Navigating Without Batteries: First Things
By Farwell Forrest
January 27, 2004
Everything had gone according to plan. I'd
trekked out to my chosen
pond, paddled across the meltwater that drowned the rotten ice, and then
spent several restorative hours losing myself in the winter skies. Now I was
headed back home. First, however, I had to cache my pack canoe for
later pick-up. That done, I started up the trail, the yellow beam from my
headlamp highlighting every twist and turn of the winding fisherman's path.
Funny thing, I thought. I don't remember the beam being
that yellow. And just then the light went out.
I stopped where I was, cursing my luck. Yes, I answered the nagging
voice in my head, I knew the batteries were old ancient
Ni-Cads, in fact. But I'd recharged them before I left, and I certainly
hadn't expected them to fail like that, with no warning at all.
I had a
little Mag-Lite® in my pack. I'd put fresh alkaline cells in it in
October, and I'd hardly used it since. No need to remind me to be
prepared, I told myself smugly. I'm ready for anything.
Removing my gloves, I tucked them into the kangaroo pocket of my anorak.
Then I slid my rucksack
off my left shoulder and opened the flap. I rooted around in the folds of the
poncho that pads the back, and Eureka! There it is! My hand
closed around the Mag-Lite. I smiled. Then I switched it on.
Nothing happened. My smile slowly faded away.
A little corrosion on the contacts, I thought. No problem. Just
work the switch a few times. So I twisted it again. And again. Off. On.
Off. On. Off. On.
Now I was muttering a steady stream of curses. It was after midnight. I
had more than an hour's walk ahead of me. The forest was a fathomless
shadowland. I couldn't even see my feet. Worse yet, I was getting cold. The
fingers holding the Mag-Lite were already numb.
I slipped my arm back through the pack strap. I took a hesitant step. An
unseen branch clawed my face. I took another step. An invisible rock caught
my toe and sent my foot sliding sideways. I teetered back and forth,
struggling to stay upright, my arms flailing out in all directions. When at
last I regained my balance, I thought once more of the trail ahead, of the
single-log bridge over the meltwater-swollen stream, of the ice-sheathed
drop-off above the falls, of the slick wooden corduroy through the swamp. And
then I felt the first chilling clutch of fear. My mental map of the trail
spun round and round, refusing to settle. North and south were now
meaningless terms. I rummaged through my pack again, searching for the compass I
knew was there. Before long, I felt the hard edges of the cold aluminum
case.Got it! I exulted. But just as soon as I'd pulled the compass out
of the pack it slipped through my wooden fingers. I heard it fall, then
Where? Somewhere near my feet. It couldn't have gone
far, I told myself. Or could it? panic whispered in reply.
Panic was winning the debate. I crouched down, shivering, and dropped onto
my hands and knees. Crawling over the icy ground, I dragged the pack behind
me, raking my half-frozen fingers through drifts of slushy snow, probing the
leaf litter in every direction. But I found nothing. I staggered to my feet.
I was shaking now. Which way do I go? I asked myself. How do I get
out of here? I waited for the answer, but none came.
Suddenly, a mocking ditty echoed unbidden in my head: When in danger or
in doubt, yell and scream and run about. I smiled. Or not, I
thought. Not now. Not here. I shouldered the rucksack once more, and
pulled on my gloves. The wool liners still retained some of their former
warmth my warmth. Things were looking up.
Speaking of looking up, I chided myself, why not give
that a try? So I did. Half the sky was completely hidden by a
thickly forested ridge, but I could glimpse tantalizing fragments of the
stellar tapestry through the trees in the other direction. Two dazzling
points of light caught my eye immediately. The first, not far above the
horizon, was unmistakable: Sirius, the Dog Star, the brightest star in the
sky. The second, much higher and almost as bright, wasn't a star at all. It
was Saturn, one of the "wanderers", the name the ancients gave to the five
That was all I needed. I knew I was looking south. And my night
vision had finally returned. The mental map of the fisherman's trail
settled into place. I began walking, shuffling my feet forward, each step
tentative, my left hand outstretched before my face to ward off stray
branches. And as I walked, I counted each
step, calculating when I'd come to the next bend on the map now unrolling
in my head.
Three hours later I was home, a bit bruised, a bit scratched, but still in
one piece. As I set my pack quietly down on the floor of the darkened living
room, I was seized by an irresistible impulse to try my luck just one more
time. Muffling the snap of the plastic buckles so as not to waken Tamia,
sleeping soundly in the next room, I opened the pack flap and fished around
in the folded poncho for the Mag-Lite. Soon I had the chilly metal cylinder
in my hand.
I twisted the switch. A bright white beam shot out, illuminating the
three-foot-wide map hanging on the far wall.
I directed a silent curse at all things electric and headed for the
bathroom. When in danger or in doubt, shout and scream and run about.
Those mocking words were still reverberating in my head when I dropped off to
Of course, nobody needs to navigate by the stars today, do they? After
all, you can get a GPS that's smaller than a pocket calculator, and it will
probably cost you less than you'd spend for a good watch. But what happens if the batteries
go dead? You'll find you've just traveled back in time some two
centuries, that's what. In fact, you'll be facing the same problems that
Alexander Mackenzie faced when he set out to follow Peter Pond's Great River
to the Pacific in 1793. Yes, you'll have more accurate maps
than Mackenzie did. (At least I hope you will. Or were you relying on your
GPS display?) But Mackenzie was better prepared in other ways. He'd just
returned from England, where he'd spent the winter studying the art of
Maybe you think this won't ever happen to you. After all, you never forget
to carry plenty of batteries. Good. I don't either. (Not very often, at any
rate.) But it doesn't hurt to have a second string for your bow, does it? And
it can't be denied that there's something to be said for the old woodcraft. Am I
invoking tradition for its own sake? Not really. A little tradition goes a
long way. Try nursing a wood and canvas canoe down a shallow, stony rapids to
see what I mean. If the sound of cracking ribs and tearing canvas doesn't
dampen your ardor for tradition, the odds are that portaging the
waterlogged hulk around the next rapids will. Or perhaps you don't think wood
and canvas is traditional enough. OK. Imagine yourself squatting on a
riverbank, repaying the seams of a leaking bark canoe with a mixture of
spruce gum and hot fat, while a freezing, swirling drizzle drowns your fire
and soaks through your clothes.
Still not convinced? Then spend five hours seated in a traditional skin
kayak. That ought to do the trick. With no more support for your back than
the bent-wood rim of the cockpit, chances are good that you'll be dreaming of
molded seats and foam padding long before the day is out. I rest my case.
Don't get me wrong, though. I like wood and canvas canoes, and there are very
few craft as lovely as traditional bark and skin boats. Tradition's a good
thing, in other words but only up to a point. It's not reason enough
by itself to spend time mastering the lost arts of pre-electronic navigation.
And you can buy a lot of batteries for the price of a decent compass.
All right, then. Is there a better argument than tradition? Yes.
"Only connect!" The British novelist E.M. Forster put those words into the
mouth of one of his characters, and I think he was on to something. Canoeing
and kayaking bring us closer to the world that lies beyond our office blocks
and freeways. So, too, do the compass and sextant.
They're passports to a larger universe, a place where human schemes and
dreams count for little more than those of a chickadee, or even a centipede.
They connect us, in short, with the world outside ourselves and our
creations. To be sure, some paddlers will recoil with horror from this
prospect. These folks want all their wilderness experiences to come with a
label that says "Sanitized for Your Protection." No surprises. Nothing that
isn't on the script. Everything under control. Minutely managed risks and
carefully choreographed thrills. Their satisfaction guaranteed or their money
In other words, the more their world resembles a computer game, the
happier they'll be. Well, everyone to his own notion, I suppose. But I don't
think that all canoeists and kayakers feel this way, do you? Many of us enjoy
taking a walk on the wild side, at least now and again. We don't always need
to be standing at the center of the universe in order to be happy. We embrace
uncertainty, and we look forward to leaving the beaten path from time to
time, even if the way back sometimes leads us across a single-log bridge or
skirts the icy lip of a waterfall. We rejoice in landscapes with the bark
still on them. And we're drawn to people who are like that, too.
If this describes you, then you're just the sort of person who'll find the
challenge of navigating without batteries irresistible. So dust off your
compass and get your favorite topos out of the box in the closet. We'll meet
up again soon, farther down the trail. See you then!
Copyright © 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights