The Importance of a Compass

It started out as an exciting idea:

the-importance-of-a-compass-01 Peter and I would take a bus into the interior and get off in a national park. From there we would follow an old fur traders trail back down to the coast.  I had come across a hand-drawn map with the trail marked, and did some reading about the path, feeling confident that I would be able to find it in the park and traverse its length to the university grounds where the trail ended.  The path we would follow was about 100 miles long, and we gave ourselves a week to complete the trek. Peter and I were in our twenties,  both fit and healthy, and itching to get out of the city, to walk through a wilderness that few people got the chance to see. It was perfect –  what could go wrong?

Well, lack of adequate orienteering experience, for one thing. Also, carrying overpacked knapsacks, wearing bad socks, and relying on an unreliable map might create a few difficulties, and turn my original idea into something more like…

… only with hiking gear on.


Nevertheless, off we went. We jumped off the bus close to the spot indicated on the map, headed straight into the woods, and in little time had located the trail. By the end of the first day, we had set up camp atop Mount Frosty, and it was then that we realized we forgot to bring enough water. There were no creeks nearby, it was getting dark, and we had to get a fire going and the tent set up. I don’t remember what we ate that night, but it seemed that dry ramen or egg noodles figured prominently in the menu. We went to bed thirsty, certain that we would find water in the morning.

Water found us the next day in the form of a wet snowfall, so we hurriedly collected our stuff and headed into the fog, which shows you the level of experience Peter and I shared. It would be a while before we realized two things: you should not travel in thick fog, and you should always take an inventory of your supplies before leaving the campsite. Consequently, we had left our binoculars, a few cooking pots, and various utensils buried in the snow back atop Mount Frosty. By the time the fog had thinned out and the snow tapered off to rain, we were looking at the old fur-traders path that was now under a foot or more of water. It was at that point that Peter opined, “We should have brought a compass.” Referring to the map, we figured we could just follow a nearby creek that paralleled the trail, and pick it up again further on.

An hour later we were hanging onto roots and vines on the side of a cliff, looking down fifty feet at the rushing water below and fifty feet up at the edge of the cliff. The more we struggled on, the further we got from both the top and the bottom of the precipice, and the greater the danger we faced of losing our hold. Our only hope was to start climbing up, a very difficult feat with 60 pounds each on our backs. We made it, but now we were truly lost. The map said that the river led to Ross Lake, but the lake was miles from our trail, and there was no guarantee that we would find the trail again. It was getting dark and we were tired, but once we reached the top of the cliff we found another problem – we were on the side of a very steep mountain. It took us hours to find anything close to a level spot, so I ended up sleeping while sitting upright on a steep slope. Rain, mosquitoes and noseeums (which are basically winged teeth) plagued me, and whenever I dozed of, I was in danger of falling sideways and rolling down the hill.

the-importance-of-a-compass-03We arose the next morning to face a thick forest and thicker underbrush, and Peter again musing about the fact that neither of us thought to bring a compass. The thorny underbrush snagged at our clothing, making forward movement difficult and a little bloody, but we pushed on throughout the day, figuring that as long as we headed downhill we would eventually end up somewhere! The map had sketched out where the lake was, and indicated that it was southwest of where we had started out, but a) we didn’t know where we were now, and b) we were not sure where southwest was since the thick forest canopy virtually blocked out the sun. We had also lost track of where the river was.

Peter spent the afternoon being royally pissed off at the underbrush…

…while I entered a state of panic, as I felt the greenery closing in on me.


We had been wandering through the forest for a couple of days. My feet were blistered from wearing socks not designed for hiking, the backpack straps were digging mercilessly into my shoulders, and I seriously considered the possibility that we would never get out of those goddamned woods, when I suddenly reached my hand into my back pocket, and discovered that I hadn’t forgotten to bring the compass after all!

Before the sun had set on that third day of our journey, we arrived on a small dirt track that led us to Ross Lake. To this vey day, when I feel overwhelmed by a problem or lost in my life, and cannot see a way through, I remember that time and remind myself that I always have a compass inside that can guide me through.