Undead Reckoning

This isn't about re-animating zombies - it's about the surprising consequences of two route-finding experiments that were totally astonishing. Last Sunday, before the big rain episode, and today, as the snow started, Spanky and I went into the woods and marshes for some adventure. The idea was to snowshoe off-trail, away from our own prior tracks and explore the local terrain on days when there was completely flat light. The question to answer was: given the tangle of swamps, dense red-pine forests, rolling terrain and lack of prominent geological features, sun or compass, how hard is it maintain a mental map.

The area we were exploring is about four square miles behind my house. The largest change in elevation over the course of an hour-long trek is less than 100ft. The largest elevation change in a single ascent/descent would be about 10-15ft down to a brook - at most. The character of the land is, of course, snow-covered and dense woods punctuated by open and woodland marshes, beaver ponds and streams. All the farmland and pasture is on the periphery as this regions is too rough and boggy to farm. I'm sure at one time it was logged, and at times it seems as if we're coming across old road-grades - but in general there aren't any prominent features to give visual clues as to where in the heck you are. The fir and pine grown so close in patches that it seems almost impenetrable. It's also inevitable that if we hit a stream bank, that we'd follow along until finding a crossing.

Our trek Sunday was to just go out and wander around until we came out somewhere we recognized. This isn't dangerous because in general, the nearest road is within a 45minute slog as long as you're not going in a circle.

Our mission today was to head south (without a compass) for a while, then west, then work our way in a 'clockwise' loop back home.

In both cases we wanted to explore areas we hadn't been before.

Here's what happened in both cases: we came out at places we recognized and in BOTH cases we had circled counter-clockwise even though I thought we were working our way clockwise. Now I have a pretty-good (I think better than average) sense of direction - but this was a total surprise. With no visual cues other than just keeping a mental tally of turns I screwed up so bad I actually looped around in the OPPOSITE direction. It was so startling that during the week we retraced Sunday's trek in the opposite direction, following our trail in the bright sun and blue sky. It was completely stupid. The trail clearly looped in an obvious way - but when the sun is out this stuff is almost mindless. In retracing my steps I had no idea how I COULDN'T have known where I was heading, but I knew I had been totally confused - thinking I was heading south when I was heading north at times. That's bad.

But then it happened again today.

Now admittedly we designed the trek to be difficult. These woods and swamps are very challenging to navigate and even the easiest routes twist and turn horribly. If I had a compass, an attempt to walk due east, for example, would last about a minute and then require looping around to bypass something. But man, coming out on the OPPOSITE side of my starting point from where I thought I'd emerge was really disorienting. At least on a mountain we have 'down' and 'up' to help guide. These woods are like a freaking black hole.

In the map on the right, the blue route is where i thought i was going (roughly). the red and green routes are from Sunday and today, and aren't at all exact, but rough guesses at where I was. The big 'dots' are at the end of the treks before heading home on recognizeable routes.


  1. I'm alive...

    The ridge was unreal today. A real bluebird of a day. More on that later.

    A story that only adds to what you are saying in this string...

    When we went camping at Green River last summer and G$ showed up, he, Uncle Pete and I decided we'd head off into the woods behind the campsite to find some little pond that was ~1/4 mile away on our map (the name escapes me.)

    According to the map, we had to cheat South past this little ridge and then head dead West to hit the pond. We attempted to head South but then headed West, then North to avoid some swampy stuff, then a little South, then North again to neak by more wet stuff, and then West. Then the sun was going down and we had NO idea where we were, how far we had actually gone from camp, etc. And then Uncle Pete produced his North/South finder and got us back to the water (as we got closer to the camp we could orient by my parent's voices.) Anyway, it was very disorienting and thank GOD (yeah, the big man upstairs) that Uncle Pete has his NSF on him!!!

  2. Crazy.

    Spanky and I went out today at around 3pm (low sun) and retraced yesterday's confused route with blue skies and sun. I kept the sun about 45° of the starboard bow on the way out and tried to maintain my shadow at the same orientation (45° of the starboard bow) on the way back - intentionally taking a wide route so we wouldn't hit my outbound tracks. But man, we had to cross swamps, brooks and dense forest. Then I came upon a hill that was a steep scramble in deep snow through dense trees. The hill was about 50ft high. Then we dropped down the other side into a big beaver marsh that was much longer than it was wide and oriented so that if I kept my bearing we'd be crossing it almost longways. We were in the shadow of the hill, and after crossing the marsh short-ways, hit some sun only to find the sun just off the port bow. We had turned more than 90° to the left.

    The north-south-finder is going to me more of a constant companion - but eventually I'll master these woods of Danville. If I do, I'm probably the only one. This place is fucking confusing.