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Never Doubt Your Compass

I have used a variety of compasses from time to time, but it was not until spring of 1960 that I used a compass every day as part of my job - that job being a compass man establishing boundaries in the forests of northern British Columbia. With a small, hand held compass, I had to be very accurate, starting out at one corner, traveling the perimeter of a square and arriving back at the same spot. The hardest part was the fact that this entailed going in a straight line, over or through whatever obstacles happened to be in the way. After all my experience, I can honestly say that I have doubted my compass only three times in forty years. This story is about one of those times.

It was late in November about 10 years ago, in the interior of British Columbia and I had driven up from Vancouver to stay with my Mother for a few days when a realtor phoned and told me about 160 acres for sale, some sixty miles east of town.

I decided there was just enough daylight left to drive out, walk into the property, and get back to my car before dark. Telling my Mother I would be home for supper, I took off with basic necessities, my compass, a knife and waterproof container box containing a few matches, and wearing only a light coat.

Using my pre-emption map, I drove to within one mile of the property, parked the vehicle and headed into the bush in a southerly direction. The snow was quite powdery and about eight to ten inches deep, with some drifting in the open areas. I followed a couple of moose trails in the timber that headed in a southerly direction and it took me less than an hour to reach the property. Once I had reached the property, I walked through it a few times until I found an old homestead. As I came around this partially collapsed, rustic old log barn, I came face to face with an equally surprised old cow moose. As she sauntered off, I admired, as always, the grace of such a long legged animal, able to run through trees and windfalls without breaking her stride.

It wasn't until I could hear only her hoofs hitting the odd windfall in the distance, that I realized it was getting dark. I quickly took note of my surroundings to determine where north was so that I could hike back to the main road. When I first left the road, I had taken my bearings from a small hill and used that as my guide for direction. Now, walking back out at a fairly brisk pace, keeping the hill in sight, I headed north. Out of habit, I decided to check my compass. I couldn't believe it! It showed I was walking due south, in the opposite direction of my car. Again I looked at the hill, and then again at my compass. Somehow, I thought, something magnetic was distorting my compass. I took off my watch, checked my pockets for anything metallic, put my compass in the snow and checked again - it still was 180 degrees off. Realizing there was no metallic interference (because the needle stayed steady and didn't move when I did), I still thought it was my compass that was wrong and took off again in the same direction. This was mistake number one. Never doubt your compass.

I kept up a brisk pace for about half an hour in the same direction, keeping in my sight the same hill that I had been watching all afternoon. Again I took another bearing on this hill, but it looked different this time….something was wrong. The most important rule in the bush is, when in doubt, or if you think you are lost, sit down and think. If it takes five minutes to two hours, sit down, relax, think it out, and look at your surroundings. This I did. Well, it took me only five minutes to realize why the hill I had been keeping my bearing on all day now looked a lot different from when I started out in the morning. It was because I had been looking at two hills and somehow had passed the first one without realizing there was a second. With the dumbest feeling possible, I realized it was not the compass that was wrong, it was me.

Now it was just about dark and I had maybe 30 minutes at the most, before complete darkness. I took a compass bearing and took off at a fast jog, heading straight north. Mistake number two. If you know it is going to freeze, do not cause yourself to perspire because once you stop it is possible to go into a state of hypothermia, once the temperature drops.

I kept up this jog with great difficulty because of the snow and the thick underbrush. I reached a large open field, which was difficult to cross, because of the snow, but sure was a relief from the dense bush and logs I had been scrambling over. By now it was dark and as I glanced up to see if there would be a full moon which could possibly give me enough light to make it to the road, the ground below gave out. Mistake number three, and four. Never continue at dark, but make a good emergency camp and continue at first light, being cautious of open fields, especially in winter if it's dark. As I was going down I realized that I had been walking on a small pond with a very swampy shoreline. As the icy water hit my feet, then my legs, and then my body, a survival spirit suddenly awoke and hit my tired body. As I was going down I managed to grab some swamp grass, which, even though it gave way, still broke my descent into the icy waters.

It is amazing what the human mind will think of when in a life and death situation….I thought of my dear mother waiting for me with supper ready. I have one of those Mothers who thinks her son is not only the best person in the world, but believes he does as he says. With my Mom's roast beef and mashed potatoes dramatized in front of my eyes, I was determined to, not only get out of this pond, but also to make it on time for supper. So, with "roast beef determination" I got my arms and legs in a sort of coordinated crawl and made for shore. The ice kept breaking and I realized it would be impossible to get on top, so all I could do was try to reach the swampy area. I was very fortunate that it was only a pond and not a larger lake because I was totally exhausted and numb from the cold by the time I grabbed the first handful of swamp grass. I slowly pulled myself into the ice. I crawled a short distance, then slowly got up and carefully walked for shore. I fell down several times and even broke one foot through the ice again, before I reached the shoreline and the big timer.

I knew from past experiences that I did not have a lot of time to get my clothes off and get some heat to my body before hypothermia set in. I reached into my vest and pulled out my waterproof match container and felt how many matches I had. Mistake number five. By feeling the matches with wet hands, I ruined all but three of them, which I did not know at the time because it was pitch dark. Working in the dark I gathered some dry firewood by feeling my way up some large spruce trees and breaking off the small, dry bottom branches. I piled them in a teepee style structure and then tried to light a match. It wouldn't light, nor would the next three…my matches were wet. For the first time I had some real concern. I did not know if any of my matches would work, but I had to have the odds in my favour if one would strike.

Again, I felt my way amongst the trees and found what I was looking for - a tree with a big pitch scar. Taking my knife, I cut most of it off and put it on top of some dry twigs, again built my teepee on top, took my first match and tried it again. It was wet. My second match lit, so I carefully put it into the teepee and felt warmth through my system when the pitch covered the teepee slowly started to light.

Slowly I put more small twigs on the fire and when I was assured it would not go out, I started breaking off the larger, dry limbs of the trees in the immediate area. When I could see, and had some coals built up, I moved the fire right to the tree from which I had taken the pitch. Within fifteen minutes the fire reached the pitch and the dry branches further up, giving me a big, roaring fire, and enough light to see my surroundings. A trick my father had shown me when I got cold was to start jumping in the air and slapping my arms across my chest, and this I now did, while looking for some willow boughs.

After locating some willows, I cut them off with my knife and brought them back to the fire. I them made another half dozen trips for more so that I had enough for an emergency shelter. The first thing I did was to take a large stick and scrape as much snow off the ground as possible. Next, I made a floor of willows, followed by a roof. I used a willow ridgepole tied to two uprights with two leather shoelaces, which I always carry. The roof was sloped to the ground, facing the fire, to collect the heat. I wove the remainder of the willows into sides, and then quickly dug into the snow and grabbed as much frozen moss as I could find, and shoved it through the roof and sides. Only then did I strip myself completely naked and warm my body against the fire.

This was the first time that I really had a chance to assess my situation. I looked at my watch and it was just after eight o'clock. I looked at my breath and figured the temperature must be about fifteen to twenty degrees below zero. It took a long time to dry my clothes and the first things to dry were my underwear, which I put on right away. (It wasn't until about eleven in the morning that the rest of my clothes became dry enough to put back on. My boots never did dry because I had to keep putting them on throughout the night to gather firewood).

About four o'clock in the morning I decided that, with the full moon, I would try to make it out to the road. I headed straight north, walking very slowly and carefully! It was slow going but after about an hour I reached the main road, found my car, started it and drove to town. When I got to the house, I went in and there was my Mother, a little worried, but waiting for me My supper was still in the oven. I wonder if all mothers have as much faith in their sons as mine.

Halfway through my first hot rum, my mother told me that one of my best friends had called in the evening looking for me and when I hadn't returned, had driven out and found my car by the road. He had fired many rifle shots and when he didn't get any response, had gone back to town and arranged for an early morning search party, including a helicopter. I quickly called his house, and found he had not yet left. I told him what had happened and arranged to contact everyone to call off the search party. Within a short time we were sitting around mom's kitchen table enjoying hot rums. The funny thing about the whole episode is that, to this day, my Mother never believed I was lost….I was just late for dinner!