High-tech navigation tools nice, but not needed

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D.S. Pledger
Sunday, November 10, 2013

I spent last weekend at the cabin with nephew Brian, who flew here from his home in Utah for some hunting.

Since an accident that resulted in arm surgery earlier this fall made it impossible for me to pull a bow or carry a shotgun, I was along strictly as a guide.

Grouse numbers have plummeted this year, and a long weekend of tramping around failed to flush even a single bird.

The visiting sport from the Beehive State did have one “almost” shot at a deer (just a few yards too far) one evening. He was nearly trampled by a small herd of them on his way to a stand in the predawn darkness the following morning, but logging on an adjacent 40 to the east seems to have disrupted the traditional deer traffic patterns and hunting was sketchy.

One thing I wanted to accomplish while we were up there, however, was to inspect a suspicious looking spot on some government land to the west of us. It’s in the Chequamegon National Forest and while “flying over” it on Google Earth a few weeks ago, I noted a place where a narrow neck between two big swamps formed a kind of funnel.

Spots like this are often places where wildlife—deer especially—are concentrated as they travel, since they would rather walk on hard, dry ground than slog through a swamp. Would there be a trail there, pounded deep by years of cloven hoof traffic, one of those spots where deer pass on a regular basis? The only way to find out was by hiking through a mile of thick woods, hills and swampland.

Before leaving Milton, I put the coordinates in my GPS, and on Sunday Brian and I went exploring. Soon any familiar land was behind us as we worked our way through dense stands of timber, crawled over blow-downs and skirted lowlands.

As we traveled I noted with disappointment that there was little if any deer sign. No trails, no rubs, no scrapes. In fact, the woods were almost devoid of anything that would make one think that it might be a good place to hunt.

Then, too, as my nephew pointed out, “If you did shoot one here, you’d need a helicopter to get it out.”

We were near our goal when we decided that pushing the additional tenth of a mile indicated on my GPS was probably not going to accomplish anything, since the country wasn’t huntable anyway. As we started to turn back, I said something along the lines of “Good thing we’ve got our GPSs or we’d probably never find our way out again.”

Brian, who is no stranger to wild places, took this as a challenge. He turned off his receiver and proclaimed, “OK, no technology. Let’s see if we can find our way out just using my wristwatch.”

I knew that in a pinch you can use a watch as a compass. Point the hour hand towards the sun, and halfway between the hand and 12 o’clock is south, but I never tried it in a real situation before. Just as a precaution, I kept my compass handy to check our progress occasionally but basically followed my nephew as he confidently headed back through the forest.

We knew that there was a long, dry marsh to the south as we neared our destination, which was a logging road. Sure enough—after a while we could make out a ridge line through the trees to our left and soon the marsh came into view. Another five minutes of hiking and we were standing on the trail again—our safe return made possible by a wristwatch.

Today’s technology can be a great asset, but you can find your way without it, too. It’s important not to forget those old direction-finding techniques and not become totally dependent on things with batteries and circuits that can’t tolerate water.

D.S. Pledger is an outdoors columnist for The Gazette. Email him at maus16@centurytel.net.

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