Getting Lost in the Woods

Reader Contribution by Cam Mather
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I went for a walk in our woods the other day and got lost. Well I didn’t get lost, but I could have. So I chickened out and turned around and came home rather than making the hike that I had planned.

I was using my new smaller snowshoes for the first time. We’d had 5 inches of fresh snow the day before. My game plan was to hike through the woods to my neighbour’s place on “California Road” which ends on my road east of my driveway. No one seems to know how this road got its name, or even how why it is classified as a road, given that it’s pretty much just an ATV trail. My neighbour Sterling also lives off-grid because there are no electricity poles in our neck of the woods. He has sporadic cell phone coverage so I was hiking over to his house to give him some information about our “Telular” unit. Communication with the outside world can often be one of the biggest challenges in living off-grid so I wanted to share this piece of technology that has really worked for us.

So Sterling is about two miles west of us, and I decided to walk there through the woods. Our property if pretty long and follows the road, so during a good chunk of it I’d be on my own property. I know my own property really well. I heat with wood and only cut dead stuff, so I’ve covered most of my property scoping out firewood. The land around here is all bush and ponds, so I’ve spent many hours cutting firewood and then hauling it out to the one old road that runs through my property.

The day of my attempted hike was one of those weird days when I was trying to ignore my instinct, which was telling me that it wasn’t a good day to venture through the woods. When I got onto the old road I immediately noticed two sets of footprints in the new snow. I’m sure that wolves had made them. We have lots of coyotes in the area but these prints were much bigger than coyote prints. After a few days in the sun prints will get bigger as the snow melts, but these were fresh and they were big. But who cares, wolves are scared of me and want nothing to do with me, right? And they were going in the opposite direction.

 It was weird though because when I cut into the woods to head through the bush the prints were there too. I kept walking and realized that these wolves had taken the exact same path that I was using. That seemed really weird to me. Our property is covered in footprints, mostly deer, but these big canine prints were taking the exact same direction that I was. Prints usually go all over the place, but these two sets were following my route exactly.

Eventually I got into territory I’d never been in, presumably on Sterling’s property. I like exploring new areas after a snow, because I figure that I can always retrace my steps if I get lost. But as I got further into the new section of the bush I had the feeling that it wasn’t a good idea. It had started to snow again, so I imagined it would be like when the birds ate Hansel and Gretel’s crumbs of bread that they had dropped to find their way home. Plus I had started on my hike after hauling firewood, so my undershirt and lower layers were already wet. If you’re going to get lost if sub-zero weather it’s best not to start out with wet clothing.  Stress will make you sweat even more. And then there were those wolf prints …

 So I bailed and turned around for home. I know, what a chicken I am. I agree. But there’s one thing that I’ve learned and that’s to trust my instincts and I just had a feeling that it just wasn’t the right day to take that walk. It wasn’t the day to get lost in the woods and it’s amazing how easy it is to get lost. It’s happened to me a few times and it’s terrifying. Once Michelle and I went for a hike in the bush near my parents cottage when we were just teenagers. I had been in that area of the woods many times before but I got turned around and disoriented. I was still at the “trying to impress Michelle” stage of our relationship, so I wouldn’t admit that I was lost. We just kept walking and somehow I managed to stay calm. When we finally made it out on to the road I couldn’t believe how far we were from where I’d intended to be. “Oh no Michelle, this is exactly where I wanted us to come out …”

There have been a few times while I’ve been living here that I’ve lost my bearings out in the woods. It can happen very quickly. Suddenly I don’t recognize any points of reference and I become disoriented. And of course, being a male, I do the wrong thing, and RUN! Stay calm and think this thing out? No way! I’ve got to get the heck out of here and the faster I move the faster I’ll get “un-lost”. It’s exactly the wrong thing to do. I always tell our visitors who want to go out for a walk on their own, that if they get lost, they should just sit down. I tell them to wait until they hear a car. The sound will come from north (all our property is to the south of the road) and so I suggest that they should just walk towards to the sound of the car. That direction will take them back to the road.

This is definitely one of the challenges of living in the middle of nowhere. If I walk north or south I would be able to walk for 15 or 20 miles through tough bush country and not manage to hit a road. If I walk east or west I’m more likely to hit something, but you can walk a long time and not find anything that resembles humanity around.

 On the day of my aborted hike I knew I was walking west. I knew I was walking parallel to the road and that it wouldn’t be too long before I hit the California Road. But after climbing a few hills that were unfamiliar, with the snow muffling the sound of anything on the road, I lost my nerve. When I arrived home and told Michelle that I had chickened out, she laughed … a lot. I guess I’m getting old. Diving head long into the great unknown has lost its appeal to me. I no longer enjoy that feeling of panic and disorientation.  And I’m good with that. Next time I’m at that end of my property I’ll take that walk again, get a little further, and become more comfortable with the lay of the land.

When I think of native people living in areas like this I’m in awe. First I’m amazed that they were able to survive at this time of year at all. It’s so cold and moving around in the bush is difficult (because of the deep snow) and while there are deer and wildlife, they can be pretty elusive. They didn’t have a grocery store where they could load up on flour and rice. And then there’s me, feeling a little outside of my comfort zone, high tailing it for recognizable ground. Apparently I’ve now eliminated a few more potential careers… trapper, nature guide, Navy Seal, wildlife biologist….

Now if I can just figure out how to earn a living while reading books and sipping tea by the fire on a snowy winter day, I’ll be good.

All photos by Cam & Michelle Mather.

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