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March, 2008

Getting Lost

by Valerie

For as long as I can remember, I have spent time hiking in woods. When I was growing up in Illinois, we lived near forest preserves, lakes, rivers, and state parks. Just about any weekend or holiday was spent enjoying these resources. We went fishing, mushroom hunting, camping and canoeing. There were many times when my parents left my sister and I to play while they were off taking care of the serious business of gathering food for our table. Of course, we didn't always stay put; it was easy to wander a bit. There were also times when, while we were hiking together, I got distracted or didn't keep up. These were perfect opportunities to get lost.

I've never been seriously lost, like in the middle of miles of wilderness with a storm approaching and no food or warm clothes. No, I'm talking about the sort of incidents that, after the fact, or even sometimes during, are more likely to be amusing.

When I was quite young, I used to get distressed when I'd feel lost. I can remember standing in a field of tall grass, too short to see over the tops, and not knowing which way my parents had gone as they headed to a fishing spot by the Kankakee River. I cried a bit, then realized that I'd better start moving or I'd be there forever. My sense of direction is not the best, and I often make misjudgments even when I'm in an area I know. Once the trees crowd in and block the views, I find that I loose what little sense of direction I might have had. A slight veering can lead to the final destination being quite a bit off from the desired one. My navigational ability has not improved with time.

I've managed to get lost when hiking around a lake. This one was when I was a teenager, and I was sure that I couldn't misjudge where I was since the lake and the surrounding forest had roads on all sides. Well, those roads were quite a distance away, and the lake was not always visible through the trees, so I put on a few miles by the time I found my way back (by way of a road I had never intended to intercept) to the parking lot I'd left hours earlier.

Darkness always makes it much easier to get lost. You can quote me on that. Try finding the bathroom in a dark campground that you've never been in before. Even with a flashlight, little paths through the woods may lead to the desired building, or to the boat ramp, or a neighboring site, or... Well, you get the idea.

Photo by Larry

Caves offer the ultimate in darkness, especially when explored using little flashlights and no preparation. While kayaking the Current River in Missouri, my mother and I couldn't resist exploring the caves we saw along the bank. We never went in very far, but the little caverns did twist and turn quite a bit. One thing we hadn't counted on was distant rainfall making water levels of small creeks rise. We entered one cavern that had a small stream trickling out. After an indeterminate distance of stooping through low-ceilinged areas and wading upstream through the water, we decided to head back. As we carefully retraced our steps, the sound of running water became much louder than we remembered. The first thought was that we had somehow taken a wrong turn, although we'd not even been aware of any forks in the passage. The ceilings became lower, and the water deeper. This was a bit alarming. When we got to the opening, quite relieved - to put it mildly, the gushing torrent was not even recognizable as the little trickle it had been when we'd entered.

Another way to get lost is not in space but in time. Running out of daylight, especially during winter when the hours of night overwhelm those of the day, is an ideal way to get disoriented. I've sometimes camped during the winter months in Florida. It's not too cold, but those short days make hikes less than leisurely. My mother and I took a trail through a swampy area in a large preserve, thinking we had plenty of time to make a loop and get back to our campsite. A combination of misjudging distance and missing trail markers (colored blotches that were haphazardly placed on trees) resulted in our still bushwhacking through the trees at dusk. Just as the light seemed about to fade completely, we found a road, which at least was lighter colored because of the white gravel with which it was paved. The only problem was a large ditch with water of indeterminate depth between us and this sure way back. What was in the water? It was plenty warm enough for alligators to be active. There is just something unreasonably creepy about entering dark water, even if it were in daylight. Well, we waded on through, and it was not even waist-deep.

How could I possibly get lost on a beach? The water is on one side and the land is on the other. A state park in Florida, called St. Joseph's Peninsula for the obvious reason that it perfectly describes the land mass of the park, enjoys the distinction of having one of the best beaches in the world. It is a perfect, but long, day hike to start on the Gulf side of the peninsula, right at the campground, and walk the beach all the way around the tip and back on the bay side, ending up back at the campground - if one knows just where to cut into the forested interior to do so. Miss that turn, and the beach gradually degrades into a reed-choked marsh, requiring a lot of backtracking. During the winter, the short days make the 15-mile hike a bit rushed, so that managing to find the small trail leading back through the woods from the beach to the campground before it gets dark is not always guaranteed. After wading around in the marsh grass on one of my first such expeditions, I quickly found a good way to find that crucial little end trail: a pillow that had lodged in the roots of a palm tree during a storm remained for years my main clue that the trail was approaching as I finished my exhausting hike. Nowadays, there is no need to worry about missing the turnoff, as the park has built cabins on the bay side and they are awfully hard to miss.

Land-based disorientation is bad enough, but water adds another dimension. It is almost science fiction-like to be kayaking alone in the middle of a cypress swamp, where the trees look the same in all directions. There never seems to be a shoreline for guidance, and one gray tree trunk looks just like another. The saving grace of my first encounter with this sort of environment was that it was not far from the Tallahassee airport, and the sound of the airplanes coming and going made direction determination possible.

Sometimes, being lost is all a matter of perception. My sister and I took a canoe trip down the Green River, which flows through Mammoth Cave National Park. We were staying with my mother at a campground by a ferryboat crossing several miles downstream from where we put in. It was late in the day and getting dark. The canoe trip was delightful, with fog and bats appearing as dusk fell. However, we had no idea just how far it would seem as we traveled down the slow-moving river. I was sure that we couldn't pass by the ferryboat without noticing it, that they would have lights and the cable across the river would be obvious, but my sister's misgivings kept a modicum of doubt gnawing at the back of my mind. It wasn't until well after dark that the lights from the ferry landing reassured us that all was as it should be.

One of the most bizarre incidents of getting lost while we knew exactly where we were was on the Middle Fork of the Vermillion River in Illinois. This trip was with my sister and mother. We had three kayaks and a bicycle, which my sister rode back upstream from the car that she had parked at our takeout point. It didn't take her particularly long to make that bike shuttle, and we started down the river while it was still morning. The Vermillion is one of those winding small rivers that flows through the nearly flat farmland of central Illinois, with trees along the river, but corn fields beyond in every direction. We were still paddling on this twisting little river as it got later and later. It was summer, so the days were long, but by 9 PM we were still on the water and had no idea how much further it would be until we got to our car. It got dark. Big surprise. We were running into trees and finally had to admit that we were about as lost as we could get on a one-way river run. For some reason, the whole situation seemed ridiculously funny and we laughed a lot. We finally pulled the boats up onto the shore, scanned the fields, saw the lights of a farmhouse, and headed over there. The kindly farmer, who found our situation about as funny as we did, said that our car was about a 5-minute drive by road, while it was about another two hours by the river. He gave us a lift.

While I would like to have a better sense of direction, lack of such has never resulted in any dangerous situations, only amusingly annoying detours. Keeps life interesting, doesn't it?

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