately upon encountering her. Now, if you are at Sandy Stream Pond, in Baxter State Park, you have no concern regarding this. Here, the moose are fully conditioned to humans. Here, the cow moose knows that humans are just not a threat to her babies.

NOW…..CLASS IS IN SESSION:  :)

First, some basic compass lingo:  When you buy a pro compass you have the choice of a “bearing” compass or an “azimuth” compass.   Whichever one you get, you can still be able to read it as if it were the other.  Huh?  I explain:  Imagine being up in the air and looking down at a large circle on the ground.  At the top of the circle is a large N representing North.  Moving along the circle clockwise, you then will see a large E at exactly 1/4 of the way around the circle; and a large S at the bottom and a large W at the 3/4 mark.  This is the basic compass dial and there are two variations of it:

1.  the Compass

a.   the BEARING COMPASS :   Each of the four quadrants (N to E, E to S, S to W and W to N) are divided into 90 degrees, and all four quadrants combine to make the 360 degree circle (4 X 90 degrees).  So, beginning at N and proceeding clockwise long the circle, you see 1 through 89 degrees.  When you get to E it is 90 degrees and then the same for the E to S segment and so on around the compass.  So, a reading on a bearing compass might be “North 40 degrees East” or “South 63 degrees East”, or “South 63 degrees West”, where the South or North are always said first, before the East or West, so that you do not say “East 63 degrees South”, i.e. it is always said “South 63 degrees East”.

or

b.   the AZIMUTH COMPASS :  An azimuth compass is NOT divided into four 90 degree segments, equalling the 360 degrees.  It is simpler (I think) because it just has degrees, i.e. 1 through 360, where E or East is 90 degrees, S or South is 180 degrees, W or West is 270 degrees and N or North is 360 degrees.  A reading on an azimuth compass is simply the degrees.  So, using the bearings in the above examples:  Converting the bearing of North 40 degrees East to simply an azimuth is just “40 degrees” or even simpler….. “40″.  It is that simple.  To convert the bearing of “South 63 degrees East” it is a little trickier because in your mind you have to subtract 63 from 90 and then (of course) you add the 90 degrees between North and East.  So that the bearing of “South 63 degrees East” is an azimuth of 90 plus 27 degrees or a “117″.  But you do not have to do the adding or subtracting with the azimuth compass; you simply read the azimuth (just a single number) directly off the dial.  And also, just  to keep you better oriented, overlaid on the dial of that bearing compass are the letters of N, E, S and W.  Let’s convert the last one from the above examples.  ”South 63 degrees West” would be read directly off the bearing compass dial as 243 degrees or just 243 ((180 degrees + 63 degrees = 243)  So I do not understand why the submarine captain says something like “bearing 2-4-3 ! ”  It should be azimuth 2-4-3! :)

So I prefer the simpler azimuth.  It’s just a number from 1 to 360…..that’s it.

2. the MAP:  Each of our maps was called a quadrangle or “topo” and each had a unique name, based on a prominent town or geographic feature within that quadrangle. The quadrangle name appears off the map-border in one of the lower corners of the sheet.

Here, I must state what should be obvious to you: You can do this technique with any type of map (and metric or statute) as long as it is scaled. The map must be scaled.

Myself and my partner (Stan McCorrison) could each walk about 6 miles into the wilderness and return 6 miles back to the vehicle well before low light. That’s about 12 miles round trip and it was not difficult at all. I was in my 20′s then. I am in my 60′s now but I am about to try it again….only for a shorter distance. And we did it in the Summers when the days are much longer than the rest of the year. Our success was based on developing a repeatable orienteering technique and making absolutely certain of where we were on the map before we entered the woods, on each and every trip.

Remember the Cardinal Rule: A compass is of very limited value in the woods unless it is used to get oriented before you leave the road; i.e. use the compass and map to establish your starting position….before you enter the woods. Now, if your excursion is a relatively short one and you do not have a definite landmark in the woods to navigate to, then you may simply choose to get a general but confident perspective on the orientation of the road you are about to leave. But do not leave that road without getting oriented with the compass.

Here is how we did it and how you can too, with just a little practice:

1. Obviously, we made certain that we had the topo map that had the area we were traversing to on any particular day. If either your origin or destination is within 5 miles (a suggested distance) of the border of the map, you will need to make sure to bring the adjoining map.

2. We drove our vehicle to a spot on the road (usually a gravel logging road) that seemed to be the closest point to the area(s) we were navigating to. We did this by using the vehicle’s odometer and the map’s scale, which is 1 inch equals one mile. Perfect!…..because the scale on the side of the compass was in inches. Before driving, you must open the map and determine where your vehicle is on the map. Obviously, this can also be done by the passenger while you are driving. It is accomplished by having an approximate idea of where you are on the map and then simply comparing landmarks that you pass with those on the map. Topographical maps have any and all geographical features that I wanted in the days that I navigated the north Maine woods. It was easy to locate where I was on the road, before the trek into the woods.

Stan had his deer yard to access and I had mine. One of us would drop the other at a point nearest his deer yard (wintering area) and then drive to the closest point in the road from his deer yard. Later in the day the driver would drive back and pick up his partner. Often, the non-driving partner had very long waits along the side of the gravel road. And while waiting I very rarely saw another vehicle pass. We were in the wilderness.

LIMESTONE !
I did have one startling thing happen while waiting for Stan’s return on one quiet, peaceful August afternoon . We would stay in those woods for one to two weeks at a wack. So when it was time to leave and go home, we were ready! I clearly remember that I was sitting on a stump that August afternoon, alone, in the middle of nature, listening to a song bird and dreaming about getting out of the wilderness and back to “civilization”, back to my wife and back to some beers. At that point in my life I had not yet learned how confusing, muddling and mind-numbing all cities were. I had not developed a love for wilderness deep enough to allow me to live away from the city for months on end or even permanently.

Anyway, I could not wait for Stan to pick me up so that we could head out and home to Bangor, Maine for the weekend. My wife and I would not stop there. When I hit Bangor we took off for Portland (2.5 hour’s drive) and did not head back until the last hour, allowing just enough time so that I could make the North Maine Woods gate at Dickey, Maine at its 9 P.M. closing time on Sunday night. That involved driving nearly the entire length of Maine every single weekend.

But before Stan picked me up on this day, I went through one of the unique experiences a person might have in the northern Maine woods in those days. As I sat listening to that bird it was so peaceful and otherwise silent…..to be bordering on boring. Then, instantly and without the slightest warning sound, the entire firmament was filled with an unbelievably startling and deafening ROAR that was preceded for barely an instant by the sight of a huge military jet, whizzing by over my head…..just above the treetops. In those days the Air Force Base at Limestone, Maine was active and what better place to train without hassle?

NOW BACK TO CLASS :) .
3. This is the most important part:

a. With something flat under it, lay the map down on the gravel road with the Ranger Silva on top of it.  You must not be near the vehicle because it does indeed effect the magnetic needle…..not to a huge extent, but it does throw the needle off a true reading of north.   Now, align the straight side of the compass body so that it is parallel to the map border.  Now, making sure it stays parallel to that border you will ROTATE THE MAP ON THE GROUND (with the compass on it) UNTIL THE MAGNETIC COMPASS NEEDLE POINTS DIRECTLY AT THE “N” for NORTH ON THE COMPASS DIAL. Once this is done………

The map now represents an exact directional relationship (or orientation) of everything around you and everything in the woods that you are about to enter.  

You know exactly where you are on the map and you can now point in the exact direction you have to walk to reach your destination in the woods.  It is quite a feeling to be able to point at your destination any number of miles away through the woods and know with 100% confidence that if you simply walk along that bearing, eventually you will walk right up to your destination.

b. With the map still on that flat surface that is on the ground, draw a faint (erasable), straight line from your current point on the road right to the destination in the woods. Now, (still, without moving the map at all!) abut the edge of the compass body against that line (again so that the side of the compass is parallel to the intended line of travel) and rotate the compass dial until the magnetic arrow points perfectly at the N on the dial.

YOU HAVE JUST FIRMLY SET WITHIN THE COMPASS,  THE BEARING OR AZIMUTH YOU WILL USE THE ENTIRE DAY OF YOUR WALKINGS THROUGH THE BIG WOODS!  YOU’RE SET TO ENTER THE WOODS WITH FULL CONFIDENCE. 

Now, after I have reached my destination and completed my work I am faced with accurately navigating back to the point on the road that I left that morning. No problem. DO NOT ROTATE THAT COMPASS DIAL AND CHANGE THE BEARING. LEAVE IT AS IS! I do not change any setting. All I do is turn around so that the magnetic arrow is pointing at the “S”. That meant that I would travel in the exact opposite direction that I came in on; i.e. by turning around 180 degrees so that the needle is now pointing at the “S” for South, means that my “bearing” for a safe return is simply going to be the precisely opposite bearing of the bearing I used to reach my destination in the woods and all I do to get it is turn around and use the “S” for the return trip. It’s a wonderful thing!

4. While traversing the woods there were a couple of simple techniques to follow to assure that I stayed on that imaginary line to and from my destination.

It is best done with a professional-grade compass but any compass that has a friction head for firmly setting a bearing will suffice.

I don’t know how it is in other universities, but at the University of Maine at Orono’s School of Forest Resources, you are required to purchase one of these expensive, pro compasses. I remember one of the professors telling us that we must buy this compass. I did not want to do it. The Silva Ranger brand is the professional compass I was required to purchase in 1972. It cost $20 then and that was just like $50 now……no difference at all. But I did it and once I learned how to use it….I loved it.

There are several other pro, folding compass brands that I am sure would suffice; Suunto is one of those other brands. The Silva Ranger is a folding compass with a mirror. There is a prominent notch atop the cover on these pro compasses.

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And the mirror is affixed on the inside of that top cover. By opening the cover just the right amount, you can sight through that notch to a distant tree or other landmark that you want to navigate to while assuring the magnetic needle stays pointed exactly at “N” on the dial. This takes just a little practice to be very accurate. This is the precise technique to follow when navigating with one of these advanced compasses. In fact, with this technique I can navigate many miles of remote woodlands and come within several yards of my destination…..every time! And you can too!

And with this technique I successfully navigated a group through the blackness of night (no moon at all) at Fish Eating Creek, Florida into their turkey blinds well before the first evidence of light. You see, the compass is made to work at night because the dial and the north marking are both luminous. If the map is properly drawn to scale (any scale really), i.e. it must be accurately proportioned, and your technique is correct, you can accurately traverse long distances in complete darkness, with just artificial lighting to watch your footing. Cool huh? Better than one of those GPS units because with this old way, you have learned an art and continued an otherwise-lost tradition. With the GPS you become no more than another high-tech robot……. :) . Want to impress them? Pull out your Silva Ranger and your topographical map. They may try to laugh it off at first, but in reality they will want you to show them how too. And you will be able to. To be sure….this adds so much more to the big woods experience.

Review:
1. Once you have ORIENTED the map on the ground, abut (parallel to it) the side (right or left edge) of the bottom half of the compass to the straight line you drew from your current point to your destination.

2. And now rotate the circular compass head so that the magnetic needle points directly at the
“N” (obviously for North) on the rotating head. It is critical that while you do this you assure that the map, compass and the aforementioned parallel abutment remain unmoved or unchanged.

Once you have rotated the compass head so that the magnetic arrow is pointed exactly at north……..you have now fixed your bearing or azimuth for that day of navigation. Just leave it and depend on it! It will stay set even when the compass is folded up, hanging from your neck or in your pocket…..as long as you fold it closed (when not in use) so that the dial cannot be rotated.

3. After checking to make certain that your set-up technique was correct, it is time to enter the woods.

You can be absolutely certain that you now have solidly set in your compass, the exact bearing or azimuth needed to navigate to your destination. Until you reach that first landmark sighted in the notch, you can drop the compass, letting it hang from the lanyard that you have around your neck. Again, these compasses have friction heads so that once set, the bearing will not change no matter how much bouncing around you do. And that is a good feeling.

Now partially open the compass like opening a book. Open it just enough so that you can hold it in your outstretched arm in front of you (or only about a foot away) and sight to a distant object through the notch, while assuring that the magnetic arrow is pointing at “N”. To assure that the needle moves freely you must assure that the compass body is somewhat level and flat.

That’s it! Walk to the tree or object that you sighted in the notch and then raise the compass again and sight another tree or object and repeat by walking to that object. After you have repeated this sighting and walking, sighting and walking routine several times it becomes seamless and natural. With this technique, an experienced timber cruiser can efficiently move through the woods, over great distances.

While using this technique in northern Maine’s boreal forest scores of times…….we never got lost…….well….almost never : -) Stan did his deer yard seperately from mine. We were not together. And each of us always returned to within a hundred feet of the vehicle……most often with several yards of the vehicle. That is how accurate this system is! But I did get twisted around once. Fortunately I had plenty of daylight left and so I sat down and thought through the problem. Here is that story:

The Riddle of Allagash Falls.
On this day my destination was within a quadrangle named “Allagash Falls”.  To reach the deer wintering area that I was going to that day, I had to travel into the woods about 5 miles.

This particular trip was a little unusual because the terrain had many ridges and so I was constantly up a ridge and down the other side of it…….over and over. When the terrain is particularly “ridgy”, there is a strong tendency to yaw, i.e. drift off course to the left or right. It can be challenging to accurately sight through the compass notch to distant objects when you are going up and down close ridges.  But, if you know that and really focus on accuracy and being particular, there will be no problem.  But I did not.  I got sloppy.

Well, after some time I realized that the topography of the woodlands I was traversing did not nearly match the woodlands appearing on the part of the topo map I was quite certain I was on.  And so very gradually I became VERY certain that I was not on the part of the map that I previously was certain I was on. In other words……I very gradually was forced to accept the startling fact……that I was LOST! And that is a tough thing to do.   Anybody who has spent a lot of time in the woods will have to admit that they have become twisted around many times. If they deny it then they just have not gone deep into the woods.   It happens.

But if you become twisted around it is then time to unravel the mystery.   If you cannot reorient yourself calmly and in rather short order, then you may have to face the fact that you are lost.

Remember, if you are actually lost then it becomes important to determine, recognize and accept that reality……so as not to waste time. Because at that point, it is no longer an enjoyable trek through the woods; i.e. urgency is suddenly a very important factor. Suddenly, the party is over and it is no fun at all.

So at that point I was shaken up a bit. But I had one big thing going for me…..plenty of daylight. And that is just one desirable thing in several, about being in the woods in the Summer months, as opposed to the others. So I sat down and began to try to figure it all out. That is the best thing I could have done and it is the best thing for you to do if you get twisted and shaken; i.e. sit down, try to relax and regather what has happened….the pieces of where you have been. Most often, you really will not be able to re-collect the geographical pieces in your mind. But by just starting on that train of thought, you will likely come up with a plan that you can stick with to get out of the big woods.

As I toiled with the problem of figuring out where I was on the map, I began to notice that I could hear the faint sound of a train in the very far distance. Yes, I became certain that I could hear a train…..very far off. So now I quickly scanned this “Allagash Falls” quadrangle but alas, there were no train tracks to be seen! I scoured the entire quadrangle repeatedly…..no tracks!

It turned out that my destination on that day was located close to the center of the quadrangle. So the scenario of the train tracks being located on an adjacent quadrangle was not possible. I would have had to travel well over 10 miles while lost. That did not happen. So I could not be hearing a train that was located on an adjacent map. Now I remember being shaken by this whole thing: There were no train tracks, yet I could hear a train! This was impossible, and it shook me up. But I knew from being lost in the deep woods before that when I get “shaken” or scared, it is always my imagination and emotions taking over. And they do not interpret reality correctly. REMEMBER THAT!

And so if it happens to you just remember to not let your imagination and emotions take control of you because if they do, you cannot interpret reality correctly. Even if you may not be accurate at first, you must regain control of your brain to allow you to get back to reality. Just knowing this when it happens, will make it a lot less difficult. And not knowing it can put you into a real scary head trip.   And genuine fear is devastating when you’re in the deep woods.  So do not allow your brain to go there; but if it does, do not let it stay there long.  Just think of the song 3 Little Birds by Bob Marley……”Every little thing, gonna be alright.”  :)

As I worked through my emotions I came to realize that there had to be a rational, “calm” reason for the sound of that train.  And besides, it was Summer; so it was warm and it was a long time till dusk.

Yes, those long, warm Summer days!  I thought …… I can get this all wrong; have plenty of time to get it right again and still be out of the woods before dusk.

But there was one very odd thing:  The train was especially long.   The sound went on and on. In fact, the train seemed endless. Now that did not make sense at all.  And so I was still allowing myself to be controlled by this feeling of insecurity.  As I look back to that time, it seems to me that my mind should have then realized what the sound was. But my mind was not yet rational enough to search through all the possibilities. I was still lost and quite anxious.

ACTION DESTROYS FEAR………

I decided to do the most obvious or logical thing: I headed for the “train”, hoofing it as fast as I could toward the sound.  As the noise became louder and clearer, I became increasingly confident of where I was. And as I approached the “tracks”, I began to realize what the “train” actually was.

Coming up into this large opening in the woods, I stopped, and looked down onto some rapids………at a person standing next to a yellow canoe at the base of some waterfalls, at the source of the noise that I had been sure was a train; it was Allagash Falls, the quadrangle’s namesake. Remember when I said that each quadrangle (map) is named for a prominent geographical feature that is on that map?  I should have caught onto that when I first heard the train.

I finally located where I was on the map! I was not lost in the deep woods anymore, and that feeling is one of indescribable relief. At this point, all I did was re-orient myself with the map and compass, this time starting with my new location. And on the way out of the woods I was much more careful to make sure I did not yaw as I went over the ridges. And I emerged from the forest right next to my truck! Now that is so cool. You can’t get that feeling from any GPS unit.

Those days in the north Maine woods were some of the very best of my life. I am grateful to some of the folks at Maine’s Department of Inland Fish and Wildlife for that opportunity. The first person to select me to take on that project was Wildlife Biologist Skip Spencer. Thanks Skip.

Robert King……..robertleeking@gmail.com