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Natural Navigation, Part III

by Allan "Bow" Beauchamp

This installment will offer more natural indicators for orienting yourself in the wilderness and reinforce the reasons of what, why, and how to see.

We have established a multilevel proving system that will help you become more accurate in determining the directions, north, east, south, and west. Each time you walk into the bush, do a primary test to gauge these skills.

The first article was to help you identify nature's indicators and be less likely to get lost when separated from your equipment. The second article showed some exceptions to the rules. As in the previous installments, the reader is encouraged to do their own "dirt time" -- time in the bush, on your belly if necessary, looking at the clues nature provides as to directions. Learn to read nature, check it against your compass, be mindful of exceptions, practice in good and bad conditions and with and without sunlight, and internalize your own system. Now is the time to test your knowledge and skill level. Only practice will help you develop true confidence.

Now in this part of our training let's continue to see natural indicators. Again, snow is used as a backdrop as it shows so many small indicators prominently, making it easier for the reader to see what I am trying to convey. Most readers probably won't have snow, but you can use these natural navigating techniques all year around, in all types of terrain and all types of weather.


Photo 1

Remember the moose track (Part II, photo 6)? Some of the tips learned there will apply to objects 100th that size. In photo 1 you will see a cattail stalk beside our compass. The compass is set so that north is to the mirrored side.

To view this scene in the wild, you would want to be as close to the ground as possible (yes, on your belly). While viewing the cattail picture, ask yourself, "What is this telling us?" Let's ignore the shadows for now, as you want to see much deeper.

At the top left corner we see some snow crest. This is caused from the wind, and will assist us in determining directions. Just as our moose track offered sharp edges and depth as natural navigators, all the small changes on the snow surface will mean something of benefit to our determining the directions. Our focus now is beyond just what we see and into what we feel. Try not to just look at these photos -- imagine you are at the sites with me.

Looking at the cattail base, we see that the snow has melted more on one side than the other. Remembering the previous articles, we know the sun caused this as it moved from a southeast to southwest direction. Now think if you will of taking the cattail out of the hole and running your fingers around the edges of the depression. Is there a difference? What would we feel? Will the windward side be sharper than the windless side?

If we were to lie on our bellies and view the hole from the ground level, would we see a slight difference in the windward side of the hole (northwest side) as compared to the opposite (southeast) side? For additional support of this theory, all we have to do is look at top of the photo and view the long piece of grass that has come loose on the snow, north of the cattail.

It would be very easy to sense the difference in how the snow is blown if you could remove the grass and feel the snow. Which side would be smooth and which side would be sharper?

Examine the snow crest at the top left again. Here the wind difference is more pronounced. The rougher side is formed as the wind sweeps upwards, causing a sharp edge. If you could get down on the snow within an inch from the cresting, it would seem very pronounced. Another test is by feeling. Close your eyes and feel all the sharp edges and all the graininess around the entire surface. Then feel how the windward side contrasts with the windless side. Now then, open your eyes and view the cresting from the wind side and again from the windless side. Stand up after you view this and start to back up until you lose sight of the small cresting. You will find this amazing, as to how far you can view this small indicator from nature when at first you would have passed this by.

If you notice a similar cresting when walking across a snow covered lake, go on the side of the lake away from the sun and view it, then view it from the side of the lake facing the sun. When facing the sun, the cresting is more pronounced as we have determined earlier.

We can use this same cresting indicator on a moonlit night. As the moon also rises in the east and sets in the west, the moon's shadow will highlight small indicators.

Why worry about minute indicators you have to feel? What if you were to go into the bush at night, collecting wood south of your camp, and suddenly you get a tree limb whipped across your eyes, temporarily blinding you ? Could being on your hands and knees and feeling these small indicators offer any assistance in your time of need? Would a compass be of any use here? If you were caught in a sudden storm and visibility was diminishing fast, could you feel the base of the cattail and know which direction would get you back to camp?

How about that moose track, or perhaps a deer track you find if turned around in the woods? Could you look for the shadow in it? Would it confirm your direction or perhaps be a time estimator? In photo 1 we see that at the base of the small plant the cresting is very pronounced. Again, get low for the best view. Spend the time examining the small differences around the plant closely. The better you understand every detail, the farther away you will recognize these indicators.


Photo 2

In photo 2 you can see a closer view of the base of the cattail and the differences from one side to the other. The measuring tape helps illustrate the distortion from one side to the other. Again, as with the moose track in the last article, there is a "leaning" towards the southern direction. Remember that the prevailing wind in this area is from the northwest. In the background behind the cattail stem, you will see small twigs that have also succumbed to this wind.

Photo 3

Even smaller than a twig, a single blade of grass in photo 3, serves to guide us. Again, the compass is set with the mirror in the northern direction. Obviously, the smaller the guide, the closer we will have to get to see and feel all that nature has to say here.

Photo 4

In photo 4 we see a more detailed view of the wind working the surface. Notice the differences in the surface. The more attention we pay to very fine detail, the easier it is to hone our viewing skills and determine our direction more accurately.

Photo 5

In photo 5 we see beside our compass a small piece of grass that has blown back and forth all day. The wind has caused this small grass to etch a mark into the snow. If you stopped for a five minute sitdown on your long journey, would you be aware of this small indicator? You should be aware of it now.

Photo 6

In photo 6 we see this small natural indicator highlighted with our arrow pointer. When you are on the ground resting, they should be easy to see. I have been quoted as saying "you should be able to go into the bush at any time, no matter what the weather or the time of day, and find ten natural indicators to guide your path."
Now when you look back at previous articles' examples, ask what more you see in them. As the lessons have progressed and you have practiced, more small details will become obvious. I have been trying to give you something to mentally visualize. Now it should start to become easier.

Take the time to review this series, starting with the question of why natural navigation is important. What benefits does this offer me as opposed to manmade tools? When you did your first practice test, what was the result? Now do the test again, and see what you have learned.

I first showed you how to view natural indicators in passing. Then I talked more of the short stop type of indicators and told you about a variety of techniques and how they could be combined to confirm each other and provide you with more options. This would maximize your opportunities for a safe trip home. With this article, I tried to make you more sensitive to the minute changes around you.

With this in-depth approach I tried to interest you in feeling the changes so as to better visualize and experience these yourself. All of these techniques are, of course, no good to you if you do not go into the bush and develop your own feel for these ever-changing natural indicators. Practice will increase your accuracy immensely.

You weren't born with a "sixth sense". However, as you learn to natural navigate, you can walk around the bush with your friends and tell them the direction accurately with no manmade tools. I wonder what they will say ...

I hope you have gained a more in-depth view of nature's mini-navigators, which you can put into your own cache of experiences. Nature will never steer you wrong.

Go out into whatever kind of bush you have and look for clues as we have tried to demonstrate here. Soon you will see that even if the vegetation is different, the indicators are always there. You will have to go and seek them out (dirt time). Start simple. Notice the easy indicators first. Then go to "multi-leveling" to determine if they confirm each other for better accuracy.

When you walk through the bush after a storm and come across a deer bedding spot, take your compass out and confirm what you will probably now know. On the same walk, after a storm, look around and note if all the trees are wet on one side. If there is a distinctive dry vs. wet side to trees, you will know the prevailing wind direction for your area. Once the direction of the prevailing wind is known, this is an easy indicator for the bush traveler to follow. Is the bark on the harshest weather side going to be thicker than the side that isn't as harsh? Do a test. Go experience this.

Remember lessons from sunlight in the earlier installments. If you took that wet tree and cut it down, would the rings of the tree be thick on the side that gets the most amount of sunlight during the day? Always remember to combine indicators for the best result.

Article and Photos Copyright Allan "Bow" Beauchamp.
This article originally appeared in Wilderness Way magazine, Volume 5, Issue 4