Finding Your Way
The challenge of wilderness navigation.
Hikers walk at different speeds. My historic natural pace was 2.3 miles/hour, as measured by timing myself on the Pass Mountain Trail. The trail makes a 7½ mile loop around Pass Mountain, with some ups and downs. It turns out that most hikers are faster. “My pace is slow,” I tell folks before a hike, “but you all need to keep up with me.”
Most hikers can easily keep up. As a leader you need to have your people together, or at least within sight of each other. When fast hikers get ahead of me, I tell them to stop at an upcoming junction and wait for the rest of us, which they usually do. Then I let the slow hikers catch up and breathe for a few minutes before moving on. Everyone (I hope) has read the hike description. They are sensible, knowing better than to sign up for a hike they can’t finish. Usually.
Screening of prospective hikers is an inexact science. Even those who have hiked with you before may not be in the same physical condition as last time. For better or worse, you’ll occasionally have someone who can’t keep up or is unable to finish the hike.
If the hike is a loop or a round trip with lots of climbing, choose the direction that begins with a big climb. Save the easy part for last. A weak hiker who fades out early can simply turn around and walk back to the trailhead. Send a companion along, if you can find a volunteer. Otherwise you may have to call off the hike and walk everyone back to the trailhead, especially if your hike is off trail.
Slowpokes on a one-way hike pose a much greater challenge. Sometimes there’s a place where hikers can bail out, but not always. Welcome to Fish Creek Canyon.
What if you’re bushwhacking off trail and the slowest person happens to be the leader? All the others are going to get ahead. Your best strategy is to point out landmarks, such as a pass or a rock formation that the hikers can see, and tell them to stop there and wait for everybody to catch up. Appoint a deputy leader if you have an experienced hiker whom you know and who understands the importance of keeping the group together. “Don’t get out of sight” is excellent advice.
Hikers get separated. If you are in the lead, pick a spot where the other folks can see you. Wait there until everyone is back together again. Use two-way radios if you have them. Otherwise you can blow a whistle – required field equipment for hike leaders. If you are behind, keep moving at a steady pace in the direction you are supposed to go. Try to keep in communication by sight, sound, or radio. When you finally do get the group back together, remind them to stay together.
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Finding your way in the desert ought to be easy. Without forest cover you can see the prominent landmarks for many miles, provided you’re on high ground. Not so easy when you are down in a canyon, or when the landmarks aren’t prominent, or when they all look alike. Map reading is an essential skill.
Remember that anywhere in Arizona, the sun is in the south at mid-day. But do carry a compass for those times when you can’t see shadows from the sun.
Over-confidence is the greatest cause of getting lost. You’ve been there before, so you think you know the way. You see a landmark that looks kind of like the one you remember, but is it the same one? Having fallen victim to over-confidence more than once, my best advice is look at your laminated topographic map one more time before you start, and then mark your checkpoints on the map as you pass them. Use an erasable marker.
A lesson or two from Mother Nature.
Animals do it. Living outdoors, they can sense a storm brewing and know when to take shelter. But that doesn’t seem to apply to Homo sapiens. We schedule a hike months in advance and then have to be ready for whatever nature dishes out. And unlike the animals, we can’t just come back and climb the mountain tomorrow.
Rain was predicted, so I dutifully called everyone and told them the hike was off. But then when I got up on Saturday morning the birds were singing and the sun was shining, without a cloud in the sky. “We went hiking without you,” a friend later told me.
Lesson learned. No weather forecast is going to get the best of me! Next time it happened I really wanted to hike, so I didn’t call anyone.
BOOM! The storm woke me up as my house shook with loud thunder and rain. I turned out, and began having second thoughts. Should I try to call the hikers, at 4:30 in the morning? No, not at this ungodly hour. They all have enough sense to stay indoors. So I went back to bed. But then I remembered what happened last time. Guilt drove me to the trailhead, where I found a forlorn hiker waiting in the rain. “We’ll hike next time,” I assured him.
Lesson learned. The weather forecast will get the best of me.
Desert Heat and Sky
There’s cool, clear water if you carried enough with you.
When Bob Nolan wrote his classic song, “Cool Water”, he was celebrating the pioneers who traveled across the American West on foot and horseback when there was nothing but wilderness for hundreds of miles. During Spanish colonial times, travelers on the notorious 90-mile Jornada del Muerto paralleled the Rio Grande but were separated from the river by mountains of utterly dry desolation. Perillo Spring, their only source of water, had better not run dry!
Today’s hikers make shorter journeys. But unexpected delays, a turn in the weather, or a leaking canteen can leave a hiker facing dehydration. How it plays out depends on the hiker’s experience, resourcefulness, and knowledge of desert survival. The most obvious beginner’s mistake is not carrying enough water. I always fill up my 100-ounce hydration pack with purified water, even when the hike is easy and I’ll have most of the water left over.
The other mistake is to carry water but not drink it. Inexperienced hikers decide to conserve their water until they really need it, then they needlessly suffer dehydration. Think about it: water does much more good inside your body than outside, and the water you drink lightens the load you have to carry.
Cool, clear water is unlikely to be found in the desert unless you bring it with you. Purification tablets are lightweight, but they taste awful. A portable water filter can take out the germs but not the taste. Either the tablets or the filter could save you from infection if you have to drink the brown water of the desert. But beware: if there is nothing alive in the water or anywhere near the water, it’s for a reason. Tablets and filters take out germs, but not poison. Find a spring with signs of life.
Hikers vs. the Universal Law of Gravitation.
Every particle in the universe attracts every other particle. Among the forces of nature, gravity is scarcely noticed at subatomic scales, but at cosmic scales it is capable of bending light and stretching the minds of astrophysicists. Hikers are on a scale in between.
In 1964 I was a young whippersnapper, surviving my freshman year at M.I.T. to join friends and family for a June camp-out in the San Juan Mountains near the Rio Grande south of Creede, Colorado. We hiked up to Pete’s Mine. Wisely no one entered the mine, with its ice-coated entrance and narrow-gauge rails. So instead, we climbed on up to an unnamed summit.
There’s a feeling of invincibility you get after finishing your first year of college. I was toting a new Agfa 35mm camera, my most advanced camera at the time, sporting its precision-ground lens. Our leader had some misgivings as I walked over to the edge of a cliff to take a panoramic picture.
“Let’s see,” I told myself, “It’s a long way down, but the surface here is solid rock. I can put my right foot on this ledge, and my left foot next to it.”
The footing was OK. I adjusted my camera and got ready to shoot. Just then a bird distracted me and the camera slipped. It happened so fast that I didn’t lunge forward to grab for the falling object. That was fortunate. My camera made quite a clatter crashing on the rocks far below. Climbing down after it to rescue the film was out of the question. Shaken, I slowly eased my way back up from the ledge, holding on to the rocks nearby. Our leader waited patiently at the top. She didn’t have to say anything.
I could have gone the way of my camera. Since then I carry a compact camera on hikes, securely connected to a strap which keeps it from going anywhere I don’t go.
Stay back from the cliff. Think of Sir Isaac Newton, and don’t underestimate the gravity of the situation.
Hiking on the edge of night.
Easy now. I got up in the dark to hike the Rim Trail by starlight, in hopes of catching a Grand Canyon sunrise. Can I make Powell Point before the soft colors of dawn give way to garish daylight?
Grand Canyon Village has plenty of electric lights, but the trail becomes increasingly hard to see as those lights recede on the horizon. Even with my night vision, I’m carefully feeling the trail with my feet as much as seeing it. Slow going. Visually, I might as well be hiking on Pluto.
Two deer cross my path, a surprise encounter for all three of us.
First light is subtle. Boulders by the trail which had been almost visible are ever so slightly lighter than the ground and trailside vegetation, in a strange, ghostly yellowish light. By now I can be pretty sure of where the trail is and where it isn’t, so I walk at a more confident pace.
A clearing reveals that the eastern sky is no longer black.
The gradual fade-in of colors cheers me. Rocks are starting to look tan, with the vegetation dark green. The eastern sky has color. No clouds this morning. Wotan’s Throne is clearly visible ten miles away on the other side of the Colorado River. There’s enough light for pictures. I set my camera on a rock for stabilization and shoot with the automatic timer.
Hop to it! I can still make Powell Point before sunrise,
but not by standing here.
All the colors are clear now, but I’m racing the sun.
Then I see two photographers up ahead with big cameras and tripods.
Dawn brings an explosion of color to Hopi Point, Dana Butte, and the Tower of Set before the colors fade into full daylight. The terminator has passed. I catch a bus back to Grand Canyon Village for breakfast.
The terminator is a ring around a planet separating its day side from its night side. It doesn’t move if the planet’s rotation is locked into its orbital period so that the same side always faces the star, as the Moon’s rotation is locked into its orbital period around the Earth. Otherwise the planet spins under its terminator, causing sunrise and sunset each day.
For hikers, passing from night to day is exhilarating. The problem is when the evening terminator catches up with you on your way back to the trailhead ...
Forget Me Not
Folks who add sugar and spice to the hiking experience.
Hiking in a group is a prime social activity. Hikers can enjoy each other’s company in a setting of picturesque scenery, offering quiet, temporary relief from the distractions of civilization. On breaks and easy parts of the hike, conversation drifts to topics unrelated to hiking. The leader can help everyone enjoy the hike by steering the conversation toward amiable topics, or by saying something interesting about the destination.
Hiking brings out the best in people, and sometimes the worst. A hiker who knows more than the leader, or claims to know more, can support the leader by offering helpful commentary, or undermine the leader by showing off in front of the others. Sometimes they’re just cute. Usually it doesn’t matter. But what if the subject is navigation on today’s hike?
You’ve reached a juncture in the wilderness and someone other than the leader decides what direction the hikers ought to go. If the leader agrees, well and good. We can all get lost together. But if the leader doesn’t agree, then at least one of them is wrong. What’s a hike leader to do? Split the group, or go the wrong way? For the leader it’s a lose-lose situation. For the rebel it’s also a lose-lose situation, although a rebel may not understand this.
As a hiker, should you stay with your leader or go with the rebel? Personalities come into play. A wrong turn could be disastrous. Everybody now has to decide who has the more credibility and therefore who to go with – the leader or the rebel. The one with a more forceful personality may not be right. Sometimes a consensus develops. At other times it’s really tough to decide, especially when the leader has already made a wrong turn or two. Over the years I’ve found that the most expert hikers stay with their leader, though admittedly, I was the rebel at least once. Well, maybe more than once.
Hikers are interesting because of the background and experiences they share with you. I’ve met people who are eager to escape a difficult situation in life, if only for a day; some who are on a mission which just happens to include this hike, and others who turn out to be encouraging and helpful.
No one knows how many couples have fallen in love while hiking in the wilderness, and then continued their courtship. Couples who met on a Singles hike have later dropped out of the group when they got married. Hiking offers outstanding opportunities to share, learn, and help one another.