There are a whole lot of variables that must be executed properly in order for a person to get lost on a hunting outing in Minnesota. The fortunate thing is that even if all the variables occur and you find yourself lost in the woods, you have a 90% chance of being found within the first 24 hours after you are missed. The flip-side to this enlightening fact is that once you are lost, you had better have survival plans for at least the next 24 hours.
It seems inclement weather always plays a role in getting your directions messed up when you are in the woods. Nature provides a great compass with the sun most of the time; we all know the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Using this knowledge and other simple observations while in the woods, you can generally chart your exit route or direction of travel based upon the estimated time of day and the location of the sun. But without the sun, a walk through the woods can be more challenging, especially if you are not overly familiar with the property.
I hunted on a rectangular piece of land consisting of about 120 acres when I was young. The property was generally wooded, with a couple of swampy areas that worked well as land marks, but without fail, overcast skies many times caused me to lose my sense of direction. The humorous part was that in every instance that I got mixed up, I ended up coming out of the woods at almost the same location each time, which was about three quarters of a mile walk by road and exactly 90 degrees in the wrong direction.
Even the first time this happened though, I wasn’t alarmed or concerned, and for good reason. I had been on the property enough to know that it was bordered on three sides by roads and the fourth side consisted of a creek, so it was really quite hard to get “lost.” But it was really easy to get mixed up. Now imagine if this property was 1200 acres instead of 120 acres and if roadways weren’t the boundaries on three sides. At what point after sensing the loss of direction does the lack of concern turn to fear?
Hunting grouse with a group of five other people, we had a secret spot that very few people used. I am not sure how big the property was, but it was large; you could walk for a mile in any direction from where we parked the truck and never cross a road or trail. The only true indicator was a small voltage power line that followed the trail we parked on and then headed west through the wilderness. Again, the sky was completely overcast and there was no brightness shining through the clouds from the sun. As a group, we fanned out and hunted the woods for grouse, weaving and turning, following swamp lines and twisting around. It started getting late in the afternoon and we decided to head back to the truck, and at that time, we realized we really didn't know exactly where we were in relation to our vehicles. We headed back in the direction that was the consensus of the group.
After what seemed like forever, we hadn’t crossed a fence (the known east property line) or came upon the power line, which in our case would have been our northerly boundary. So putting our male egos to the side for a moment, two of us in the hunting line pulled out compasses to make sure we were heading either north or east. The two compasses were about 50 yards apart and when we tried to coordinate north on the two compasses we were shocked to find out that the two compasses were pointing at each other, instead of both pointing in one direction.
Panic hovered inches above all of us, but was not able to overtake us then. For some reason, logic told us to keep going in the direction we were headed, so we did. It was likely a quarter mile or so further when I looked at my compass again and according to the two readings I had, we had made a ninety degree turn. I yelled to the guy with the other compass and after looking at his, he agreed, but the two of us disagreed on what direction we had turned. My compass said we turned to the left, his said we turned to the right, but now both compasses were at least pointing in the same direction.
Daytime had turned to dusk and we decided it was group meeting time. We needed to figure out what was going on and how to get out of the woods. You could feel sunset approaching and none of us wanted to be in the middle of this woods after dark. Speculation about the ability of the compasses brought panic closer to each of us, but the strength of the group kept it at bay until the oldest hunter in the group made a wise observation and one that I have since lived by. “Trust your compass,” he said, and when we wanted to argue about that trust because of the earlier episode, he asked which way was north and headed off that way in a slow shuffle, everyone else followed.
Two hundred yards later, we were standing under the power line letting out huge sighs of relief. And even stranger, we had been walking parallel with the fence on the east boundary for quite some time, that being about fifty yards from us.