In the Nicest Possible Way —
A Case Study in the Gentle Art of Bushwhacking
By Tamia Nelson
October 23, 2012
Canoes and kayaks are watercraft, right? But if you paddle to go somewhere — as opposed to paddling simply to go paddling — you'll find yourself trekking overland from time to time. In fact, the farther off the beaten track your canoeing and kayaking excursions take you, the more hours you're likely to spend walking, rather than paddling. Some of those hours will be spent scouting or portaging, and some will be given over to tracking and lining, but there will be other times when you head off into the woods simply to see what lies on the other side of a ridge. And if you're lucky, you'll find a trail going just where you want to go. It might not be an official trail, of course, with the usual complement of garish markers at easy intervals and the sorry remnants of vandalized interpretive plaques at each overlook. In fact, it may be nothing more than the bare intimation of a path left by an adventuresome angler, intent on reaching a remote beaver pond. Or the legacy of some four‑footed wanderer in search of a meal (or a mate). But it will be a trail.
Often, however, you won't be so fortunate. Sometimes there's no trail of any description going your way. Then you're left to your own devices. The word for what follows is "bushwhacking," and it made its way into the working vocabulary of boatman on the Mississippi as long ago as the early 19th century. At first it referred to the practice of pulling a keelboat upriver by grabbing hold of bushes growing near the shore. Nowadays, however, it's become a rough and ready synonym for off‑trail travel.
Needless to say, bushwhacking isn't quite as straightforward as following a marked and maintained trail. After all, you don't just want to get to your destination. You'll probably need to return to your starting point sooner or later, too. Back in the bad old days, bushwhackers marked their pioneering routes with ax blazes. This is frowned on today — and for very good reason. It's also illegal in most places. Of course, a GPS receiver will effortlessly generate an electronic back trail for you, and do it as you walk along. That solves the problem of the return trip. At least it does if (1) you don't lose your signal in dense tree cover or deep valleys (luckily, the latest GPS receivers are much more tenacious than their predecessors), and (2) your batteries don't go dead. Which is why belt‑and‑suspenders types will want a Plan B, something to fall back on if their GPS is having a bad day. And here's an easy one to implement: Make notes as you go along. An annotated sketch map is ideal, though a few woods wanderers claim to get by on memory alone. Even if you're sure you're one of these fortunate few, however, I suggest that you not rely on your unaided memory. Notebooks are cheap.
OK. Unless you're strictly a one‑way whitewater buff who sticks to runs that are written up in guidebooks and signboarded by local chambers of commerce, chances are that you'll need to master the art of bushwhacking. Just what does this involve? Well, I've covered the basics elsewhere, but a real‑life example wouldn't go amiss. So here's a taster:
Not long ago, I was trudging down one of the trails along The River. I hadn't planned on bushwhacking anywhere, but with a lowering sky threatening rain and time running short, I figured I'd make a beeline through the woods to the gravel road that's the quickest way back to what passes for sivilization hereabouts. The trail I was on had been stitched together from overgrown logging tracks, old portages, and anglers' paths, and like many recreational trails, it meanders in a rather leisurely fashion from point to point. That's fine if you're looking for a way to kill time on a lazy Sunday afternoon, but it's not so good if you're going somewhere in a hurry. Since I was going somewhere, however, and since I was also in a hurry, a bushwhack up and over the ridge to the road was the logical course. My destination — a 12‑foot‑wide swathe of gravel — would be hard to miss. I only needed to head up the slope and then go down into the shallow cut on the other side. But even though I didn't want to dawdle, I figured I'd take the opportunity to check out a tree where I'd seen a porcupine on several earlier occasions, a tall hemlock that will soon be felled to accommodate the desires of local all‑terrain bike riders to have a new place to exercise their suspensions. And there was an additional attraction, too. The country between the trail and the doomed hemlock was terra incognita.
My first step? A hint: It didn't involve striding off boldly into the unknown. Instead, I settled down on a stump — a legacy of earlier trail‑improvement efforts — in order to …
I've oriented this screenshot so that north is at the top. The green track shows where I'd trudged along the trail. (The black dots are GPS‑generated trackpoints, and the red arrows indicate my direction of travel.) The scale and contour interval (CI) are as shown. You can also see the porcupine's doomed tree, which I'd waypointed on an earlier jaunt. The gravel road — my destination — is marked by the faint dotted line in the lower left corner.
Now let's look at the same general area on the 1:24,000 quad:
Much better, isn't it? The River is shown as something more than a blue line, and the contours are spaced a bit closer (the interval is 20 feet, rather than 25). After only a minute's study, I decided to head upslope on a general sou'westerly line, keeping to the high ground and avoiding the flanking gully. Then, once I'd reached a point to the east of the doomed tree, I'd strike due west until I hit the road.
That was my plan, at any rate. But when you bushwhack, you have to …
Give Nature the Last Say
This warrants a word or two of explanation. Bushwhacking is not trail‑blazing. You do not, in fact, "whack" the bush. A machete is not required. You don't even need to take your Swiss Army knife out of your pocket. You should also tread softly, exercising great care not to crush wildflowers, mushrooms, or birds' nests. (I was once brought up short, my right foot hovering in mid‑air, when I spotted a perfectly camouflaged — and completely motionless — clutch of woodcock hatchlings right where I was about to plant my Vibram sole.) Ideally, you'll leave little or no evidence of your passage.
And that was my intention in this instance. Here's what lay before me:
A mixed stand of young beech and maple, open enough to allow me to see some distance ahead, but with an understory littered with deadfalls and downed limbs. It looked like pretty easy going, and off I went, checking my compass occasionally to make sure I wasn't straying too far from my planned route. (Had it been a sunny day, I could have left my compass in my pack and used my shadow as a guide, but clouds now hid the sun.)
The comparatively easy going didn't last long, however. I hadn't walked far before I encountered a dense thicket of maple saplings:
And for a little while I was dodging and weaving in a (successful) effort to make progress toward my destination without trampling any young trees. Then I saw light at the end of the tunnel. A clearing lay ahead:
But (to borrow a line from Gilbert and Sullivan's wandering minstrel) my rapture was somewhat modified. The clearing in the woods didn't, in fact, mean that the going would be any easier. Windfalls — some of them good‑sized trees — created an impenetrable abatis. (The yellow bars in the photo above are about as high as a tall man.) The result? I zigzagged left to go around the obstacle‑strewn clearing, then returned immediately to my original track — only to find another thicket of saplings squarely athwart my line of march. The ground to my right now sloped down. It was more open, and I was tempted to zigzag again, …
But I didn't yield to the temptation. This was the gully I was determined to avoid. Not only did it conceal an intermittent stream, but it also sported a lush carpet of ferns. And since I had no wish to sully that pristine carpet with my clumsy footfalls, I picked my way carefully through the second thicket, instead.
Soon I found myself in open woods again, just to the southeast of the doomed tree. The porcupine was nowhere to be seen, though. (Perhaps he'd gotten wind of what the trail‑blazers were planning.) So I continued on my way to the gravel road, with my GPS recording every step of the march:
The starting and ending points of my short off‑trail jaunt are marked by crosses, and the inset profile reflects the ups and downs of the journey. As you can see, even the best maps can give only an imperfect idea about the lie of the land. Whatever falls between contour lines is left to your imagination — or local knowledge.
Are you thinking that this wasn't much of an adventure? You're right. It wasn't. But people — even, on rare occasions, experienced backcountry wanderers — still manage to get turned around on equally undemanding terrain. (Me? Certainly not! Well, not very often, at any rate.) One of the reasons my short bushwhack sounds so commonplace is because I made an effort to …
Play by the Rules
A lot has been written over the years about the art of navigation, and I've added a few words of my own to that deluge of didactic prose. But much less has been said about the little things that mean so much whenever you leave the beaten path. For example, consider …
The importance of local knowledge. Maps are fascinating and useful things, but they won't tell you where the forest floor is littered with deadfalls, or record the fact that a towering landmark tree has been felled to accommodate racing ATB riders, or show all the places where the beavers have been busy — or even identify the locations of the 100‑year‑old dug wells, their covers long since rotted away, that now lie in wait to swallow up hapless bushwhackers. These things, and many more besides, fall under the heading of local knowledge, and if you don't have a well‑informed guide, you'll need to keep your eyes open and your brain‑housing group fully engaged. At all times.
And this isn't the only way that even first‑rate maps can let you down.
Maps conceal as well as reveal. As I noted earlier, a lot can happen between contour lines, and the greater the contour interval, the more scope the map has for mischief. Some things can be inferred, of course. You can often read between the lines. A gully can be assumed to harbor an intermittent stream, for instance, at least in rainy country. (And in dry country it may be subject to flash floods.) That's good news if your canteen is empty — and you have a way to disinfect found water — but it's not a cause for rejoicing if you're hoping to keep your last pair of socks clean and dry.
In short, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The best maps leave out far more than they include, and some of these omissions can lead bushwhackers badly astray. Which is why you'd be wise to …
Move deliberately and look around you as you go, every time you travel off‑trail. Even if you're in a hurry to get somewhere, it pays to glance back over your shoulder. Often. After all, you might want to return the same way you came, and things look a lot different when you're turned around.
It's also important not to rely on your "bump of direction" when you're trying to keep to a particular line of advance. A compass is a far more reliable guide. So is the sun, when it isn't behind a cloud — provided you remember that the sun travels across the vault of the sky as the day progresses, and that shadows move accordingly. Call this the sundial caveat, if you like.
That said, it's not easy to hold a compass course in dense woods. You need to …
Advance from checkpoint to checkpoint. Take a bearing on the most distant easily recognizable object you can find along your planned line of march: a big tree with a distinctive lightning scar, say, or a granite erratic that looks like a camel's hump. Now put your compass away and walk toward this checkpoint. Then, when you reach it, pick another distinctive object on your line of march. And so on and so forth, until you reach your destination. In this way, the longest bushwhack can be broken down into a series of short legs. It doesn't matter how many times you have to deviate from the straight‑line path on a given leg, either, as long as you make your way to the next checkpoint eventually. It couldn't be easier — if you're careful to choose easily recognized checkpoints, that is!
But what if you sometimes have to stray so far from your track that you risk losing sight of the next checkpoint altogether? That's when you have to …
Do it by the numbers. Leave your original track on a bearing 90 degrees from your planned line of march, and continue till you can see your way around whatever lies in your path, whether it's a beaver pond or a briar patch. Keep a reckoning of how far you've gone — by counting paces, say. Then move forward along a track paralleling your planned line till you've cleared the obstacle. Finally, return to your original line of march by traveling on the reciprocal of the bearing by which you first left it, for exactly the same distance. (Now you know why I think notebooks are a good idea!)
Lastly, don't fool yourself. While a bushwhack may be the shortest distance between two points, off‑trail travel in well‑watered woodland is neither fast nor easy. At best, you can probably expect to travel no further than one mile in an hour. And at worst? Well, I've spent the better part of an hour struggling to go only 100 yards into a spruce hell, and been thoroughly exhausted by the effort involved.
Of course, if you stumble across an informal trail that's going your way, you'll be able to move faster. But you can't count on finding a herd path when you need one. And you can be sure you'll meet brambles, thickets, blowdowns, and bogs at every turn. The Wild Wood isn't Central Park, after all. It's not manicured and groomed and sanitized for your convenience. Instead, it's wonderfully anarchic. The remedy? Joyous acceptance. Don't curse the wildness in this world. Savor it.
Is this always as easy as I make it sound? No. And fatigue is just part of the toll you'll have to pay to enjoy the freedom of the hills. There are other items you can expect to find on the bill, too, including:
Chronically wet feet. Much of Canoe Country is wet. Which means that most sags and hollows will be soggy. Luxuriant carpets of water‑loving ferns are a good sign that you're about to be bogged down. And if the beavers have been at work in earnest, you may find that the route you walked dry‑shod last year has now disappeared beneath the waters of a small lake.
Scrapes, scratches, and the odd poke in the eye. A couple of scratches probably won't slow you down, but getting a sharp stick in the eye can be a serious inconvenience. And you'll have enough to do without needing to duck and weave constantly as you walk. The few bucks you'll pay for protective eyewear is money well spent.
Occasional stirrings of panic. It's not a coincidence that the word for unreasoning, incapacitating fear had its origin in the name of the woodland deity Pan. Trackless woods can be unnerving places, especially when the days get shorter and the shadows grow longer. This is true even if you're only a few hundred yards from a marked trail. Every year or two somebody loses his way when he's within an easy ten‑minute walk of his car, then panics and starts running. And he keeps running until he plunges into a ravine — or slams headlong into a low branch. Most of the time he lives to tell the tale. But not always.
If you don't want to follow his example—and I'm sure you don't—simply resolve to keep your wits about you, both on and off the trail. Then, if you've got the Ten Essentials in your pack, and if you let someone know where you were going and when you expected to return, you have nothing to worry about. Sit down. Study your map. Pour yourself a cup of tea from your thermos. The odds are good that you'll soon be back on the right track. Of course, if you don't have the Ten Essentials, and if no one knows where you've gone…
But none of us would be that foolish, would we?
All paddlers leave the water sooner or later — to scout or portage or just to see what lies over the hill. Usually there's a trail to take us where we want to go. But sometimes there isn't. That's when the gentle art of bushwhacking comes into play. It should be part of the working knowledge of every canoeist and kayaker. Yet it isn't. So why not make an effort to get lost every now and then? In the nicest possible way, of course. You won't regret it.
Related Articles From In the Same Boat
- "Off the Beaten Track: Bushwhacking Basics"
- "Mucking About in Boats: Navigating the Heart of Darkness"
- "Ten Things No Paddler Should Be Without"
- "When Carrying the Ten Essentials Isn't Enough"
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