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Ch. 1: The Wilderness Traveller

Many people have asked me what, all things considered, is the most valuable quality a wilderness traveler can possess. Always I have replied unhesitatingly; for no matter how useful or desirable such attributes as patience, courage, strength, endurance, good nature, and ingenuity, may prove to be, undoubtedly a man with them but without the sense of direction, is practically helpless in the wilds.

A sense of direction, therefore, I should name as the prime requisite for him who would become a true woodsman, depending on himself rather than on guides. The faculty is largely developed, of course, by much practice; but it must be inborn. Some men possess it; others do not—just as some men have a mathematical bent while to others figures are always a despair. It is a sort of extra, having nothing to do with criterions of intelligence or mental development, like the repeater movement in a watch. A highly educated or cultured man may lack it; the roughest possess it. Some who have never been in the woods or mountains acquire in the space of a vacation a fair facility at picking a way; and I have met a few who have spent their lives on the prospect trail, and who were still, and always would be, as helpless as the newest city dweller. It is a gift, a talent. If you have its germ, you can become a traveler of the wide and lonely places. If you have it not, you may as well resign yourself to guides.

The sense of direction in its simplest and most elementary phase, of course, leads a man back to camp, or over a half-forgotten trail. The tenderfoot finds his way by little landmarks, and an attempt to remember details. A woodsman adds to this the general "lay" of the country, the direction its streams ought to flow, the course the hills must take, the dip of strata, the growth of trees. So if the tenderfoot forgets whether he turns to right or left at a certain half-remembered burnt stub, he is lost. But if at the same point the woodsman's memory fails him, he turns unhesitatingly to the left, because he knows by all the logic of nature's signboards that the way must be to the left. A good mountaineer follows the half-obliterated trails as much by his knowledge of where a trail must go, as by the sparse indications that men have passed that way. I have traveled all day in the Sierras over apparently virgin country. Yet every few hours we would come on the traces of an old trail. We were running in and out of it all day; and at night we camped by it.

That is, as I have said, elementary. It has to do with a country over which your woodsman has already traveled, or about which he knows something. In the last analysis, however, it means something more.

The sense of direction will take a man through a country of which he knows nothing whatever. He travels by the feel of it, he will tell you. This means that his experience subconsciously arranges certain factors from which the sixth sense we are discussing draws certain deductions. A mountaineer, for example, recognizes the altitude by the vegetation. Knowing the altitude he knows also the country formation, and so he can tell at once whether the cañon before him will narrow to an impassable gorge, or remain open enough to admit of passage. This in turn determines whether he shall choose the ravines or ridges in crossing a certain divide, and exactly how he can descend on the other side. The example is one of the simpler. A good man thus noses his way through a difficult country with considerable accuracy where a tenderfoot would become speedily lost.

But if a sense of direction is the prime requisite, thoroughness presses it close. It is sometimes very difficult to command the necessary patience. At the end of a hard day, with the almost moral certainty that the objective point is just ahead, it is easy, fatally easy, when the next dim blaze does not immediately appear, to say to oneself—"Oh, it's near enough"—and to plunge ahead. And then, nine times out of ten, you are in trouble. "I guess this is all right" has lost many a man; and the haste too great to be sure—and then again sure—has had many fatal results. If it is a trail, then be certain you see indications before proceeding. Should they fail, then go back to the last indication and start over again. If it is new country, then pick up every consideration in your power, and balance them carefully before making the smallest decision. And all the time keep figuring. Once having decided on a route, do not let the matter there rest. As you proceed keep your eyes and mind busy, weighing each bit of evidence. And if you become suspicious that you are on the wrong tack, turn back unhesitatingly, no matter how time presses.

A recent expedition with a fatal termination illustrates this point completely. At first sight it may seem invidious to call attention to the mistakes of a man who has laid down his life in payment for them. But it seems to me that the chief value of such sad accidents—beyond the lessons of courage, endurance, comradeship, devotion, and beautiful faith—lies in the lesson and warning to those likely to fall into the same blunders. I knew Hubbard, both at college and later, and admire and like him. I am sure he would be the first to warn others from repeating his error.

The expedition of which I speak started out with the purpose of exploring Labrador. As the season is short some haste was necessary. The party proceeded to the head of a certain lake into which they had been told they would find a river flowing. They found a river, ascended it, were conquered by the extreme difficulties of the stream, one of the party perished, and the others came near to it.

As for the facts so far: The first thought to occur to a man entirely accustomed to wilderness travel would be, is there perhaps another stream? another river flowing into that lake? Encountering difficulties he would become more and more uneasy as to that point, until at last he would have detached a scout to make sure.

But mark this further: The party's informants had told Hubbard that he would find the river easily navigable for eighteen miles. As a matter of fact the expedition ran into shallows and rapids within a half mile of the lake.

To a woodsman the answer would have stood out as plain as print. He would have retraced his way, explored farther, found the right river, and continued. But poor Hubbard was in a hurry, and moreover possessed that optimistic temperament that so endeared him to all who knew him. "They must have made a mistake in the distance. I guess this is all right," said he, and pushed on against difficulties that eventually killed him.

To a man accustomed to exploration such a mistake is inconceivable. Labrador is not more dangerous than other wooded northern countries; not so dangerous as the big mountains; much safer than the desert. A wrong turn in any of these wildernesses may mean death. Forty men succumbed to the desert last summer. Do not make that wrong turn. Be sure. Take nothing for granted—either that "they made a mistake in the distance," or that "it's probably all right." One of the greatest of American wilderness travelers knew this—as all wilderness travelers must—and phrased it in an epigram that has become classic. "Be sure you are right, and then go ahead," advised Daniel Boone.

So you do not get lost—barring accidents—you are safe enough. But to travel well you must add to your minor affairs the same quality, slightly diluted, perhaps, that I have endeavored to describe above. In this application it becomes thoroughness and smartness. A great many people object while camping to keeping things in trim, to getting up in the morning, to moving with expedition and precision. "Oh, what's the use in being so particular!" they grumble, "this is supposed to be a pleasure trip."

Outside the fact that a certain amount of discipline brings efficiency, there is no doubt that a slack camp means trouble sooner or later. Where things are not picked up, something important will sooner or later be lost or left behind. Where the beginning of the day's journey hangs fire, sooner or later night will catch you in a very bad place indeed. Where men get in the habit of slouching, physically and mentally, they become in emergencies unable to summon presence of mind, and incapable of swift, effective movements. The morale is low; and exclusive of the fact that such things are an annoyance to the spirit, they may in some exceptional occasion give rise to serious trouble. Algernon is ten minutes slow in packing his horse; and Algernon gets well cursed. He is hurt as to the soul, and demands of himself aggrievedly how ten minutes can be valued so high. It is not the ten minutes as a space of time, but as a measure of incompetence. This pack train is ten minutes short of what a pack train should be; and if the leader's mind is properly constructed, he is proportionately annoyed.

Although not strictly germane to a discussion of equipments, I am tempted to hold up a horrible example.

One evening we were all sitting around a big after-dinner fire at the Forest Supervisor's summer camp in the mountains, when an outfit drifted in and made camp a few hundred yards down stream. After an interval the leader of the party came over and introduced himself.

He proved to be a youngish man, with curly hair, regular features, a good physique, and eyes handsome, but set too close together. A blue flannel shirt whose top button was unfastened, rolled back to show his neck; a handkerchief was knotted below that; in all his external appearance he leaned toward the foppish-picturesque. This was in itself harmless enough. Shortly he began to tell us things. He confided that his chief ambition was to rope a bear; he related adventures in the more southern mountains; he stated that he intended to travel up through the Minarets and over Agnew's Pass, and by way of Tuolumne. This was to consume two weeks! Finally he became more personal. He told us how President Roosevelt when on his Pacific Coast tour had spoken to him personally.

"When the train started," said he, "I ran after it as hard as I could with a lot of others, but I ran a lot faster and got ahead, so the President spoke directly to me—not to the crowd, but to me!"

He left us suitably impressed. Next morning his camp was astir at five o'clock—as was proper considering the strenuous programme he had outlined. About seven our friend came over to get his animals, which he had turned out in the Supervisor's pasture over night—ten animals in another man's mountain pasture! We had a shooting match, and talked Reserve matters for just one hour and twenty minutes. Then somebody waked up.

"I wonder what's become of Jones; let's go see."

We went. Jones was standing dusty in the middle of the corral. In his hand he held a short loop not over three feet across. This he whirled forward and overhand. Occasionally he would cast it at a horse. Of course the outraged and astounded animal was stricken about the knees, whereupon he circulated the confines of the corral at speed.

And the animals! At the moment of our arrival Jones was bestowing attention on a dignified and gaunt mule some seventeen hands high. I never saw such a giraffe. Two about the size of jackasses hovered near. One horse's lower lip wabbled abjectly below a Roman nose.

We watched a few moments; then offered mildly to "help." Jones, somewhat heated and cross, accepted. The first horse I roped I noticed was barefoot. So were the others. And the route was over a rough granite and snow country. Thus we formed a procession, each leading some sort of equine freak. It was by now nearly nine o'clock.

Camp we found about half picked up. The other members of the party were nice, well-meaning people, but absolutely inexperienced in the ways of the wilderness. They had innocently intrusted themselves to Jones on the strength of his self-made reputation; and now undoubtedly were taking all this fuss and discomfit quite as part of "roughing it."

When we saw them we were stricken with pity and a kindly feeling which Jones had failed to arouse, so we turned in to help them saddle up.

Jones was occupied with a small mule which he claimed was "bad." He hitched said mule to a tree, then proceeded to elevate one hind leg by means of a rope thrown over a limb. Why he did not simply blindfold the animal no one could tell. We looked forward with some joy to the throwing of the pack-hitches.

On the Trail

But at this moment a Ranger dashed up with news of a forest fire over in the Rock Creek country. The Rangers present immediately scattered for their saddle horses, while I took a pack and went in search of supplies.

Shortly after one o'clock I was organized, and departed on the trail of the Rangers. They had struck over the ridge, and down the other side of the mountains. Their tracks were easy to follow, and once atop the divide I could see the flames and smoke of the fire over the next mountain system. Desiring to arrive before dark, I pushed ahead as rapidly as possible. About half way down the mountain I made out dust ahead.

"A messenger coming back for something," thought I.

In ten minutes I was stricken dumb to overtake the Jones party plodding trustingly along in the tracks made by the Rangers.

"Well," I greeted them, "what are you doing over here? A little off your beat, aren't you?"

The members of the party glanced at each other, while Jones turned a dull red.

"Wrong trail, eh?" said he easily; "where does this one go to?"

"Why, this isn't a trail!" I cried. "Can't you see it's just fresh tracks made since morning? This will take you to the fire, and that's about all. Your trail is miles to the north of here."

For the moment he was crushed. It was now too late to think of going back; a short cut was impossible on account of the nature of the country. Finally I gave him a direction which would cut another trail—not where he had intended to go, but at least leading to horse feed. Then I bade him farewell, and rode on to the fire.

Long after dark, when hunting for the place the boys had camped, I met that deluded outfit moving supperless, homeless, lost, like ghosts in the glow of the fire line. Jones was cross and snapped at me when I asked him if he wasn't seeing a good deal of country. But I looked at the tired faces of the other members of the party, and my heart relented, and I headed them for a meadow.

"How far beyond is Squaw Dome?" asked Jones as he started.

"Sixteen miles—about," said I.

"About eight hours the way you and I travel, then," said he.

"About eight weeks the way you travel," amended a Ranger standing near.

Two days later a shakemaker came to help us fight fire.

"Oh, yes, they passed my place," said he. "I went out and tried to tell him he was off'n the trail, but he waved me aside. 'We have our maps,' says he, very lofty."

Twelve days subsequently I rode a day and a half to Jackass Meadow. They told us the Jones party just passed! I wonder what became of them, and how soon their barefooted horses got tender.

Now the tenderfoot one helps out, nor makes fun of, for he is merely inexperienced and will learn. But this man is in the mountains every summer. He likewise wishes to rope bears.

No better example could be instanced as to the value of camp alertness, efficiency, the use of one's head, and the willingness to take advice. I had with me at the time a younger brother whom I was putting through his first paces; and Jones was to me invaluable as an object lesson.

The purpose of this chapter is not to tell you how to do things, but how to go at them. If you can keep from getting lost, and if you can keep awake, you will at least reach home safe. Other items of mental and moral equipment you may need will come to you by natural development in the environment to which the wild life brings you.

Stewart Edward White

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