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Wildwood Wisdom

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Plains Indian Teepee


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Wildwood Wisdom–
Chapter 17: LOST

Remember, “YOU’RE not lost, it’s your CAMP that’s lost,” is a good thought to keep in mind, especially at that critical time when you suddenly discover that you haven't least idea where you are in a strange wilderness. But an ounce of prevention in getting lost is worth more than a whole book of suggestions on how to find your way back.

Always keep this fundamental of wilderness traveling in mind: When going through strange country, be sure to blaze a clear trail, one that you can easily follow back. In making a trail, look back frequently so that you can be sure the blazes are easily seen from that direction. Always carry a sheath knife, a small compass and waterproof matches. Try to keep in mind the general direction in which you are traveling from your camp. Make a mental note of the more important landmarks along your route.

But if you do miss your way, don’t get frightened. Realize that you are not so completely lost or as far away from help as you think you are. The first thing to do is to climb to a high place and look for some familiar landmark near your camp. Look for smoke, for smoke usually means human beings.

If you begin to feel panicky, do something. Smoke, chop some wood, build a fire, take a drink of water or eat something. This will help a bit to take the jitters from your mind. Remember, the worst thing you can do is to give way to fright. Panic will rob you of any chance of getting out. It may turn a mere incident into a fatal tragedy.

If night is approaching, look for a comfortable place to make your bed, shelter and fire. Under no consideration should you wander about as night comes on. Try to make your camp before it is dark. Your matches and knife will be most convenient to have at this time. It is surprising what a lift a good bed and fire will give to your lagging spirits.

When morning comes, climb to a high spot again and look for smoke. If you can see it, carefully line it up with your compass. If you have no compass, try to line up several trees or landmarks, sighting along these to other objects in that direction as you make your way.

If you prefer to stay where you are, rather than to trust yourself to find the way back, build two smoky fires 10 or 50 feet apart on some high place. Stay close to the fires and shout from time to time. If you have a gun, fire it three times in quick succession. Keep this up from time to time. If you try to find your way back, be sure to leave a clear trail so that you can follow it back if necessary or your friends can follow you.

Nature’s Compasses

Watch Compass: If you have no compass but have a watch, you can tell direction by holding it flat and pointing the hour hand toward the sun (Plate 164). South will be located halfway between,the hour hand and 12 on the dial. Even on cloudy days a stick or straw held at the rim of the watch will show the direction of the sun by throwing a faint shadow.

Direction by Stars: The most easily recognized star group is the Big Dipper or Great Bear, located in the northern sky. This great sky dipper revolves around a smaller group of stars known as the Little Bear. The Big Dipper has long attracted men, because the 2 stars forming the edge of the dipper always point to the North Star, a bright star in the very tip of the Little Bear’s tail. These 2 stars are called “pointers” and were used in navigation centuries before the compass was invented.

There is an Indian legend that tells of a sky hunter who chased a she-bear and her cub up a mountain and into the sky. Before the cub could escape, the hunter shot an arrow into the tip of its tail and pinned it in the northern sky. Ever since that time the cub runs round and round, while the mother, the Big Bear, runs anxiously round the cub. The hunter shot 7 arrows into the mother bear, and her wounds are the 7 bright stars clearly showing in the dipper. The mother sky-bear seems to go round the cub once in about twenty-four hours. That is why the dipper often looks as if it were upside down or upon its side.

Iroquois Compass: The white man has always marveled at the ability of the Indian in finding his way in the wilderness without a compass. Many of our early frontiersmen soon learned from the red men how to tell direction even when the sun or stars were obscured. The Iroquois knew a number of signs which pointed direction (Plate 164).

For instance, they say the pileated woodpecker generally digs his holes in the east side of a tree, just as the Indian faces the door of his lodge toward the rising sun. Those beautiful gliders of the night, the flying squirrels, too, seem to choose the east side hollows of treesfor their apartments.

The Indians also say that they can tell the north side of a hill by the lack of noise when walking. On the north side it is often moist and mossy, while the south side will be noisy with dried leaves and crackling twigs.

They say the spiders seem to choose the driest and warmest side to erect their webs; and this, of course, is the south side.

Waterfowl seem to prefer the western shores of lakes an streams for breeding; and frogs, minnows, and fish favor the west side too.

Evergreen Compass: The feathery tips of pines and hemlocks usually point in an easterly direction (Plate 165). Collectors of spruce gum in the North Woods say that the gum oozing from the south side of a tree is a clear amber color while that of the north side is a dirty gray color.

Compass Goldenrod: The compass goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis) is one of the most brilliantly colored of the goldenrods, whose gracefully bent flowering heads point to the north. It is a late flowering species, with the flowers growing on the upper side of the bowed stem. The leaves are dull olive-green and covered with minute gray hairs (Plate 165).

Rosin-Weed Compass: Rosin weed (Silphium laciniatum) is another of the wild compass plants that once abounded in the Mississippi Valley from Minnesota to Texas (Plate 165). A fall plant of the open prairie, its stiff leaves do not grow horizontally, but stand vertically; the leaves pointing north and south. The large flowering heads face toward the east and do not follow the sun, as do so many plants. Even at night the plainsmen could tell direction by feeling of the leaves.

Prairie-Dock Compass: A relative of the rosin weed, prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) also has this compass characteristic of pointing north and south and may be used as Nature’s compass (Plate 165).

Prickly-Lettuce Compass: Although this plant (Lactuca scariola) is a troublesome weed, nevertheless it, too, has been chosen by Nature to point direction (Plate 165). Like rosin weed and prairie dock, it indicates north and south.

Tree-Ring Compass: In most instances, tree rings will show a greater growth of wood on the north and northeast sides of trees (Plate 165). Then, too, the bark of older trees is usually thicker on the north and northeast sides. Both these facts have been known for centuries by woodsmen in many parts of the earth.

Man-made Compasses

There are basically two kinds of manufactured compasses, the needle and the floating dial. As their names suggest, on one a needle rotates; on the other a dial rotates. Both needle and dial are magnetized at one point and swing freely on a pivot, pointing north when they come to rest. The rotating dial compass is the best kind for wilderness traveling. It has a movable arrow which can be set toward your destination, and a sighting device which allows you to aim the compass at a landmark and take an accurate reading.

Sewing-Needle Compass: Ernest Thompson Seton tells of making a compass with an ordinary sewing needle. Rub the needle upon a magnet and then upon the side of your nose to cover it with oil. It can then be gently placed in a cup of water, where it will float and point north.

Maps and Map Reading

Always carry a good detailed map of the country you are planning to travel through. A good map will indicate in detail the landmarks, streams, lakes, marshes and mountains, as well as the direction of true north and magnetic north.

Laying a Course: To lay out a course on your map, spread it flat so that the north and south lines upon it will be exactly parallel with the north and south line of the compass needle. You can then note in what direction your trail or objective lies and set your course accordingly. If the compass has a movable-course arrow, set it so that it points in the direction you are to travel. Thus when you turn your compass so that the needle points north on the compass dial, your course arrow will point the exact direction of your course.

The compass needle does not point directly to the North Pole, but is diverted by a great magnetic influence that lies on the Boothia Peninsula in northern Canada. This is sorne 1,400 miles south of the North Pole. There is also a magnetic area near the South Pole.

In northeastern United States the compass needle really points west of north, and in the South and West it points east of north. This must be taken into consideration when making long journeys. Most accurate maps indicate both the true and magnetic north in relation to the region they portray.

Kinds of Maps: There are many different kinds of maps in use today. Perhaps the most familiar is the auto map published by the various oil companies, but the most complete ones are the topographic maps made by the United States Geological Survey. They not only give complete details of the country, but indicate elevations as well. A knowledge of the elevation in a strange country is important, for it clearly shows how steep are the trails and the roads, and how much of a drop various streams have, thus indicating their swiftness. This is especially important if your journey is by boat or canoe. In reading contour lines, the outside line is the lowest land, while the innermost line shows the highest point. Each line between shows a certain rise in the area.

Map Symbols: To make maps easy to read, a number of very simple pictures or symbols are used to identify such things as roads, streams, houses, villages, fields, woods, lakes, marshes, railroads, telegraph lines, bridges, ferries, etc.

Plate 166 shows how pictographic these symbols are, so that they can be easily identified. Most maps are drawn to scale, and the measurement is usually indicated as “Scale – 1 inch to 1 mile,” or some such method of showing distance.

Indian Map: The Indian knew his geography, and he was so well acquainted with his country that he often drew maps of it to help strangers. The drawing (Plate 166) is a sketch of an Indian map made by a Woods Ojibway on a piece of birchbark. Sometimes a split piece of cedar was used, the drawing being made with a piece of charcoal. This map not only shows accurately the streams and lakes of that section, but clearly indicates each twist and turn of the stream. At the head of one lake a tepee is drawn with a cooking pot inside, showing that a camp with food was located there. Below are two canoes, in which animals, birds, and fish are riding. These show to which clan the paddlers belong. In the stern of the canoe at the left is the father, who belongs to the catfish clan. The vertical lines indicate the children, and the mother paddling in the bow is shown by the bear sign.

Weather Signs

Some of the old-time weather proverbs may well be remembered by the woodsman. Many of them are founded upon fact, and the weather signs they describe may save you from a most uncomfortable time. An ability to read the weather will increase your enjoyment of the out of doors. The same signs are quite general throughout the middle latitudes.

Usually a hot, humid day brings on a thunderstorm. Cumulus clouds, the big, soft, cottony masses, do not bring rain unless they grow into great thunderheads over a certain area (Plate 167). Should these gather, towering high in the sky, rain is certain to follow.

When the cirrus clouds, the wispy curls high in the air, move swiftly, watch out for rain (Plate 168). A variation of the cirrus clouds is the so-called mackerel sky. This also tells of storms to come. Clouds moving in different directions at various levels foretell rain. Smoke rising and then falling again, indicates rain. Here are a few weather proverbs worth remembering:

”When the dew is on the grass, rain will never come to pass.

When the grass is dry at night, look for rain before the light.”

”Evening red and morning gray sends the traveler on his way;

Evening gray and morning red sends the traveler back to bed.”

”Red sky at morning, shepherd’s warning; Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight.”

Fog in the morning usually means a bright sunny day. A circle around the moon warns of a storm brewing. East wind–rain. West wind–sunshine. North wind–cold. South wind–heat. Fading stars are a sign of storm.


Earth-Star Barometer: In the open woods where the soil is sandy, the traveler will sometimes find rough stars of dirty, grayish brown that look as if some one in Nature’s kindergarten had been playing with a pair of scissors. But it is only during wet weather that you will find these star formations. When the days are dry, the earth stars are closed and form a cup-shape that grasps the round fruiting body inside.

This is the barometer earth-star fungus, whose actions are like those of a barometer, for which it is named, since its starlike rays open only when the moisture is heavy in the air. When the sun is bright and Jupiter Pluvius is napping, this fungus, too, folds itself up in its tent. The starlike rays then enclose the globular fruiting body, filled with countless spores.

Pine- and Spruce-Cone Barometers: It is said that the pine and spruce cones like the star fungus also react to dryness and moisture in the air; but they differ in that they open in dry weather and close when wet days approach.

Cricket Thermometer: The cricket as an animated thermometer may sound far-fetched, yet the warmer the weather, the faster is the tempo of his song. If you are mathematically inclined and a close observer, you can get the cricket to tell you the temperature without using a thermometer.

According to Oliver Metzger, author of several fascinating books on the outdoors, this has been tried and proved at different times and in different sections of the country, and never has the cricket varied more than 2 or 3 degrees with a good thermometer.

This is how to do it: Count the number of cricket chirps per minute and subtract 40. Divide this result by 4 and add 50. This will give you the temperature in degrees Fahrenheit.

For instance, a cricket chirps 60 times per minute. Forty subtracted from 60 leaves 20. This divided by 4 equals 5. Adding 50 gives you a temperature of 55. Try it and see for yourself.

© 1945 The Macmillan Company, Reprinted 1992 by Shelter Publications, Inc.

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