Susan Herrick, an avid North Country Trail hiker and NCTA member nearly got lost on the NCNST. Susan did many things right, and we asked her to share her story.
Remember to educate yourself before going on the Trail, take a map and compass, let someone know where you are going, and always carry the 10 Essentials, every time you go on a hike, no matter how short.
by Susan Herrick
Geraldine Largay’s story, her loss and family’s heart ache shook me up. She got lost on the Appalachian Trail, and in her own words said “Got off trail to go to br. Now lost.” Her remains were only recently discovered, two years after her disappearance.
Two weeks before her story became news, I too went off the trail to “take a pee.” The path I took away from the trail seemed clear enough at the time, and maybe I didn’t go the recommended 200 feet distance. After taking care of business I headed back to the trail, and it didn’t take me long to see that I had made a wrong turn.
How I re-found myself on the North Country Trail
I stopped and took a moment to understand the predicament I was in. Yeah, I panicked a little bit and had to force myself to stay put. Later, when I was safely at home and in front of a computer I did some research about wayfinding.
Follow the S.T.O.P. Rule
The first rule in the event of getting lost is to stop where you are. Follow the S.T.O.P. Rule.
Easy to remember: Stop. Think. Observe. Plan.
This is a good rule and I got the first part right, STOP.
Then I thought. How much time before dark? It was near 7:00 p.m.
My second thought was about supplies; water, snack, jacket, cell phone, light, heat source, and map. Check.
Next I observed the area. There are woods all around, and was starting to look pretty much the same in every direction.
Panic again. It is very hard to manage while stressing out. I didn’t want to be lost, so how was I going to find my way? No way was I ready to use my phone a friend option.
Last fall I took a hike with a respected promoter and maintainer of the NCT. I was talking about my casual attitude toward hiking and was reminded that if I was going to hike in these woods I might want to up my game. So true.
PLAN. Yes I had a plan. At my new starting point I laid out a cross-hatch with sticks and marked the direction I walked with more sticks. I kept walking back to the crosshatch, and tried the other directions. This method soon got me to the trail in probably less than 10 minutes.
While my situation was nowhere near as dire as Geraldine Largay’s, it did make me think that this could happen to other people too, and probably has. I promised myself that next time I went off trail for any reason I would mark my steps with a bandana, or whatever else I had, so I won’t take a wrong turn.
Other markers at hand when marking your path off the trail might be sticks, head bands, dew rags, spare compression straps, bungee cords, facial tissue – fresh or used, umbrella, or even a bra. Remember to leave no trace; you’re going to pick the markers up on your way back to the trail.
Make notes on your map of things like the giant beech surrounded by pines, the tree gall that looks like a bear cub, or where the river stones lay along the trail. Mark whatever stands out as a sign post that you will recognize.
And be sure to look back periodically to remember things from both directions.
Learn & Gain Experience in Wayfinding
The presence of books, nature clubs, on-line sites and survivalists groups offer many options to learn more. There is no replacement for experience, however, so get out there and experience nature for yourself.
Take inventory of your health. Have spring allergies been a problem, sore knee got you limping? Be realistic about what how far you can hike and over what terrain. This spring I’ve had some bouts of vertigo and opted out of hiking alone days I’m not up to it. Instead I’ve chosen to join the group hikes that NCT offers.
Group hikes are a great way to make friends and meet potential hiking partners. Hiking alone is my delight and I won’t give it up entirely. Yes, even if it means that once in a while I will get turned around. Finding your own way is a chance to improve wayfaring skills and up your game.
Mark Jenkins wrote an inspiring article for The Guardian that is worth checking into for good ideas.
Lynn Darling’s book Out of the Woods: a memoir of Wayfinding is an inspiration to me.
Stay Found on the trail, and maybe go a little way in honoring Geraldine’s memory.
Thank you to all the trail maintainers, bless them all.