Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Finding the Way

Saturday, January 5, 2008

I left home at 9:30 in the morning. It’s a bit harder to get an early start on these winter days. It was 29 degrees, calm and clear. A few wisps and puffs of cloud were in the blue sky, offering just the kind of light I love when I’m in the woods. I cut through the train station and took the new bridge over Beaver Brook and hiked on the road just long enough to get to the Hobbs Hill trail. I climbed through the pine plantation before breaking out into the more open natural oak-pine forest. The crunching of my footsteps in the thawed and re-frozen snow precluded sneaking up on anything.

I stopped on Hobbs Hill for breakfast. I just sat in the sun and listened to the quiet. There were human sounds off in the distance, but the woods around me were silent. It was so quiet, the only nearby sound was the ringing in my ears. Maybe it’s my age, or maybe it’s too many hours listening to power tools, but I prefer to thinks it’s just caused by everyday stress and if I could only sit here long enough it would go away.

As I sat daydreaming, the sun rose enough to shine through the space between the trunks of a double-stemmed hickory and warm my face. It shined through the naked oaks and hickories to illuminate the patient pines below, their soft deep green needles glistening in the clean light, shining all the brighter on the background of white snow.

I wanted to linger and allow friendly thoughts from the forest to creep into my mind, but I had a plan. As part of my (no doubt temporary) New Years ambition to clean up and de-clutter, I was organizing a box of bike-related maps and such when I found a misplaced topographic map a friend gave me some time ago (Thanks, George!).

Moose Hill is in the northwest corner of the Brockton, Massachusetts 7.5 x 15 minute metric quadrangle. (I’ve always wondered how mapmakers always manage to put every item of interest in the corner of a map so you have to buy four maps to cover the area you want to explore.) One thing that caught my eye on this map was the indication of a trail running from Moose Hill Parkway, over Hobbs Hill, across one of the headwater streams of Beaver Brook, over another hill, and then on to Moose Hill Street. The first part of this trail was well known to me as part of the Hobbs Hill Loop, but as far as I know, the rest of the trail may be abandoned. It was my plan to use map and compass to find this new hilltop and look for remnants of this trail.

In my youth, I spent a fair amount of time hiking and bushwhacking in the Catskill Mountains of New York with map and compass, but with the exception of one fun attempt at orienteering with my son a few years ago, it had been quite a while since I’d navigated in the woods this way. Of course, map and compass is so old school. Everybody has GPS these days, but I’m nothing if not behind the times.

Using my old Silva Ranger forester’s compass, I oriented the map and took a bearing from Hobbs Hill to this new hill and set off through the woods. Sighting through the notch in the compass cover while peeking in the mirror at the needle, I would look ahead and pick a rock or tree as my destination. All I had to do was pay attention long enough as I meandered through the landscape to allow me to get to my landmark where I would take a new sighting. My path kept intersecting deer trails and I was tempted to follow them, but I wasn’t convinced the deer were following the old hiking trail so I resisted the urge.

As I knew it would, my course took me to a brook, but what I failed to notice was that this part of the brook formed a small swamp. I thought it had been cold enough that I could cross on ice, but I was mistaken and promptly broke through, soaking my feet with black muck. This got me thinking about a Jack London story where a trapper gets wet in the arctic and has to kill his dog to cut it open so he can warm his hands inside long enough to start a life-saving fire with his only match only to have the incipient fire warm the snow on an over-hanging pine bough causing the snow to fall, snuffing out the fire. In my case, it was a dry sunny day and the temperature was on the way up and I was no more than a half mile from a road, but my imagination is like that.

My mishap did cause me to abandon my course and head upstream, looking for a place to cross where the stream was narrower. Misfortune turned to luck when I found a place to cross that was well used by deer and looked like the old trail I had been seeking. This was soon confirmed when I saw some old painted tin can lids nailed to trees. I’d seen this method of marking another old trail in town – the Massapoag Trail – and I wondered if these markers had been placed by the same person decades ago.

I saw the hill I was seeking rising through the trees, but cold feet and a late hour prompted me to save conquering it for another day. I decided to follow the creek up to the road and head for home.

Exploring with map and compass brought back many fond memories. I thought back on those days when I was young and optimistic and I had my whole life in front of me. A good chunk of that life is behind me now, but on that bright sunny January day, it felt good to have a whole new year in front of me. A tough 2007 was behind me, and I had a chance to make a fresh start in 2008. I could see good things on the trail ahead, and I had a feeling a few hours of quiet reflection on Moose Hill might just help me find the way.

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At 7:49 PM, Blogger robin andrea said...

Sounds like a great hike, and the promise of another new one in the future. Wonderful way to start the years. I have always wished I knew how to navigate by compass and map. I think it would help me feel more secure when I hike in the woods, which I do a lot. I tend to rely on Roger's sense of direction.

At 6:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Learn how to navigate in “LAND NAVIGATION with MAP and LENSATIC COMPASS”.

The fact is many people every year get lost in the wilderness, due to their lack of knowledge in LAND NAVIGATION skills. BUT, how does one improve on their LAND NAVIGATION skills. There are outdoor wilderness navigators of various skill levels out there that can use these lessons, to improve their skills and introduce others (beginners and those unfamiliar) into the world of Land Navigation.

The lessons are FREE and informative and can be used to teach yourself and others in the knowledge of "LAND NAVIGATION with MAP and LENSATIC COMPASS".


At 10:46 AM, Blogger Lynne said...

I so enjoy reading your walking posts. They are an escape for me too. Art and I did some orienteering with the kids when they were younger and we all had such fun. Sadly my sense of direction is missing and well known in my family! I remember that Jack London story very well- I might just have to pull that book off the shelf and re-read it.

Is that Mojoman peeking back out of that compass mirror?

At 10:34 PM, Blogger Larry D said...

Enjoyed your post, I remember as a kid in scouts we learned to navigate using map and compass. Got to practice it quite a bit in upstate NY at a place called Ten Mile Rive Camp. Its a skill I value to this day. I think the London story is to "To Build A Fire"?

At 8:17 AM, Blogger MojoMan said...

robin andrea: My sense of direction is rather poor also. I sometimes have to force myself to trust the compass. I was exploring an unknown densely-vegetated area last summer and could see no more than a few yards ahead. I could feel that sick panicy feeling rising in my bowels when the road was slow in appearing. I gave myself a pep-talk to use the compass carefully and trust it. The road was exactly where it was supposed to be, but I couldn't see it until the very last minute.

Lynne: Yes, that would be the blogger himself. That happened by accident, but I thought it was pretty cool.

Larry: Thanks for reminding me of the title! It's been a long time since the 11th grade. I'll have to look it up.

At 10:43 PM, Blogger Larry said...

You had some tough luck last year-hopefully you can navigate your way through the upcoming year without losing your way.-I only learned to use a compass during a boating course.Sounds like an adventurous way to travel through the woods.-Of course now they have GPS!-Have you ever met Marvin Hagler? he lives in Brockton-doesn't he?

At 6:02 PM, OpenID janetwilkins said...

Well, this is interesting. I'm working on a small piece for my blog, wondering if anyone still uses a "good old fashioned" map and compass (I haven't published the piece yet). I guess the answer is yes!


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