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September 2005

What Would Davy Crockett Do?

He'd toss the titanium stove and build a big fire. Our man enrolls in a traditional guide school and learns how to survive - and think - like an American original.

In sunglasses and camo pants, a baseball cap pulled low over his unruly hair, Jeff dispenses more advice every 2 minutes than most of us can in 2 days. Some tips are straight from Hiking 101, but he covers so much ground, and in such detail, I find myself scribbling even the basics. After discussing the relative advantages of external and internal frame packs, he moves on to food, and by now I’m taking notes furiously: Bisquick is good for making anything…carry a good water filter…if you don’t, better to risk giardia than dehydration. Then clothes: silk underwear in hot weather…polypropylene in winter…always carry leather gloves…never, ever wear new boots on a hike.

“I can’t count the number of hunters who come out here with new boots,” sighs Jeff. “Boots that are not broken in are a quick way to have a bad time.”

Okay, I knew this. Everybody knows this. But now I find it necessary to slide my conspicuously unscuffed hiking boots under the picnic table where no one can see them. Hey, REI had a sale. Sue me.

We move on to orienteering – and a few horror stories about what happens to people in the wilderness who don’t know how to use a compass. Bears eat them. Elk gore them. They are found huddled in tree hollows, gibbering to themselves, by competent outdoorsmen like Jeff. And Jeff does not want to see that happen to us.

Lordy, neither do I. My compass skills date from Boy Scout training in the ’70s, and I don’t think I’ve actually held one since then. Thankfully, not much has changed. Magnetic north is still magnetic north…except it isn’t, of course, because declination varies from place to place. That I’d forgotten. And so my first reading, under Jeff’s watchful eye, locates me on our map somewhere north of Colorado Springs, in what appears to be the median of I-25.

“Do any of you really understand declination?” Jeff asks, incredulous. There are murmurs of confusion. As GPS devices have become more ubiquitous, I surmise, compass orienteering is becoming a lost frontier art, like beaver trapping and bank robbing. “What GPS has given us,” declares Jeff, “is an increased sense of fake security.” GPS devices are convenient, but if the batteries run out in the backcountry, or if you simply lose the thing, you’d better have a passing acquaintance with a map and compass. We do not. My classmates and I spend the next 2 hours learning to use maps the old-fashioned way: triangulating our position, translating degrees into miles, reviewing the merits of UTM codes and other measuring scales, learning to navigate around barriers.

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