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November 18, 2023

Circling

Tom Vande Water

I love to go off trail. Sometimes it’s just wandering between paths in our woods. Sometimes it’s to find a landmark, a peak or pond, a cabin or corner. Discoveries await and I always see more than expected. As a high school earth science teacher, I’ve taught map and compass for over 30 years and as a fire lookout for the U.S. Forest Service in Idaho, I’ve plotted fire locations and guided firefighters to lightning strikes for decades. So, it was a humbling shock to find myself lost October 25th 2023 in the headwaters of the North Branch of the Grass near Church Pond while leading an Adirondack Mountain Club bushwhacking hike.

Having recently read Michael Bond’s fine book on navigation (From Here to There: The Art and Science of Finding and Losing Our Way, 2020, Harvard Press), I touted it as we walked to Church Pond. Both my companions, John and Sue, were experienced and able navigators. In his book, Bond describes fascinating brain science, ways to orient ourselves and the detrimental effects of dependence on GPS. On the outward journey, we used GPS to plot our path, but on the return, I switched off the GPS plotting. Paying attention to our surroundings and navigating without GPS, according to a McGill researcher in the book, can “help protect the hippocampus against the decline that usually comes with age.” And why not try a different path?

After lunch at the pond, we admired the golden tamaracks, the large hemlocks and yellow birches and began our return trip. The sun was completely hidden behind clouds. There was no wind. The forest is thick with magnificent old growth trees and scattered boulders covered with moss and lichen. With larger groups I tend to be cautious, calculating angles on the topographic map and using my trusty Silva Ranger compass to keep on track. This ramble with friends took us through old trees, chatting as we went, and I paid little attention to directional details. But I knew the hill would stay on our left, bringing us back east to the head of Fox Marsh and the boundary of the Forest Preserve. This would be easy.

After walking for perhaps 20 minutes, I began to get an uneasy feeling about our direction. I pulled out the GPS, quietly, just to see the map, still not recording a track, but looking at the point on the map where we were. Hmmm. We hadn’t gone as far as I thought. The arrow looked to be pointed slightly off, so I adjusted our direction. When we stopped later for a break, John took out his GPS for the first time. His device had still been plotting. The path I’d walked was a complete circle with a radius of less than a quarter mile! I had walked completely around the hill, keeping it on my left. I was stunned, grateful John had a record of it, and chagrined at my casual route finding.

So, what went wrong? As Bond writes, “In a dense woodland… or in a fog, it is almost impossible to walk in a straight line for more than a few meters.” Yet Indigenous people, familiar with landmarks, accomplish amazing feats of navigation. Mental maps and elder’s place-based stories help. Walking in circles, though, is surprisingly easy without landmarks and, though seemingly improbable, “many experiments have found it to be true.” People have even been found to “veer both ways depending on where they are.” Bond notes that researchers have found “people will not travel more than around 100 meters from their starting position, regardless of how long they walk.” So, in theory, I could have led us in circles all afternoon.

Getting truly lost is one of the most terrifying and life-threatening experiences possible. Staying calm in such a situation is hard. Yet knowing you’re only 100 meters from where you got confused might help. What would I do to prevent this happening again?

  • Use the map and compass from the start! Determine the compass angle to the destination (either use a protractor between points or know how to use the compass as a protractor) and walk that angle (using the correction for magnetic declination). Sight to a distant point and walk to it before using the compass for the next reading.
  • Use a printed topographic map and know how to read the contour lines and distances. Orient the map to the land.
  • Yes, bring a GPS (or an app on your phone like Gaia GPS) and record a track. But don’t rely on it for walking a straight line: walking a compass line is more reliable. And batteries do run down.
  • Get out there and get lost! Not truly, dangerously lost, but go off trail, discover, and be prepared to circle. Pay attention to details along the way. Trust the compass and, with others, memorize features. Keep the hippocampus active and engaged. As Bond writes so well, wander for the “vivid experience of place and the knowledge that you are here.”

(Thank you, John and Susan Omohundro, for putting up with my inattentive wandering!)

News Archive

Apr 1, 2024: Azure Mt Friends Scholarships

Mar 2, 2024: 2024 Photo Contest Announced

Jan 1, 2024: Stone Valley Trailwork

Jan 1, 2024: Outdoors-Indoors

Jan 1, 2024: New Chapter Officers

Jan 1, 2024: 2023 Photo Contest Winners Announced

Nov 18, 2023: Circling

Nov 8, 2023: 2023 Chapter Elections

Oct 1, 2023: Weekly Walks

Oct 1, 2023: Red Sandstone Trailwork

Oct 1, 2023: Fire Tower Lighting

Oct 1, 2023: Coming Home

Jul 1, 2023: Racquette River Advisory Council

Jul 1, 2023: Exploring Whippoorwill

Jul 1, 2023: Cascade Center Mapping

Apr 26, 2023: Summer Picnic

Apr 17, 2023: 2023 Photo Contest Announced

Apr 1, 2023: Spring Road Walks

Apr 1, 2023: Armond Spencer 1933-2023

Jan 21, 2023: Red Sandstone Trailwork

Jan 1, 2023: SUNY Potsdam Students Repair Gulch

Jan 1, 2023: College Students Work on Red Sandstone Trail

Jan 1, 2023: 2022 Photo Contest Winners Announced

Oct 18, 2022: 2022 Chapter Elections

Oct 17, 2022: 2022 Officer Nominations

Jul 24, 2022: Fiftieth Celebration

May 13, 2022: In Memorium Lois Wells

Mar 25, 2022: Fiftieth Anniversary Celebrations

Mar 15, 2022: 2022 Photo Contest Announced

Jan 24, 2022: Trailhead Stewardship Program

Jan 1, 2022: Mystery on the Red Sandstone Trail

Jan 1, 2022: Fiftieth Anniversary

Nov 28, 2021: 2021 Photo Contest Winners Announced

Oct 18, 2021: 2021 Chapter Elections

Oct 1, 2021: Trail Registers for the 21st Century

Oct 1, 2021: Laurentian Chapter to Celebrate 50 Years

Sep 9, 2021: 2021 Photo Contest Announced

Apr 1, 2021: Take A Hike!

Dec 10, 2020: 2020 Photo Contest Winners Announced

Oct 26, 2020: Members Choice - 2020 Photo Contest

Oct 15, 2020: 2020 Chapter Elections

Jul 3, 2020: Laurentians Receive Award

Apr 1, 2020: Third Annual Cycle Outing

Apr 1, 2020: Mud Season Hiking

Apr 1, 2020: 2020 Photo Contest Announced

Jan 1, 2020: Ski Trails Groomed and Waiting

Jan 1, 2020: Red Sandstone Trail Maintenance

Nov 16, 2019: 2019 Photo Contest Winners Announced

Oct 2, 2019: Annual Meeting

Oct 1, 2019: Trail Markers

Oct 1, 2019: Electronic Distribution of the North Wind

Jul 1, 2019: National Trails Day 2019

Apr 1, 2019: Red Sandstone Trail Volunteers Needed

Apr 1, 2019: Recreation Management Plans

Apr 1, 2019: Chapter Member Writes Trails Book

Apr 1, 2019: 2019 Photo Contest Announced

Jan 3, 2019: Invasive Forest Pest Meeting

Jan 1, 2019: Second ADK Cycle Outing

Jan 1, 2019: Outside The High Peaks Region

Dec 6, 2018: Fran Yardley To Speak

Nov 12, 2018: 2018 Photo Contest Winners Announced

Nov 6, 2018: Trail Maintenance Weekend 2018

Oct 1, 2018: First ADK Cycle Outing

Jul 1, 2018: SUNY Potsdam Educational Affiliate Program

Jun 22, 2018: 2018 Photo Contest Announced

Jun 18, 2018: September Acadia Outing

Apr 5, 2018: Military Exercises In Northern Adirondacks

Apr 1, 2018: Who Are Our Members

Apr 1, 2018: Happy Birthday Azure Mountain Fire Tower

Apr 1, 2018: Chapter Representation on Advisory Committees

Jan 5, 2018: E-Letter Editor Wanted

Jan 1, 2018: Paul Jamieson and the Jamieson Fund

Nov 19, 2017: 2017 Photo Contest Winners Announced

Nov 1, 2017: 2017 Trail Maintenance Weekend

Oct 1, 2017: Trailwork by ADK

Oct 1, 2017: Bylaws Review

Jul 1, 2017: North Country Cycling Guide

May 31, 2017: Marie Fernandez de Alaiza Completes 46

Apr 1, 2017: Great Lakes Water Levels

Mar 15, 2017: Extended New Brunswick Outing Proposed

Jan 1, 2017: Boreas Ponds

Jan 1, 2017: 2017 Photo Contest Announced

Dec 2, 2016: Camp Colby Scholarships Available

Nov 29, 2016: Winter 2017 Outdoors-Indoors Schedule Announced

Nov 21, 2016: Wilderness Thru-hiking to Wilderness Advocacy

Nov 16, 2016: 2016 Photo Contest Winners Announced

Oct 1, 2016: Membership Survey Preliminary Results

Oct 1, 2016: John Omohundro Passes The Torch

Sep 8, 2016: 2017 Extended Outings Proposed

Apr 1, 2016: Solarize

Mar 29, 2016: 2016 Photo Contest Announced

Mar 17, 2016: Teen Trail Project Scholarships Available

Jan 6, 2016: Perry Yaw Commemorative Quilt

Dec 2, 2015: Trail Work Day Attracts Huge Turnout

Dec 2, 2015: Outdoors-Indoors Schedule Announced

Dec 1, 2015: 2015 Photo Contest Winners Announced

Sep 17, 2015: RRAC Explained

Sep 17, 2015: Oswegatchie Blueway Open Houses Scheduled

Jul 1, 2015: Perry H Yaw Jr

Jul 1, 2015: Ididaride Annual Biking Event

May 5, 2015: SUNY Potsdam Wilderness Education Mountain-A-Thon Training Exercise

Apr 1, 2015: Spring

Apr 1, 2015: Educational Affiliate Program Expands

Jan 1, 2015: Call for Distinguished Volunteer Nominations

Jan 1, 2015: 2015 Photo Contest Opens

Nov 27, 2014: 2014 Photo Contest Winners Announced

Nov 27, 2014: 2014 Photo Contest Winners Announced - Copy

Nov 17, 2014: St Lawrence Flatlands UMP Hearing

Oct 1, 2014: Chapter Offers Outing Leadership Training Course

Jul 1, 2014: Jean Hardy, 1926-2014

Jul 1, 2014: ADK and Trails

Apr 14, 2014: 2014 Member Nature Poetry

Apr 4, 2014: Stone Valley Management Plan Finalized

Apr 1, 2014: Educational Affiliate Program Gathers Momentum

Mar 24, 2014: North Country National Scenic Trail

Dec 30, 2013: Stone Valley Management Plan Review

Dec 6, 2013: 2014 Photo Contest Opens

Nov 12, 2013: 2013 Photo Contest Winners Announced

Oct 1, 2013: Spring Outing Retrospective

Sep 6, 2013: Finch Pruyn-Essex Chain Action Alert

Aug 22, 2013: Ragnar Relay Race

Jul 1, 2013: New Trails for Stone Valley

Jun 27, 2013: North Country Trails Membership

Jun 19, 2013: Spring Outing A Great Success

Apr 2, 2013: Laurentian Loon Shirts

Apr 1, 2013: Brian Baston, 46r

Dec 21, 2012: New Chapter Officers Elected

Dec 6, 2012: 2013 Photo Contest Opens

Nov 27, 2012: 2012 Photo Contest Winners Announced

Jul 17, 2012: Raquette River Documentary

Apr 1, 2012: Acadia Trip Sept 2012

Jan 21, 2012: Stone Valley Trail Maintenance A Mammoth Undertaking

Jan 1, 2012: 2012 Photo Contest Announced

Nov 19, 2011: Peter Blood and Toni Towle Finish the 46

Nov 19, 2011: Moose Talk At Fall Potluck (1)

Nov 16, 2011: 2011 Photo Contest Winners Announced

Nov 9, 2011: Sherman Craig Nominated To APA

Oct 16, 2011: Mt Arab Vandalised

Oct 1, 2011: GPS Group Forming

Jul 23, 2011: Allegany State Park Action Alert

Jul 2, 2011: Stone Valley Trail Report

Jul 2, 2011: Red Sandstone Trail Report

Jul 2, 2011: Friends of Higley Flow Capital Campaign

Jul 1, 2011: JBL Seeks All-Season Hosts

Apr 29, 2011: JBL Seeks Volunteer Hosts

Apr 1, 2011: Outings Announced

Feb 25, 2011: 2011 Fall Outing

Feb 4, 2011: Tug Hill Winter Outing

Dec 9, 2010: 2010 Photo Contest Winners Announced

Nov 21, 2010: Omohundro Whalen Distinguished Volunteers

Sep 22, 2010: Nominees Announced

Sep 22, 2010: Fall Potluck to Feature Permaculture Talk

Sep 22, 2010: Bylaw Changes Proposed

Sep 15, 2010: Dogs on Chapter Trips

Aug 16, 2010: Raquette River Information Center Opens

Jul 27, 2010: Raquette River Information Center To Open

Jun 2, 2010: Sacred Tools Exhibit

May 26, 2010: Plants of St Lawrence County

Apr 13, 2010: Chapter Basket Donations Needed

Mar 23, 2010: Second Annual Photo Contest Announced

Mar 22, 2010: Laurentians Invited To Colorado

Mar 21, 2010: Spring Potluck To Feature Northern Canoe Route

Jan 1, 2010: Calling Kids For Camp Colby

Nov 8, 2009: 2009 Photo Contest Results

Oct 1, 2009: Brian Mann To Address Annual Meeting

Oct 1, 2009: Archivist Needed

Jul 1, 2009: Raquette River Awareness Week

May 23, 2009: Tom Wheeler Elected 46ers President

Apr 30, 2009: Cutters Receive Award

Mar 31, 2009: Spring Potluck

Mar 30, 2009: Photo Contest

Mar 29, 2009: Hospitality Coordinator Needed

Mar 21, 2009: Gloria Daly Completes Winter 46

Mar 16, 2009: Lyle Montgomery Completes Winter 46

Dec 23, 2008: Chapter to Sponsor Campers at Camp Colby

Nov 2, 2008: Anna Gerhard-Arnold Recognized

Oct 1, 2008: Roy Horst to Speak at Fall Potluck

Sep 13, 2008: Tom Wheeler Receives Award

Aug 3, 2008: SLC EMC hosts NYS Conference on Environment

Jun 10, 2008: Lows Lake Floatplanes Action Alert

Mar 22, 2008: Winter On The Red Sandstone Trail

Mar 15, 2008: Nancy LaBaff Completes Winter 46

Mar 1, 2008: Environmental Protection Fund Being Raided

Feb 15, 2008: Red Sandstone Trailworker Tshirt

Nov 28, 2007: Hearings on National Scenic Trail

Nov 26, 2007: Laurentian Chapter To Sponsor Campers

Nov 11, 2007: Annual Meeting Highlights

Sep 27, 2007: Clarence and Paul

Sep 26, 2007: Neil Woodworth To Visit

Sep 25, 2007: Red Sandstone Trail Report

Jul 1, 2007: Legislature Passes EPF Enhancement Act

Mar 22, 2007: Call for Adirondack Stories

Mar 17, 2007: Mud Season Potluck Features Stuart Mesinger

Jan 25, 2007: Chapter Endorses Grace Peak Proposal

Jan 15, 2007: Public Comment Requested

Jan 1, 2007: Paddle The Rideau

Jan 1, 2007: Calling Kids For Camp Colby

Nov 28, 2006: Dick Mooers Named Distinguished Volunteer

Oct 2, 2006: Laurentian Chapter Hosts 2006 Fall Outing

Sep 1, 2006: Update on SLC ATV Trail Plan

Aug 30, 2006: Teens Complete Stone Valley Trail Work

Aug 28, 2006: Stone Valley - A Community Resource

Aug 28, 2006: Keeping Stone Valley Trails Open

Aug 25, 2006: White Hill Draft UMP Released

Aug 25, 2006: ATV Plan Comment Period

Jul 1, 2006: Raquette Boreal Forest Plan Moves Forward

Jun 6, 2006: Piercefield Dam Whitewater Release

Apr 21, 2006: Natural History Museum Seeks Volunteers

Apr 2, 2006: Peter OShea Addresses ADK

Mar 29, 2006: Laurentian Chapter To Host Fall Outing

Feb 28, 2006: High School Trails Program Seeks Participants

Jan 4, 2006: Chapter at Remington Gala

Dec 16, 2005: Camp Colby Youth Summer Camp

Dec 1, 2005: Paddlers Rights

Nov 12, 2005: Higley Flow Leanto Dedicated

Nov 6, 2005: Sandy Hildreth and Eileen Wheeler Honored

Oct 16, 2005: Stone Valley Trail Maintenance

Oct 4, 2005: Laurentian Chapter Hosts 2006 Fall Outing

Oct 3, 2005: Annual Meeting November 6

Oct 2, 2005: Friends of Mt Arab Seeks Volunteers

Sep 12, 2005: Proposed Bylaws

Aug 25, 2005: Musings On The Word Laurentian

Aug 25, 2005: Higley Flow Leanto

Aug 25, 2005: An Adirondack Diet

Aug 20, 2005: Bear Canisters

Aug 15, 2005: Firetowers

Aug 10, 2005: Executive Director Visits

Aug 5, 2005: National Trails Day

Aug 1, 2005: New Publicity Coordinator