When I first arrived in the camp near the Barrier River in Saskatchewan I was struck by the large number of people who had set time aside and traveled from afar to see if they could somehow help find the eleven year old girl who had gone missing a week earlier. Ashley and her sister had become separated on the walk back to the guest ranch and young Ashley had yet to be found.
The next thing that struck me was the great difficulty of the search. The entire river bottom appeared to be mostly a mass of willow, stretching on for miles and miles. Though forested in the higher areas, the sheer volume of willow did not bode well for the search ahead.
And ultimately, though a huge, heart-touching effort was put forward, including helicopter infrared grid searching, the Canadian military, RCMP and a great many civilians, Ashleys body was only found by a hunter later in the fall, some seven miles from where she'd disappeared into the unforgiving willows of the Barrier River.
Unfortunately, people both young and old, do occasionally become directionally challenged. And interestingly, it is often the adults who are the most difficult to locate. Children will become tired and sit down to rest and maybe even await being rescued. Adults, well, they often feel a bit embarrassed about the situation and keep on moving in hopes of seeing something familiar. This often ends poorly for searcher and searchee alike.
From my own experience I can say that it is not difficult to lose ones sense of direction in the bush. Here in the Yukon, there are normally mountains high enough to view through the tangle of brush you're travelling through. Its great to have landmarks such as mountains, but what if they become shrouded in mist and fog?
A friend and I hunted moose in northern Saskatchewan some years back. He introduced me to the area, a flat heavily forested area actually not that far from where poor young Ashley met her fate. He started me off on my own, sending me down a trail and telling me to go a hundred yards or so and veer off into the bush to the right. He would meet me from the other side. A simple plan. The best kind.
About an hour later and I'm still heading in his direction and where are Lloyd and Gerry? I slow and look around a bit and notice two hunters coming up behind me. I had unknowingly pulled a complete 180! For the duration of this week-long hunt I paid a bit more attention to what i was doing, I can tell you that! And I'm happy to report that without a compass or gps I was able to successfully navigate all over the area without becoming lost again. That bit about the moss growing higher on the north side of the tree is very true and helpful. Also, I took note of the suns position in the sky and when the clouds obscured it, they moved in an east to westerly direction. Anyway, I got away with it though i had to spend a whole day moving to the west until i finally hit the road and walked back to camp thataway.
Now, its your turn. You've left your group on a short sorte. Out of earshot of the group you're with, you spy some cute mushrooms and follow them around the trees this way and that. An hour passes and you think to head back to camp. D' oh! Now what?
I used to teach the kids a trick i learned of somewhere. I think it makes good sense for adults too. You aren't lost really, you're just a bit uncertain of exactly where actually the hell you are. Its getting late and chilly and you realize that if you choose badly, you may just have to spend the night in a swamp full of scary-sounding owls. What to do? You are home. No, I'm not suggesting denial, at least not... yet! You just decide that where you are is your home for the night. Make yourself comfortable where you are. Build a lean-to. Light a fire. Gather enough wood for the night. Make a spruce-bough bed. Home sweet home.
In the morning do you take off all your clothes and run naked and screaming through the woods hoping to find a restaurant? Better plan is to start making trails this way and that. Mark the trees on both sides as you travel so you can always find your way "home" to your camp. If you make four trails even a mile in length it is pretty likely that you will notice something familiar and be able to restore yourself to the comforts of civilization. And even if you don't, you've created a wonderful way for a search team to find you, haven't you now? And probably best of all, you've given yourself something meaningful to do which has acted as a wonderful panic preventative. As a consequence of that you haven't moved another 20 miles in the wrong direction during the night!
The personal story i related about my own getting-turned-around experience is not the only one i could have chosen. And I can tell you from my other experience that the feeling you get when you are wet and cold in a vast and soaking/freezing willow-swamp with no visible landmarks and no fire-making possibilities with night coming on is a special feeling indeed! One that might just lead someone to throw off everything that hinders and run off madly in pursuit of fine shelter and love. At least, I can imagine how that sort of panic could arise and take charge.
Of course, the best plan of all is not to become lost in the first place! But honestly, what fun is there in that?