By Dan Beard
If you ever find that you are lost, do not become frightened. There is more danger in fright than there is in the prospect of starvation or accident. If you allow yourself to become frightened, you become possessed of what we call "the panic of the lost", which terrible condition of the mind often ends in insanity. As soon as you discover you have lost your way in the wilderness, sit down with your back against a stump or stone, take out your jack-knife and play mumble-peg or sing a ragtime song. This will pull you together, so to speak.
Then take a stick, smooth off a place in the dirt and try to map out your wanderings. Making this map will cause you to remember forgotten objects you have passed on the road which may aid you to retrace your steps. Now stand up and look around you. Select the most prominent thing there is in the landscape-a hill, Fig. 377-F; a big dead tree, Fig. 375-H; a big rock, Fig. 376-G, the shore of a pond or lake, Fig. 379-E; the top of a mound, E or F, or anything which is easily seen. Near this point make your temporary camp, for you may have to sleep there all night.
From this camp, Fig. 374-A, make exploring expeditions, marking your trail each time so that you cannot fail to find it; mark it so plainly that it will attract the attention of anyone else coming that way. Break off and bend back small shrubs and bushes, Fig. 389, as you go along from your camp. In returning, these can be readily detected because you will see the underside of the leaves which will distinguish them from the surrounding shrubbery.
Keep on making these excursions, always returning to your central camp, until you have trails marked out like the spokes of a wheel, Fig. 374, with your camp for the hub of the wheel. Then if you find a better place, to camp, leave a note at your markers pointing to the direction you have taken. Use Scout signs and road signs, Figs. 384, 385, 386, 387, 388, 389, all of which point to the left hand side of the illustration; but above all, make the signs so plain that the uninitiated can understand them and will immediately see that you have changed your camp and have gone in the direction indicated. At the new camp go through the same tactics.
In Fig. 385 one stick supporting the other means a short distance; two sticks would mean two miles; three sticks, three miles, etc. to camp. Fig. 390 shows how to make a blaze without injury to the tree.
If you find a high hill, build three fires and cover them with green browse or green grass, Fig. 379-E, to make a dense smoke. This will attract attention. It agrees with the hunters' code, in which three shots in rapid succession mean trouble and a request for help.
Do not yell yourself hoarse. Save your voice and halloo at intervals. Use your common sense and ingenuity, climb trees and look around for some familiar object. If you have provisions with you, do not gobble them
all up at one meal. Remember also that water is more essential than food. If you take things coolly and do not over-exert yourself you can go without food for quite a long time without any serious results. Remember that you are an American Boy living in a land that produced the best woodsmen the world ever saw and that you are going to get out of this scrape all right, and then you can do it.
In leaving camp, note by your pocket compass or the sun the direction taken; note the direction of the wind and keep in mind the general direction you travel.
Note the trend of the hills and valleys. See if the general directions are toward camp or at right angles to your path. Note the direction of prominent landmarks seen from camp and practice these things until such observation becomes a habit and then you will not get lost. Remember that if you do not know in which direction your camp, home or trail is located the knowledge of the points of the compass is of little use to you.
To those who know them, the woods are full of things marking the points of the compass, useful when the sky is obscured by gray clouds; but I have been lost in the woods where the trees were so thick and so tall that none of the ordinary wood-signs could be depended upon. On that occasion I got out by following a water course; such thick woods, however, are very rare today. Forest-bred men all claim that the pileated woodpecker, Fig. 392, the great, big red-headed cock-of-the-woods, makes its elongated nest-hole, Fig. 391-E, on the east side of the trees, so that it will get the first glimpse of the morning sun.
To the old woodsman, the old plainsman, the old mountainman, the trapper, and the pathfinder, a compass was an unnecessary encumbrance; the stars and the moon in the sky at night, the sun by day not only told them which way was North South, East or West, but also answered as a clock to tell time. If the sky was overcast they still had ways of their own of finding the cardinal points. Oft-times the dirt and stones under their very feet gave them valuable hints as to direction; stones that are bare on the southern edge or end frequently have moss growing on them at the north end. In a moist, shady swale the stones and sticks may be completely covered with moss but even in shady places there is often only a thin covering of dry moss on the south side of stones and logs.
In using these signs you must use your head. I remember one old fellow in Pike County, Pennsylvania, who could tell direction without fail when the sky was overcast with heavy gray clouds. On such occasions when asked which way was the North, be would look around on the ground, look up among the trees, then turn to us and say, "North about right thar", at the same time pointing his finger in the proper direction. When asked how he decided which was North the old fellow was either unable or unwilling to tell us; but evidently what he did do was consciously or unconsciously to use cumulative evidence, that is, little bits of evidence here and there, which, put together, convinced him that North was in the direction to which he pointed. Now what I want to do here is to call attention to some of those bits of evidence, and at the same time to caution you not to rely upon any one sign alone, if you can help it, because they are not infallible.
The prevailing winds, such winds as most frequently and continuously blow, are certain to leave unmistakable markers showing the points of the compass. In English sportsman books you will learn that in South Africa, on the road from Cape Town, the trees lean toward the Northwest, while in Australia and Africa, and in some places on the Western American prairies, the prevailing winds lay the long grass and thus mark direction.
The limbs of the trees are apt to be heavier on the south side and thicker in diameter. The oak, the ash, the mesquite, the hickory and the elms are inclined to have moss and mold on the north side. On the same side the leaves are longer, or darker green and with lighter veins, while on the south the leaves are smaller, tougher and lighter of color with darker veins. Down South I have seen ferns growing all the way up the trunks of trees to where the branches began on the North side.
If it is night you may see some of those beautiful little nocturnal animals, the flying squirrels, sailing like shadows from their nest-hole in the dead trees. Take notice and see if the holes do not favor the east side of the trees. Note and see whether or not the waterfowl are not breeding on the west shore of the stream or lake. If there are not wild geese or wild ducks, and it is not nesting season, inspect the water and see if the minnows are not more plentiful on the west side and the frogs more numerous. If you are fishing it may be that the bass bite best on the west side.
Of course, you know that all flowers are inclined to turn their dainty backs on the cold North and smilingly face the South, and this is as true of the wild flowers as it is of the garden plants. But, bless your soul, don't jump at conclusions, for I have seen a sun-flower facing North when according to rules it ought to be facing the sun; but this particular sunflower was a perverse old fellow, a Bolshevik, he did not believe in any rules but the ones he made for himself, or maybe there were conditions not noted by me which caused the apparent law-breaking habit of this stiff-necked flower. I still insist that the land is full of compass points.
There is a rather tall plant with yellow blossoms that reminds one of a small sunflower, to be found growing on the open prairies and often on the railroad fills in Indiana, Illinois and the Western prairies. You may notice it, and that it has large divided leaves which stand vertically, Fig. 393. This is the famous compass- plant, made famous to my boyhood by Captain Mayne Reid and other early writers of adventures of the West.
In order to make certain that my memory was right about this green-growing compass, I asked my old Campfire friend, Dr. C. C. Curtis of Columbia University, Department of Botany, and he promptly replied that the compass-plant or rosin plant that I have in mind, is the Silphium laciniatum--the name does not help us much in path finding; but, what is more to the purpose, he says that "the leaves do show a marked polarity, being sensitive to light and turning so that they only got the less intense light of morning and evening directly upon their broad surfaces"; therefore, the edges of the leaves point nearly North and South, while the broad blades face East and West.
If you hold your hands together in front of you when facing the afternoon sun, the back of your hands will face the West and the front of your hands will face the East, and the edges will be toward the North and the South, like the leaves of the compass-plant. These plants, however, will not be a reliable guide unless they are growing in the open, the shade of other plants may, and probably does, interfere with their accuracy. Dr. Curtis also adds the information that our widely distributed prickly lettuce (Lactuca virosa) is a good compass too, even the common garden lettuce, in the flowering and seeding time, has the compass habit, but in the case of the lettuce plants referred to, it is not the edges, but the leaves themselves which point North and South.
On the coniferous trees which bear cones, like pine, and hemlock, the sap, pitch or gum which oozes from wounds on the north side of the trunk of the tree is usually soft, dusty and of a dirty gray color; while on the south side the ooze from the same trees may be a clear amber color and hard. That is what the gummers of the North woods say, and they should know because their business is to collect spruce gum.
The north side of a hill is apt to be damp, mossy with ferns growing upon it, while the south side will be noisy, as hunters call it, that is, it will be dry and one cannot walk through the dried leaves and branches without making noise enough to frighten away the game.
While hunting the moose in the forests of upper Canada along the shores of unnamed lakes, I noted that the tips of cedar trees are apt to point to the South- East, but I noticed up in the lake lands of Northern Quebec and Ontario the tips of the pines, on the ridges, were all pointing East, Fig. 394; yet another observer says that the tips of these same trees point to the South.
Now then, we are getting down to brass tacks; when you are in a strange country and while you still know the points of the compass, it is your duty to observe these things for yourself. If the tips of the white pines point to the East or to the South, make a note of it; they won't vary in that section.
If, as in the case of Pennsylvania, the roots of all the dead trees that have been blown down by an ancient storm, Fig. 395, face the Northwest while the top of the tree lying prone on the ground points to South-East, make a note of it. If you find the spider webs and insects on the south side of the tree, Fig. 396, and not on the north side of the tree, make a note of it. Any sawed or cut stumps of wood of a tree which shows the concentric circles or rings should be examined with care, especially if the tree stood apart from the others. In that case the rings on the south side of the tree should be larger than the north side, Fig. 397, and the heart of the tree consequently nearer the North; make a note of this, test it out with your compass.
Stones and big rocks which are bare on the south side may have the north side covered with a beautiful carpet of polypodium ferns. Dr. Hornaday and other authorities told me that on the desert the barrel cactus, the Bisnaga, generally leans toward the South, Fig. 398. This is the same cactus, you remember, which we have mentioned as supplying the thirsty travelers with drink when there is no spring or water hole within hundreds of miles of them, Fig. 398.
Now then, take an observation hike with notebook and pencil and unless you want moss to grow on your own back, use your eyes and head and make careful notes.
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Last modified: October 15, 2016.