Sunday, April 26, 2009

You and Your Compass: Walking the Trail of Mystery and Discovery

The woods can be a seemingly infinite grid of life. Nearly 100-million acres of the United States are designated wilderness, with no human inhabitants or establishment. With almost 3.8 million square miles (or about 2.3 billion acres), the United States has used up nearly all of it’s area. With the ever-increasing population and the electric demand, it won’t be long before even our precious wilderness has been pulverized. Most of our state parks have been blazed, the AT alone covering nearly 2,200-miles down the east coast.
Despite the many trails we’ve blazed, paths we’ve crossed and roads we’ve paved, it is a rather small comparison to the amount of ground that hasn’t been blazed, walked, or even seen. There is a wealth of wilderness and uncharted land open for exploration. One must, however, be more or less open to what Thoreau called the “wildness” in things, perhaps letting your intuitions and desires guide you to where you want to be. If you’re finding yourself in a financial frenzy, lost your job, or even just a little bored with your typical hiking patterns and procedures, this is an idea worth considering, an idea abandoned since the age of maps and GPS coordinates.
You may find yourself a bit weary at first, but the sooner you realize the freedom you have, the more curious you will become about your woods.

However, before making any quick decisions or taking your first step off of that main road, don’t forget your compass.
As most of you know, a compass uses a magnet to determine direction in relation to the Earth’s poles. The idea was developed by the Chinese and improved upon in the Middle Ages by the Europeans, who invented the first dry compass. Obviously since then, many advancements and variations have taken place.

- Baseplate Compass – A typical style, often has clear baseplate for use with maps
- Sighting Compass – Highly accurate compass with a folding mirror that allows visual of the compass capsule in addition to the target destination
- Gyrocompass – Used by boats and vessels, it uses an electric spinning-wheel, creating friction to further utilize the Earth’s rotation. It finds the “true” North of the Earth’s rotational axis, rather than the magnetic North
- Global Positioning System (GPS) – Precise, digital device displaying signals sent by satellites high above the earth, often times difficult to use

Many compasses are sold within a “multi-tool” type of arrangement, like my whistle/compass. Don’t beat yourself up over quality; as long as the thing works, you’re in business.
Figure out what it is you want from this experience. Try to be open to anything, and use your surroundings to find your way. Get to the highest ground possible for your general area. If you need to climb a tree to get the closest you can to a 360-degree view, than do so. Study your surroundings and try to pick a direction that intrigues you. Perhaps there is a distant water tower that you’d like to find out more about, or maybe there is a fine lookout ledge in the distance, requiring you to possibly scale a cliff or two. Whatever the case may be, once you decide on your direction of travel, you must consult your compass.
Keep your compass level to the ground and wait about five to seven seconds before observing your position. You should now figure out the direction of your destination. You must observe this reading carefully because if you do indeed plan on reaching this target, you will need to follow your trusty compass rigidly and deliberately.
Half the thrill and fun of this, is obeying the compass and watching it lead you through perilous and curious terrain, paths, and grades of all kind. Depending on where you are of course, very rarely will you stumble onto a designated trail or path.
Track your detour when and if you need to get around any large or dangerous obstacle. Keep track how long your detour was, and what direction you went. When the time comes to get back on track, figure out the adjacent direction of your detour (for example: if you went Northeast to avoid your obstacle, head Northwest). Follow this for the same amount of time you detoured, and then return to your initial direction. The important thing here is discipline.
There are infinite possibilities to what you may encounter, what you will discover. You may have a few brushings with wildlife, perhaps a well-hidden falcon’s nest, or a sly fox from a distance, catching his afternoon fish. You may take an old logging road and find a bald patch filled with vibrant, wild asters, overlooking the lake and open to the cool, gentle breeze of the churning waters.

That bald patch I called the “Field of Asters”, because I myself, have conquered the bohemian, no-map-no-trails experience, and look forward to many more. Regardless of how free and fun an excursion like this can be, I cannot stress the importance of your compass and your relationship with it. If you aren’t using maps, you should be using a compass. Even if you are using maps, you should be using a compass. It is your best friend, your sidekick, the one who will guide you home. Where you end up, depends almost entirely on the validity of your compass. Where you point your compass, however, depends on you.

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