There are three things you learn growing up in Wisconsin. The first is that Vince Lombardi is an icon of great esteem, the Green Bay Packers are the most incredible football team on earth, and the opening weekend of deer hunting season is more important than football.
On my first deer hunting trip, my dad endowed with certain fundamental items. The first and most important item was a compass. My father put a brand new compass in my hand and told me it was Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all rolled into one shiny dial. Trust your compass, learn to use it, and you'll never truly be lost. This was something he drilled into my young mind on that very first hunting trip.
We hunted in Iron County and back then, and now, there is true wilderness and we hunted in the middle of it. It was more than possible to walk in the wrong direction and go more than twenty miles without coming to a real road. There are countless old, overgrown and unused logging roads and many of those were barely recognizable as roads or even trails.
The second thing my father gave me was a waterproof metal cylinder. Inside were a dozen or so wooden, strike-anywhere kitchen matches, and each one dipped in melted wax to make them waterproof. Were I to lose my compass, I would at least be able to make a fire and keep warm.
Tradition in our camp held that your first year you did not carry a rifle and stuck like glue to the parent who brought you along. Deer camp was steeped in tradition and there were rights of passage for every new hunter. I spent that first season tagging along with Dad and it wasn't until the very last day that we actually saw any deer, and they were both does so Dad didn't shoot. It was a bucks only season and very often still is in those parts.
Dad continually tested my compass skills and would often ask me which way to get back. I'd pull out my trusty compass and point the direction back to the main road that ran through the area we hunted in. We practiced navigating, following tracks, estimating distances and walked for miles. I loved every minute of it. Despite going home empty handed, it was an amazing time and I learned so much.
Fast forward three years. I was fourteen and was trusted to be in the woods on my own and also to carry a firearm. It was borrowed, a .30-30 Winchester that belonged to my Uncle Jerry and I would carry it hunting for more than ten years.
Another teenager, a year older than me was also in deer camp and he surmised that he was more woods-smart than I was, and more experienced and a better hunter and... I'm going to call him Jim just for the sake of protecting him from any embarrassment.
Jim talked about an area where he had seen some deer during the summer and I agreed to go there with him even though it was about a four mile walk to get there. I agreed mainly because I wanted to see some new places I hadn't been to. We told the adults our general plans and were given the okay to go. Jim and I left long before the sun came up the next morning.
The eastern sky was turning gray and I was sweating a little by the time we reached the area. Jim drew a map in the snow with a stick that I knew right away wasn't very accurate, but I didn't say anything. I checked my compass, made sure I knew which way I would go to return and we split up.
The plan was to hunt for the morning, meet for lunch and then hunt again that afternoon. Now Jim, he had a habit of staying in the woods until the very last possible minute and then stumbling around in the dark to find his way out. I didn't want that and made it clear at lunch time I wasn't doing that. Not only that, before we'd left my dad had made it clear, and Jim's grandfather as well, that we were not to stay past legal shooting time and had better be back at a reasonable time.
About mid-afternoon, it started to snow and that was one of my favorite things back then, and still is, to be in the woods with the snow gently falling. More than three inches fell over the next two hours and it fairly covered up all my tracks.
I kept a close eye on my watch and when the second hand passed the twelve on that last minute of the hunting day, I stood up, took a compass reading and headed for our rendezvous point. I hadn't gone very far when it occurred to me that the direction I was headed seemed wrong, and I wasn't sure why. I stopped, checked my compass and sure enough, I was going the wrong way.
I changed direction, only to notice that the wind was in my face. Normally, the wind comes from the north, northwest, or west in those parts, and having it fully in my face told me I was probably going the wrong way. I was supposed to be going southwest.
I checked my compass and once again, I was going the wrong way. I stopped, turned around and began to follow my tracks back to where I was sitting. I came to the first place I had stopped and checked my compass to see where I'd gone wrong. The compass basically pointed me back where I had just been. So now I was confused. In one place, southwest was one direction, not two hundreds later it was another direction.
I further backtracked to the place I had spent the late afternoon sitting and checked again. Southwest, according to my compass, was in an entirely different direction than the other two places, and I was no more than 400 yards from either place.
Off in the distance, I heard a branch break, then another one. It was well past hunting time, so I hollered. "Jim! Hey Jim!"
"Over here," he yelled back, and I knew he expected me to go to him and not the other way around. Rather than waste time in the fading light, I hurried in that direction. I found Jim with a worried look on his face and his compass clutched in his hand.
"Mike! Have you got your compass?"
"Mine's messed up. Which way is southwest?"
I kinda laughed because I had no idea and I told him why. Now Jim looked really worried. The falling snow had covered all our tracks from earlier and there was no hope of following them out, never mind the extensive walking that would have required.
Jim looked at his compass and pointed. "Mine says southwest is that way," he said. I looked at my compass and pointed in a different direction. "Mine says it is that way."
Jim looked around a little, then asked me the all important question. "Got any matches?"
I had matches of course and that he didn't was a source of amusement for me, and one that I'd share later with others when I was not in his presence. I told him I had matches, then asked if he had any. He told me no.
So basically, our situation was that we were lost unless we could figure out which way was southwest. Jim was all for building a shelter and a fire and staying put. There was no way I was admitting to my dad, Jim's grandfather, my brothers or any of the men that mentored us boys that I couldn't figure out how to get out of the woods.
By then, it was nearly dark and we should have covered the first mile or so back to camp. I did something then I had been taught never to do―I stopped trusting my compass and started trusting my instincts.
"Follow me," I told Jim. I picked a direction and a tree in that direction and headed for the tree. Halfway to it, I picked another tree in the same line and kept walking the line, picking one tree after another. This was a trick I learned in Boy Scouts for walking in a straight line.
It was soon completely dark and picking trees any significant distance apart was becoming difficult, but we had already covered a fair amount of ground and had not crossed any of our own tracks. I set my rifle against a tree, took out a match and struck it so I could read my compass. It said we traveling just a little west of south. Jim's compass agreed. We adjusted course and set off again. I went through nine matches, each match one step closer to freezing all night if we didn't find our way out.
It was an amazing relief to step out of the hardwoods and onto the logging road. We used one more match to make sure the road went in the right direction, since it was quite possible to end up on the wrong logging road. It was a long walk back and we were a good mile further than we had started out, but we passed many landmarks along the way and knew we were on the right road.
We arrived in camp just in time to stop the search party. They were coming looking for us and we were given quite the lecture several times over by various men who were not very happy with us. The worst crime seemed to be that supper was delayed, but we knew better, that they were truly concerned about us.
After supper was cooked and eaten and we "boys" had done the dishes, I broached the issue of the compasses. Jim's grandfather was undisputed leader in our camp, and he knew that land like the back of his hand―another reason why Jim tried to lord over the rest of us. He had owned it, logged it at one time and could tell you things about it you'd never guess. He measured distances in rods instead of feet, yards or miles.
I related what happened with the compasses and told him how Jim's compass pointed one direction while mine pointed another, and how you'd travel a few yards and it would all change.
Jim's grandfather made it all clear. "Ya were up past the road to the duck ponds in those hardwood ridges. Ya went past that big boulder on the left and it was up there ya got mixed up, wasn't it?"
I agreed that was where we were, although we had not been that specific as to our plans for the day, nor had we told them exactly where we were.
"There's a big iron deposit up there that comes close to the surface. Even had a bid on that land by a mining company once. Ya can't trust yer compass no how up there. You'll walk in a circle around that spot all day."
In the woods, your compass is your bible. If you know how to use it, it tells you how to get where you're going and how to get out, barring natural obstacles like beaver ponds, lakes, rivers, swamps or even mountains. The trick is knowing when to trust that bible, and when to realize something is amiss and that you'd better use your common sense as much as your compass.
As for Jim, he left his compass at home one day a few years after the incident, got lost in the woods and spent the night in an old line shack (logging shack). Fortunately, there was a wood stove in it for heat. Unfortunately for Jim, he had no matches. I heard the story from another guy, but I never said anything to Jim.
To this day, I don't ever step into the woods without my compass or my waterproofed kitchen matches in their little metal canister.
A true story by MJ Logan
- Photo: Compass by Matt Biddulph
- Photo: Winter Forest by Duncun Brown
- Photo: Wooden Stick Matches by David Dames
- Photo: Birch Forest by Sini Merikallio
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