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  • Writer's pictureCliff Jacobson

YOU SAVED US! Or, How Not to Stay Lost!

This is from Caitlin Looney, a wilderness therapist in Colorado. Caitlin was guiding a group of teenagers and turned a “lost experience” into a confidence-building, inspirational event. Caitlin did everything exactly right. Follow along on the map as you read her story. Note that her choices reflect an in-depth understanding of backcountry navigation.



Hello Cliff:

I am a wilderness therapist in the Rockies of Colorado. The majority of my work happens front country with kayaking, challenge courses, hiking, and fishing as my modalities. However, once a year I co-lead a trip with 10 eighteen year olds into the backcountry of the Rocky Mountain National Park. The majority of the trip is on trail with the exception of one day when we complete a peak ascent. This year was my fifth year leading this trip and peak ascent (Mt. Orton) in the same region. I always give the students a short orienteering lesson along with maps and compasses before we head up. On the way back down from the peak, I offer them the opportunity to lead for a while (after all, they just have to go downhill, right?!).

Well, this year things didn't quite go as planned! One of the students in the back was having a hard time, so my co-leader and I focused our attention on him. I was subtly aware that we had cleared a ridge and the downhill had begun to take us south when we should have been traveling east, but I wasn't too worried because we had some room for error since our campsite was next to a fairly large lake, Sandbeach Lake. By the time I decided to take back the reins, so to speak, three of the students had picked up their pace to a steady trot and split off in two directions. I matched their pace and got the whole crew back together, all the while becoming aware that in my hustle, I had lost my bearings. But, I saw an opening through the trees that looked like a lake, so we headed for that... Well, it was a lake. But it wasn't OUR lake!

I had never been lost before, let alone while in charge of ten other people! Honestly, what I did next was very stupid. I panicked and focused on hiding our "lost" status from the students. I didn't want to worry them... So instead of opening the whole topo map, I glanced at an area on the folded up map where a nearby lake was and rapidly pointed northeast and began walking. I came to my senses about a quarter mile later and stopped to open the map and discuss with my co-leader. Near the "unknown lake" we had found, we had also crossed a southernly flowing stream. There was a north-south river on the map, but I wasn't certain that it was the stream we had crossed. The stream we had crossed was small and the river on the 1:40,000 map appeared to be quite a bit bigger. So now I was in the terrifying position of not knowing if we were southwest or southeast of our campsite. In that moment I experienced fear like I had never known. My mouth went totally dry and I could barely speak to the students. However, I did manage a smile and some reassuring words. It had begun raining and we had two hours of daylight left. My co leader and I began to take inventory of our emergency supplies (we only had daypacks) and make plans for creating a temporary shelter and camping in the forest for the night. Then it hit me! I had read your book, "The Basic Essentials of Map & Compass" (1988), the previous summer. I was on a bus tour vacation and thought it was a good time to learn more than how to read contour lines. I had attempted reading other orienteering books in the past, but they were always too abstract, and honestly a bit arrogant, for me. But your book was so clear, concise, and humble in the way you wrote it. You really normalized the experience of getting disoriented in the wilderness. The line drawings and map examples were so applicable to my experience that I decided to read it twice!

So, I halted our emergency plans and went back to the map. The forest was so thick around us that we couldn't see anything to triangulate our position. My co- leader and I scrambled up to a rock outcropping, but all we could see were ponderosa pines in every direction and a silhouette of the continental divide in the west. So, I knew what Cliff would tell me to do! The only thing I was certain of was north. I looked far north on the map. If we were on the east side of the lake and walked directly north, we would have to pass the lake, but would hit an east-west trail that led into our campsite. If we were on the west side of the lake and used a north bearing, we would bypass the lake by a bit of a distance, but hit a SE flowing river that would also lead us to the same trail. This meant a lot of extra walking for a group of cranky teenagers, but it also meant getting found before dark! So north we went and about an hour later walked directly into an east-west trail. I almost cried! But I didn't because I was still attempting to look competent and certain. I just nodded in a knowing way and turned left onto the trail. After heading west for 20 minutes, we walked right into camp as if it had been there waiting for us all along!

I know you probably get long-winded stories like this all of the time, but I really needed you to hear our tale. Mostly, I wanted to tell you that you saved us because you wrote a humble and accessible book about map and compass. Thank you, Cliff. I will never forget the lessons that you and the Wild Basin taught me that day.

Be well,

Caitlin Looney

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