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June 2001

Navigating From Lost To Found

How one perpetually disoriented hiker found her bearings, thanks to some backwoods navigation pros.

As I stand on a bump of open ground in Wyoming’s Medicine Bow National Forest, trying to match the landscape with the brown, squiggly contour lines on my topo, I remember the kind words that I overheard last night in the USDA Forest Service campground:

“It would take all the intelligence of a cow to do what backpackers do. They sweat under all that gear, following each other down the trail. My God! What if there was no trail? Where would they go?”

The late-night comedian, his identity hidden by the dark, was one of several hundred self-assured, nationally ranked orienteers who’d driven from as far away as New York to compete in the Rocky Mountain 1000. It’s the most important orienteering meet in the West for folks who pride themselves on their backcountry navigation skills.

Last night, I felt like marching over, introducing myself, and suggesting that Mr. Humor could kiss my compass. But now, in the light of day, as I struggle to match landforms with lines and steer my way through an intermediate-level course in the Rocky Mountain 1000, I wonder if I should moo instead. While I’m no trail-dependent simpleton who lacks the chutzpah to venture off-trail, I do have a history of becoming directionally confused. I also find the mathematical gymnastics of figuring declination and triangulating about as appealing as brussels sprouts dipped in peanut butter.

And that’s why I’m here, surrounded by some of the best orienteers in the land. If anyone can teach me how to stay found and help me raise my navigational IQ above that of a Holstein, it’s these guys.

“Position the map in your hand so it’s facing the exact way you’re facing,” Peg Davis tells me. A few hours after my bovine soul-searching experience, I’m standing next to Davis on the course I had tried earlier to complete, each of us holding topos like choristers with sheets of music. Davis is the top-ranked female orienteer in my home state of Arizona, and she’s agreed to show me the errors of my ways.

“You have to constantly orient your location with the map using the landscape features around you. There’s the drainage, there’s the hill,” she says as I struggle to find a “you are here” spot on my map. It takes me longer than it did Davis, but once I turn the map so it lines up with the direction I’m facing, the contour lines and drainage shadings suddenly spring to life. Normally, my topos face “right-side up” so I can read the words. But standing next to Davis, I realize that instead, I should turn the map around and “read” the land, not the printing on the paper.

Retracing the course we’d both just run separately, we head up a forested hill. While dodging tree branches, Davis glances down at the map, sliding a tiny compass attached to her thumb across the contours to verify her direction. The “thumb compass,” preferred by champion orienteers, isn’t much more sophisticated than a Cracker Jack prize; there’s no dial with numbers, just a floating arrow.

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