Inner Compass 1

Sometimes people fancy themselves to have an inner compass or a true sense of direction. Sometimes they do.


An illustration of a compass, shared via Creative Commons by David Pappas on Flickr.

Part One – Wayfinding with Dad

My dad fancied himself a preternatural woodsman. Someone who could enter the forest near our northwoods cottage and orient up and around rock outcrops, cedar thickets, and swamps. When we went up for long weekends or weeklong vacations, we went on day hikes for recreation. Sometimes we brought lunch, other times we hiked one way and got picked up by Dad’s Jeep or my aunt and uncle’s station wagon with a cooler of cold pop and beer and some sandwiches and chips at the far edge of our walk

Well, on these hikes, Dad liked to take “shortcuts” where the trail meandered off of a true straight line (skirting some swampy land or rock crest) and as often as not we’d end up turned around, frustrated, and sniping at each other as we wasted time, lost. I remember crying as a girl, asking why he acted this way, wishing he were safer and more predictable, easier to follow and more trustworthy.

My mom loved photography, and there was a little airport near our cottage and she arranged a trip in a small plane to photograph the cottage and the Peninsula from the air. I went with her and so did my cousin Matt, both of us were shutterbugs like Mom. Well, my sister and my cousin Joel went with Dad on a hike. They were going for Cabot Head, a limestone boulder on top of a bluff, said to look like the Great Lakes explorer. And, well, Dad took a shortcut and so they ended up bushwhacking through sodden fens and soggy woods. Apparently any time the two kids complained, my Dad had zingy one-liner retorts. They named the marl-goo they were walking through the “pushee” (rhymes with slushee), and then when it was covered by a layer of water, it was the “unpushee”. One of his lines was that the only thing worse than the pushee was the unpushee.  At one point as they slogged through the marly goo, their sneakers getting almost sucked off with every step, they looked up and saw Cabot Head gleaming at them from atop a cliff. They never made it to Cabot Head that day, but they did make it back for a shower and some lunch. We joke maybe they can be found in the photos we took from the air.

All of Dad’s freelance “trailfinding” kind of turned me off off-roading in any real sense. I liked trails, marked trails. I liked knowing where I was going and about when I’d get there. I thought I’d learned the lesson and would play it safe.  It was a good thing our northwoods cottage is located on a Peninsula, so we couldn’t have gone all that far without hitting some water or a road.

Part Two – Circles in the Snowy Woods

No longer kids and either in college or just out, but before we married, had families, and found other ways to celebrate New Year’s Eve, my cousins, my sister and I spent New Year’s Eve up north a couple of times. The shoreline cottages were empty of all their summertime visitors, only a few locals stay around all year. It is cold and clear and quiet, and we felt proud of our macho woodsman ways.

Gillies Lake doesn’t always freeze by New Year’s, but this year it did and so my two cousins and I walked around the edge of the frozen shoreline. It’s much easier to walk on the frozen ice than along the limestone shore with lots of craggy white cedars and people’s cottages and boat launches. Gillies Lake is shaped like a figure 8 with several bays, the largest one forming the top of the 8. Our cottage is at the bottom of the 8. We got bored about 2/3 of the way around the top bay, and so decided to cut through the woods as a shortcut back to the fat part of the eight. We knew pretty much where we were going, it wouldn’t be far to cut off the little peninsula and save us some walking. I think my father was alive at that point, I know he would have approved regardless.

You already know what comes next.

The woods up there have sporadic cedar thickets in them that are basically like little cedar stockades – an impossibility of hard dead branches and close-set trunks that you can’t push through. If you try, the branches break and find some soft spot on your face – ears, nose, eye lid, something – to poke or scrape, and then you bump out to one side or another in an end-around. Maybe there were one too many cedar thickets, or maybe there were rock outcrops, or maybe there was someone’s cabin we didn’t want to invade. Anyway, we bumbled around in the snowy woods for a while and then we saw a trail of footsteps and jumped on that. Our ticket home! Well, we followed that trail until we saw where we’d come in to join it. By the end we were going around in a circle in our own footsteps, stamping a third time on the same place. Once we noticed that, we found our way back to the water’s edge and home.

Part Three – Technological Intervention and Finding my Way Without It

So, once small, handheld GPS units came on the market, I put one on my Christmas list. It would save me from getting lost, I could finally avoid that familiar frustration of wandering, of wasting time. Of course, it only could if I brought the thing when I went hiking around. On one solo day hike near the cottage, the trail I was on was flooded. I didn’t want to get a “hotfoot” so I skirted the water and then tried to bushwhack back to where I knew the trail should be. Except it wasn’t there. I thought I saw a tall-ish tree in the distance, and thought there was a tall-ish tree along the trail so went there hoping to find the trail. Nope. Nothing. No trail. The GPS was at the cottage.  And this was embarrassing. I was in very familiar territory, or I should have been.

I knew I wasn’t in any real danger. I was well fed, near cottages and homes, and near my trail. It was daylight. I wasn’t hurt or injured in any way.  I was between a road and a cliff, so I had two really good boundaries that could help me orient should I happen upon either one of them. So I walked, heading for clearings in the sun-dappled woods since I knew the trail was in a more open place. Eventually I circled around enough that I did find a trail. Not the one I was on or trying to find, but another one that I knew and was able to follow to get back to my road and back to the cottage.

After all that, after finding my way (not magically or automatically or even in a linear way), I relaxed about getting lost in the woods. Dad was always confident about finding the shoreline, eventually. And I had the same feeling. Maybe neither one of us had much wayfinding ability, but I inherited enough of his confidence both to get myself lost and to find myself again. I prefer to wander solo, tho, not with groups of family members and young kids.

Happy New Year!

Wishing you all the best in 2014 – may you find your way to as much of an adventure as you want, bounded by beauty, family, tradition, and nature.

One thought on “Inner Compass

  • Franziska

    The most elegant New Year’s message! I loved every bit of it. Have a most wonderful and adventurous 2014.

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