Finding your way in the woods without a map or compass can be a daunting task, yet our ancestors travelled their wild world, sometimes hundreds of miles on foot, without a breaking a sweat… How the heck did they do it??
Being guided by nature is based in reading the subtle patterns in nature that modern domesticated humans normally ignore. The directions of the world are worn into the very rocks, reflected in the undergrowth leaves reaching towards the sun and in the gnarled branches of trees twisting their way to the sky. Our ancestors could read these natural patterns as easily as you read a street sign, guiding them to their destinations and back again.
So how do we (re)train ourselves in this ancient human skill? There is no one fail safe, true in every location “trick” to natural navigation. Finding your way naturally relies on understanding of the larger natural patterns of the area you live in- the amount and direction of light, prevailing wind(s), level of moisture… These cumulative forces cause subtle asymmetries that you can learn to interpret. In short, you must spend time out in nature, observing and interacting.
Here are some handful of rough directional patterns to get you started:
1. “Into the light”. In an effect known as Heliotropism many plants orient themselves towards the greatest source of light. In our forest one of the more sensitive (and obvious) Heliotropic flora would be our lovely fiddlehead ferns. Ferns in direct sun will tend to orient much of their growth southwards to catch the most light. Note: make sure to look for obstacles to light that can change the fern’s orientation. Under heavy tree cover, heliotropic plants will orient towards the nearest bright opening in the canopy, no matter what direction it is. Open meadows may be your best bet.
2. Look for a tree’s “Heavy Side”. Lone Trees tend to be “heavier” with more leaves and branches to the south side (in our northern hemisphere) in order to catch more of the life giving sun. Take the time to walk around the tree and view it from multiple angles. Note: this effect can be muted or overridden in a grouping of trees as their shadows interact with each other.
3. Branching out. Sunlight also directs the growth of individual branches. Southern branches tend to grow more horizontally (towards the sun), while the shaded northern branches tend to grow more vertically in their quest for more sunlight. This can be most easily seen when observing the tree from East/West. Once again, individual trees are easier to read than groves.
4. Moss and moisture. Isn’t moss supposed to grow on the north side of trees? Yes, but… for the record, moss does not always grow just on the north side of trees. Where moss grows depends mainly on the level of moisture, and this is not always on the north side. Also, disregard growth in the first 2 feet up from the ground around the trunk – which tends to be influenced by the evaporating ground moisture.
Interested in exploring this further? For an engaging guide to these skills look for Tristan Gooley’s book “The Natural Navigator”. There are hundreds (possibly thousands) of more tips to explore and many more of your own to discover as you go out and start looking for your own patterns in nature.
(NOTE: This does not give you an excuse to go out into unfamiliar territory without a map!)
Surprisingly enough, it wasn’t a dark and stormy night.
The sun shone warm on my back, a light breeze whispered through the pines. Little chickadees sang of spring. All in all, it was a beautiful early spring afternoon.
In the middle of this Disney-esque day, my phone vibrates against my leg.
It’s my partner, Lee calling; “Want a helicopter ride?” is his greeting. “There’s a hiker, possibly in full arrest in the High Country. Star-9 needs a team ready to go immediately.”
My prep has an extra edge to it. I pull my uniform on, quickly check my backpack for the essentials, head out the door and jump into Lee’s waiting truck. We’re on our way in a handful of minutes towards Keenwild helipad. On the way we get the news that Donny and Les will be backing us up as the ground team hiking into the high country, with the rest of the team on standby to head in if we need assistance.
The A-Star helicopter touches down as we arrive. Technical Flight Officer Eric Hannum leans out and waves us in. He briefs us as Pilot Mike Calhoun speeds us towards the High Country. “Our subject’s name is Donna. She is a 70 yr old woman, blond hair, blue eyes, white jacket, black pants. She was hiking with her husband near Laws Junction when she experienced “Heart attack symptoms”, Husband hiked several miles back to Notch 5 in the State Park before he could call for help.” Eric relates that the husband reported a “large opening” in the trees nearby that he thinks should be perfect for a helicopter landing. Hmmm… we’ll see.
Star-9 makes a series of wide circles above the trail near Laws for what seems like eternity- but is in reality only a few minutes. We peer down trying to somehow pick up any slight movement, any change in color. Where is she?? It doesn’t help that our subject is wearing black and white against a background of patchy half melted snow, blackened remains of trees left over from the Mountain fire and dark mountain soil.
As the minutes tick by, I start to doubt the location information we’ve been given. The husband had to have hiked out along the Hidden Divide trail to get back to Notch 5 from Laws… And it could be that they never made it all the way down to the actual junction, especially if they had to go through the burn area to get there…
I key my mic: “Hey guys, why don’t we locate the upper end of the Hidden Divide trail and backtrack?”
Mike swings the helicopter to the North and we start to scour the steep slope for the remains of the trail. Bingo! Within 2 minutes of changing our strategy, we’ve located the subject. Even better, she is obviously still responsive and no longer alone. 2 other hikers have joined her to help in her time of need.
Unfortunately what seemed like a “large opening” in the tree cover to the husband is far too small and dangerous to land a helicopter in. Pilot Mike thinks quickly and flys back to the closest large clearing to land and insert us. Once on the ground we grab a screamer suit to carry with us. We’re pretty sure this will end up being a hoist situation and we want to be prepared to get our subject safely in the air as soon as possible. The afternoon sun is fading into a warm alpenglow, the evening wind is starting to kick in and the already crisp temperature is starting to drop. We had best get moving before our window of opportunity closes. I don’t know if our subject could survive a night out here, and we don’t intend to find out.
The helicopter flies out to convert to their hoisting setup as we hike at double time down through the brisk mountain air towards our subject’s location.
Within minutes we see her ahead of us, sitting on a rock flanked by her caretakers. It’s a relief to see her responsive and in far better condition than we had right to expect from the original call-out.
Lee and I quickly introduce ourselves to our subject and her helpers. Our subject greets us with shy sweet smile, bright blue eyes and a friendly, soft spoken voice. Instead of meeting her situation with panic she is calm, although obviously worried. I begin my medical examination as Lee heads down the trail to search the nearby forest for a safe and close hoisting location.
I notice right away that she is trembling, I’m not sure yet if it is due to the cold or something more serious. I ask her questions to get her talking and help me assess her mental state. I check her pupillary response, then vitals. Her pulse is rapid, but not strong. Breathing is somewhat labored, and slightly fast. She has recently eaten and had water, already taken aspirin, and reports no history of cvd or any other medical conditions or medications. So far, so good.
Even as I lead the conversation to what happened, I’m closely watching my subject, Always assessing her, watching for any clues to her condition or information that will need to be passed on. She is alert and aware of what has happened to her, has a good memory of the situation and can explain it well.
She describes hiking down the trail to clearing, having lunch with her husband. She had a slight headache, and took a nap. She woke to extreme shortness of breath and muscular weakness. She was unable to hike at all, and found it hard to even walk a few feet. They quickly decided that he would run for help.
One of the hikers has kindly shared her jacket with Donna. Despite this, she is still shivering. As soon as I’ve made sure there is no immediate threat to her life, I break open my pack, pulling out a down jacket, a thick wool beanie and warm wool gloves. Once she is warmer, we will be better able to rule out the source of her trembling.
Since we are out this far in the Wilderness, our best bet is to get her out as quickly as possible. Unless an immediate emergency comes up, our priority is to prep her for transport, take care of her immediate physical needs and get a pattern of vitals established so I have some trends to hand off to the Hospital. Any information I can gather at this stage may play a key role in saving her life if her condition suddenly worsens.
Lee arrives back from his scouting trip. “There’s a good hoist location just a 2 minute walk to the West.” His arm points down the slightly inclined slope. Good, I think. It’s a short, clear walk downhill. It should be manageable if we take it easy. Donna’s heart and respiratory rates have slowed down a bit and her breathing seems much less labored.
I glance to the sky. The sun is hanging low in the sky. We need to get her out of here while we can still easily do so. I’d much rather hoist while we still have light to do so safely.
Donna is a real trooper and makes the trek with no complaint. Time to get her ready for the hoist. Lee holds up the screamer suit for her to put her arms through as I strap her in and join the rings with a locking carabiner, securing her into her “cradle”. Lee verbally walks her through the steps of the process.
Lee keys his radio: “Star-9, we are ready for hoist.”
The helicopter approaches, the rapid beat of it’s rotor blades echoing up and through the wide ravine. The sudden gale throws up ash from the recent fire, pelting my face with bits of debris. I turn to shelter Donna from the onslaught as Lee reaches out for the rapidly descending hoist hook. The air crew (now a new shift: pilot Kevin Boss, TFO Manny Romero) manages to swing the hook right into Lee’s hand! I clip Donna into the hook, double check that the system is securely closed and wave my hand upward and out from my helmet to signal the TFO to lift.
The wind from the chopper is brutally cold, and my hands have become painfully stiff from just a couple minutes of exposure. I’m going to need all th dexterity I can manage to clip myself into the hoist, so this could be a problem. I jam my hands deep into my jacket pockets to warm them up. Another minute and I’m gazing up expectantly, positioning myself, reaching for the hoist, clipping in… Suddenly I’m flying straight up. As I reach the helicopter, I walk my hands on the struts to avoid bumping my head. The TFO gives me a nod and a smile and helps me into the the seat next to Donna. Our unwieldy packs come up next, spinning in the wild wind currents.
It takes far longer for Lee to come up. As the minutes tick by, I start to get worried. Is something wrong? Finally I see Lee’s head emerge over the edge of the deck. He looks sick. He has completed the most hoist rescues ever on the team, but I’ve never seen him like this. The TFO clears up the mystery “The wind spun him like a top on the way up- I’ve never seen anything like it!”
There’s not enough room in the small cabin for all of us and the enormous packs, so Lee and the TFO sit perched on the outside of the copter, safely clipped in, but exposed to the bitingly cold wind as we fly towards the desert.
As we beeline towards our destination the scenery is majestic enough to take your breath away- craggy cliffs, the sharp relief of impenetrable ravines and razor ridge lines flying by almost to fast to absorb. Donna is fascinated- it’s a real joy to see the worry leave her face, replaced by wonder… “What an adventure!”
We arrive at the transfer point and pass our subject off the the waiting EMTs. I give them a briefing on her vitals and current condition, shake her eagerly waiting husband’s hand, give her a big hug and wish her well.
Have you ever asked yourself…
Why do pines have both big and teeney tiny cones?
The answer lies in the basic biology of pine tree reproduction. Every conifer tree species produces male and female cones (usually both on the same tree!). The male cones start out small and stay small, usually going pretty much unnoticed by the unobservant public.
These diminutive male cones fall off the tree soon after they do their job in pollination and will never really open up into what we often consider a “real” decorative cone. Meanwhile, the female cones grow ever larger and larger- maturing to their full size in a matter of months up to several years depending on the species.
Why do Ponderosas smell so darn good?
Ever catch a mysterious whiff of baking cookies as you stroll through the woods? No, you’re not out of your gourd. You’re probably just passing near an old stand of Ponderosas, or their cousins the Jeffery pines.
These trees perform a fascinating trick as they age. When a Ponderosa or Jeffery reaches around 110 years old (a mere teenager!), their bark changes color from black to yellow-tinted and they start producing a special chemical in their sap that emits an absolutely delicious aroma when warmed by the sun.
So look for these older “yellow-bellied” trees, stick your nose into a deep crevice in their bark and take a good, deep sniff …ahhhhh… Now go home to satisfy your sudden craving for some warm cookies and cold milk!
Are sugar pines really all that sweet?
Actually… yes! The Sugar Pine exudes a sweet gummy sap which hardens up into rock-candy like shapes, just ripe for the picking. The Native Americans prized this sugary sap as a delicious sweet treat. The “sweet” in the sap comes from a sugar alcohol named pinitol which is under investigation from modern medicine for possible insulin sensitizing and muscle building properties.
Don’t just decide to go out gathering pine sap though, unless you are prepared to get covered in sticky goo. and remember, sap serves as part of the tree’s immune system against pests like the bark beetle and gathering it can put the tree at risk.
So, get out there on the trail and enjoy a new view (and smell) of our old friends, the pines!
After a long hard work week, it was finally time for a night out. Dinner down in the desert had been great. It was a long winding back up the mountain, but it was worth it. An hour later I could still taste the lingering flavor of Duck confit with chanterelles in my mouth as we pulled with a gravelly crunch into the driveway. Now, all I was looking forward to was a hot bath and warm bed.
I had just unclipped my seatbelt when a new text chimed out.
I look down at my phone, eyes widening: “We have a mission!”
Two lost hikers at Marion Mountain. Dang, this could be a big one! Marian Mountain is one of the steepest trails in the area. It is notorious for sending people down it’s offshoots into deep, dark, dangerous canyons. Over the years we’ve rescued many people from its grasp, and it’s usually been a doozy of a mission. We’d better prep for an overnighter for sure.
Instead of jumping in the bath, I head directly for the rescue room. In a matter of minutes I pull on my uniform, double check my gear and backpack, and am ready to head out. I grab a extra radio for the deputy and I’m out the door.
I heave my backpack in the bed of the truck and hop in. My Partner Lee speeds up the 243 towards the mission base location marked by a google pin drop. On the way we get the news that our teammates Cameron Dickinson and Kevin Kern are on their way here. Good. It’s always a good idea to have backup on a Marion Mountain mission.
Turning off the main highway we wind our way along the pockmarked and potholed asphalt back towards the Marion Mountain trailhead. As we approach we can see the Sheriff’s lights ahead, red and blue flashes piercing the pitch black, illuminating the pines in an eerie dance of color.
Thank Goodness for Cell Service
Dispatch is on the radio with the deputy. One of the subjects has managed to get weak cell-service and is on the phone describing their location. The deputy slowly repeats the conversation to us. “They’re at a campground with water towers nearby”. Lee’s eyes light up immediately “I know where they are!”
“Sound the siren!” Lee suggests to the deputy. A loud whoop comes from the car. A couple of seconds later, confirmation from dispatch: The subjects have heard the siren. Perfect! Lee and I grin at each other. We won’t even need our backpacks for this one. He turns to me: “They’re at the old campground” that makes sense- it’s still closed this early in the season. They could’ve gotten sidetracked on their way back down, found an old campsite and decided to stick it out somewhere that seems at least somewhat civilized.
A 15 Minute Rescue
We ask the deputy to wait. “This won’t take long”. A quick eight minute march up a steep hillside covered in slippery pine duff, and we see the glow of a fire ahead illuminating up the trees in a warm circle of light. “Hello!” We yell out as a greeting. Excited yells greet us back.
As we approach I see two people huddled near the inviting blaze of a fire ring. Our subjects are ecstatic to see us. A quick set of introductions goes around before we get to the meat of the interview.
Ron and Diana started out separately that day. She was part of a hiking meetup group and he was travelling on his own near the group. The Meetup group had asked people to pick a hiking buddy. Through an understandable mixup Diana had chosen Ron as her partner and only realized much later that he was not part of the group.
Still, they had a great hike up to the peak but ended up making it back down in the fading twilight. They had both made some of the classic mistakes that tend to get hikers in trouble. Neither one had counted on staying out so late. They had underestimated the length of he hike, had not brought extra provisions, not familiarized themselves with the trailhead, and they had no source of light between them.
In the fading light at the end of the hike they got off the trail, but managed to make it back down. Unfortunately the simple map they had showed only the trails without the topography. (One more reason to learn to read a topo map and always bring your own!) Once off trail, they had no way to find the location of their cars. The darkness made everything unfamiliar and they weren’t even sure they were in the right area on the mountain.
“I had figured our car was over that way”, Ron said pointing North in the direction of Dark Canyon. “But she insisted we stay put”.
“I’m glad you did.” If they had headed off that way they would be lost in the middle of a tangle of deep dark ravines and thick brush right now. No cell service there! Our job would’ve gotten a whole heck of a lot harder. An amazingly simple search of several minutes would have morphed into long hours or even days, with a large potential of our subjects becoming injured, hypothermic and/or severely dehydrated.
Luckily for us all, they decided to hunker down instead. Diana had brought some matches for the fire and they both had jackets which helped keep them warm.
“Well, let’s get you back”. Lee puts out the fire. I stamp out the last embers with my heavy leather boots. We each hand out one of our many spare headlamps for the subjects to use. As we walk back, I review a few of the lessons of the night. Our new friends readily confirm they will not be heading out without their full set of ten essentials again, especially their not without headlamps and a good map! A short hike down the slope and we hit the pockmarked road leading to their cars.
In a couple minutes, we see flashing lights illuminating the road ahead. Time to hand them off to the deputy.
They’ll have a exciting story for friends and family. They were lucky- they had all the ingredients for things to go horribly wrong, but got a brief adventure and a good lesson instead.
Have You Ever Wondered?
Hiking around these mountains there’s all sorts of things in nature that just seem designed to boggle mind. Have you ever wondered…
This foam is caused by the formation of a crude soap on the bark from fatty acids in pine sap/resin. Over a drought a mix of sap salts and acids accumulates and coats the bark surface to form the basics of a rough detergent.
When it rains, these ingredients mix with the water and start sudsing up. The froth (foam) is from the agitation of the mixture as it runs down the rough bark during its flow toward the ground.
So it’s a perfectly natural thing when a pine suds up in the rain- although if it does so excessively, it may indicate that there is some insect or other damage that is causing it to “bleed” more sap.
3. Why are there sticks walking around at the bottom of the stream?
Next time you’re down by the creek in the summer take a look at the bottom of the small pools and you’ll see a collection of small sticks that seem to be crawling along against the current.
These little guys are caddisfly larvae. They are sheltered by a shell of pebbles, bark and other debris that they have built-up and “glued” in place around them with a form of silk that they excrete. It’s a great protection and camouflage all at once. Some types of caddisfly not only form shells with the silk, but also make nets in order to collect food and build hideaways.
2. Do you know how to tell who ate your pinecone? Lots of critters like to munch away at pine cones to fatten them up for the winter, but each has a distinctive way of chowing down.
You can always tell where a squirrel has eaten lunch, since they leave a clean pine cone ‘core’ (like an apple core!) and a big pile of stripped pine scales on the ground behind them. (Didn’t their mom ever teach them to clean up?)
Woodpeckers and many other of our feathered friends also peck away at pinecones. They use their pointy beaks to pull out the pine scales, one by one. This leaves a ragged, “pokey” edge (the scales of cones eaten by squirrels have clean-cut edges because of their sharp teeth).
So next time you’re out and about and you run into a strange natural phenomenon (or just something you’ve always wondered about), take the time to do the research. There’s almost always a fascinating answer that can help you understand more about natural patterns around you- and it’s great hiking trivia!