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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Lost Art

Navigating Without Batteries: First Things

By Farwell Forrest

January 27, 2004

Everything had gone according to plan. I'd trekked out to my chosen pond, paddled across the meltwater that drowned the rotten ice, and then spent several restorative hours losing myself in the winter skies. Now I was headed back home. First, however, I had to cache my pack canoe for later pick-up. That done, I started up the trail, the yellow beam from my headlamp highlighting every twist and turn of the winding fisherman's path.

Funny thing, I thought. I don't remember the beam being that yellow. And just then the light went out.

I stopped where I was, cursing my luck. Yes, I answered the nagging voice in my head, I knew the batteries were old — ancient Ni-Cads, in fact. But I'd recharged them before I left, and I certainly hadn't expected them to fail like that, with no warning at all.… Still, I had a little Mag-Lite® in my pack. I'd put fresh alkaline cells in it in October, and I'd hardly used it since. No need to remind me to be prepared, I told myself smugly. I'm ready for anything.

Removing my gloves, I tucked them into the kangaroo pocket of my anorak. Then I slid my rucksack off my left shoulder and opened the flap. I rooted around in the folds of the poncho that pads the back, and — Eureka! There it is! My hand closed around the Mag-Lite. I smiled. Then I switched it on.

Nothing happened. My smile slowly faded away.

A little corrosion on the contacts, I thought. No problem. Just work the switch a few times. So I twisted it again. And again. Off. On. Off. On. Off. On.

Still nothing.

Now I was muttering a steady stream of curses. It was after midnight. I had more than an hour's walk ahead of me. The forest was a fathomless shadowland. I couldn't even see my feet. Worse yet, I was getting cold. The fingers holding the Mag-Lite were already numb.

I slipped my arm back through the pack strap. I took a hesitant step. An unseen branch clawed my face. I took another step. An invisible rock caught my toe and sent my foot sliding sideways. I teetered back and forth, struggling to stay upright, my arms flailing out in all directions. When at last I regained my balance, I thought once more of the trail ahead, of the single-log bridge over the meltwater-swollen stream, of the ice-sheathed drop-off above the falls, of the slick wooden corduroy through the swamp. And then I felt the first chilling clutch of fear. My mental map of the trail spun round and round, refusing to settle. North and south were now meaningless terms. I rummaged through my pack again, searching for the compass I knew was there. Before long, I felt the hard edges of the cold aluminum case.Got it! I exulted. But just as soon as I'd pulled the compass out of the pack it slipped through my wooden fingers. I heard it fall, then slide.… Where? Somewhere near my feet. It couldn't have gone far, I told myself. Or could it? panic whispered in reply.

Panic was winning the debate. I crouched down, shivering, and dropped onto my hands and knees. Crawling over the icy ground, I dragged the pack behind me, raking my half-frozen fingers through drifts of slushy snow, probing the leaf litter in every direction. But I found nothing. I staggered to my feet. I was shaking now. Which way do I go? I asked myself. How do I get out of here? I waited for the answer, but none came.

Suddenly, a mocking ditty echoed unbidden in my head: When in danger or in doubt, yell and scream and run about. I smiled. Or not, I thought. Not now. Not here. I shouldered the rucksack once more, and pulled on my gloves. The wool liners still retained some of their former warmth — my warmth. Things were looking up.

Speaking of looking up, I chided myself, why not give that a try? So I did. Half the sky was completely hidden by a thickly forested ridge, but I could glimpse tantalizing fragments of the stellar tapestry through the trees in the other direction. Two dazzling points of light caught my eye immediately. The first, not far above the horizon, was unmistakable: Sirius, the Dog Star, the brightest star in the sky. The second, much higher and almost as bright, wasn't a star at all. It was Saturn, one of the "wanderers", the name the ancients gave to the five nearest planets.

That was all I needed. I knew I was looking south. And my night vision had finally returned. The mental map of the fisherman's trail settled into place. I began walking, shuffling my feet forward, each step tentative, my left hand outstretched before my face to ward off stray branches. And as I walked, I counted each step, calculating when I'd come to the next bend on the map now unrolling in my head.

Three hours later I was home, a bit bruised, a bit scratched, but still in one piece. As I set my pack quietly down on the floor of the darkened living room, I was seized by an irresistible impulse to try my luck just one more time. Muffling the snap of the plastic buckles so as not to waken Tamia, sleeping soundly in the next room, I opened the pack flap and fished around in the folded poncho for the Mag-Lite. Soon I had the chilly metal cylinder in my hand.

I twisted the switch. A bright white beam shot out, illuminating the three-foot-wide map hanging on the far wall.

I directed a silent curse at all things electric and headed for the bathroom. When in danger or in doubt, shout and scream and run about. Those mocking words were still reverberating in my head when I dropped off to sleep.


Of course, nobody needs to navigate by the stars today, do they? After all, you can get a GPS that's smaller than a pocket calculator, and it will probably cost you less than you'd spend for a good watch. But what happens if the batteries go dead? You'll find you've just traveled back in time some two centuries, that's what. In fact, you'll be facing the same problems that Alexander Mackenzie faced when he set out to follow Peter Pond's Great River to the Pacific in 1793. Yes, you'll have more accurate maps than Mackenzie did. (At least I hope you will. Or were you relying on your GPS display?) But Mackenzie was better prepared in other ways. He'd just returned from England, where he'd spent the winter studying the art of navigation.

Maybe you think this won't ever happen to you. After all, you never forget to carry plenty of batteries. Good. I don't either. (Not very often, at any rate.) But it doesn't hurt to have a second string for your bow, does it? And it can't be denied that there's something to be said for the old woodcraft. Am I invoking tradition for its own sake? Not really. A little tradition goes a long way. Try nursing a wood and canvas canoe down a shallow, stony rapids to see what I mean. If the sound of cracking ribs and tearing canvas doesn't dampen your ardor for tradition, the odds are that portaging the waterlogged hulk around the next rapids will. Or perhaps you don't think wood and canvas is traditional enough. OK. Imagine yourself squatting on a riverbank, repaying the seams of a leaking bark canoe with a mixture of spruce gum and hot fat, while a freezing, swirling drizzle drowns your fire and soaks through your clothes.

Still not convinced? Then spend five hours seated in a traditional skin kayak. That ought to do the trick. With no more support for your back than the bent-wood rim of the cockpit, chances are good that you'll be dreaming of molded seats and foam padding long before the day is out. I rest my case. Don't get me wrong, though. I like wood and canvas canoes, and there are very few craft as lovely as traditional bark and skin boats. Tradition's a good thing, in other words — but only up to a point. It's not reason enough by itself to spend time mastering the lost arts of pre-electronic navigation. And you can buy a lot of batteries for the price of a decent compass.

All right, then. Is there a better argument than tradition? Yes. Connectedness.

"Only connect!" The British novelist E.M. Forster put those words into the mouth of one of his characters, and I think he was on to something. Canoeing and kayaking bring us closer to the world that lies beyond our office blocks and freeways. So, too, do the compass and sextant. They're passports to a larger universe, a place where human schemes and dreams count for little more than those of a chickadee, or even a centipede. They connect us, in short, with the world outside ourselves and our creations. To be sure, some paddlers will recoil with horror from this prospect. These folks want all their wilderness experiences to come with a label that says "Sanitized for Your Protection." No surprises. Nothing that isn't on the script. Everything under control. Minutely managed risks and carefully choreographed thrills. Their satisfaction guaranteed or their money cheerfully refunded.

In other words, the more their world resembles a computer game, the happier they'll be. Well, everyone to his own notion, I suppose. But I don't think that all canoeists and kayakers feel this way, do you? Many of us enjoy taking a walk on the wild side, at least now and again. We don't always need to be standing at the center of the universe in order to be happy. We embrace uncertainty, and we look forward to leaving the beaten path from time to time, even if the way back sometimes leads us across a single-log bridge or skirts the icy lip of a waterfall. We rejoice in landscapes with the bark still on them. And we're drawn to people who are like that, too.

If this describes you, then you're just the sort of person who'll find the challenge of navigating without batteries irresistible. So dust off your compass and get your favorite topos out of the box in the closet. We'll meet up again soon, farther down the trail. See you then!

Copyright 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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