So after working on signaling with sound, I decide to make a sun compass. Time is important right now so I only take 3 minutes to put this together. I get a straight branch and place it in the ground and mark the tip of it where the shadow ends with another shorter stick. The next part of the sun compass is time. As the shadow moves every 15 minutes, I mark it again. This allows me to form an accurate read on the sun’s trajectory and gives me an east/west line while getting other things done.
Off in the distance I hear the call of a woodpecker; I have an intuitive hit that this is important somehow but not sure at the moment. Birds are excellent allies because they know their place and are specialists and depending on the type of bird will indicate habitat.
A New Paradigm in Being LOST
There’s a lot of “charge” in the word “lost”; so much focus on the psychological fear of being lost. Things arise in the mind, like “I’m not going to have enough water, warmth or food.” This is a fear of the unknown. Let’s shift our paradigm about being “lost”.
Indigenous people all over the world lived (and live) so close to the earth that they did not call what they did on a daily basis survival. They did not consider where they lived “wilderness”; something separate from their lives. Historical research in ethnobotany as well as speaking to the native peoples directly, has taught us that it wasn’t about being lost, it was about “being”; it was not about surviving, it’s about “living.”
We can learn from this recognition of a close relationship to the land. In this paradigm, you are part of the forest. If you are at home in the woods, you are never truly lost. Knowing your place, the plants and wildlife as part of your community is what will nurture a healthy at-home mindset where ever you are.
Thinking of the forest as “home” starts by knowing your plants and their uses. What parts of them are edible, medicinal, and in what season? What edible plants have poisonous look-alikes and what are clues to proper identification? What trees are good for firewood, for tinder? As you get to know your plant neighbors, they become your allies in better understanding the habitat you are in.
Building a Shelter and Knowing Ecology
As I scan the land and see what it has to teach me, I notice an area where there are a lot of small pines, and interspersed are large pines, 80 to 100 feet high. Why is this important? Because pines decompose slower, and they accumulate a huge layer of the debris that forms a thick mat. This is exactly what I’m looking for to create that insulative layer in the form of a sleeping bag. Clustered together they create a natural shelter from wind and rain while allowing sun exposure because the branches die off near the bottom. All of these decisions play a role in location; that’s why it is requires skill to be able to read the land.
I will not camp directly under the great pines where the bark is peeling and are probably infested with ants. That was what “that little bird told me.” The woodpecker’s activity tells me the tree is rotten inside and could become a potential blowdown hazard. I don’t want a tree falling on me. Also, lightning can strike the same place more than once so I am scanning for lightning scars.
Location! Location! Location!
Earlier, my sun compass lets me know how much light I have left to work with and this is crucial since I need to set my priorities. I choose my site and start building. It is very important to be able to read the land topography. A great shelter in a poor location equals a bad shelter; as the saying goes “Location. Location. Location.”
There are clues on the land to know where water pools even though the site looks inviting. By learning what plants grow in moist or wet soil, you learn that even when there is no water present, the plants tell you of a tendency towards moist soil conditions, hence, do not build your shelter in that spot. For example, when you see moss on the ground you know the soil will be damp. So I need to continue searching for a drier area.
Building My Shelter
I start with two leg-sized diameter logs, a little longer than my height laying down. Make them parallel like train tracks, which creates a container for all the small sticks I quickly throw into the middle, making a raised bed. This is vital for staying warm because you need to create a layer of dead air space between you and the ground as insulation. The reason is that the Earth is bigger than you are and the heat from your body will transfer to the Earth; this is called conduction. This is how you get cold from laying on the ground even if you are out of the wind. My bed is made out of a jumble of sticks and a thick layer of needles and leaves. This is really “comfy”; I’m not kidding!
Telling Time by the Sun
Marking the shadow on the sun compass again, I measure with my hand how much light I have left. With this method, each finger width represents 15 minutes; a full hand is an hour. I follow the path of the sun with my hand, and I realize I have 3 hours of light.
Since I used the S.T.O.P rule and stopped early enough in the day, I have plenty of time and light to take care of all of my basic needs, and even wander from my anchor point.
The Importance in Developing Skills and Training
I have slept out before when practicing making shelters and sleeping in them throughout the year to hone my skills. I have slept in home-made shelters under clear skies, rain, snow and freezing temperatures. My record lowest temperature is 15° below freezing in February with no fire while wearing jeans, fleece top, rain coat and hiking boots. This was to simulate for me a lost-hiker scenario. After teaching many classes on wilderness living skills and survival, I have the confidence and skills and freedom to be at home in the woods and not afraid of being lost. My hands-on knowledge enables me to share my personal experience so others can have confidence when they are learning and gain that sense of freedom.
Home Away from Home
It is an amazing sensation being deep in the forest surrounded by the night with a glowing campfire for warmth and companionship. Everything is done! I have created my home away from home – a bed and shelter that keeps me warm enough even without a fire; my plastic bag to catch rain, dew, and drinking water; my sun compass for navigation, a safe fire location and firewood comprised of tree species that throw lots of heat, light and will burn long and steady over time.
Enjoying the experience of the setting sun, the sound of the owls in the trees, and crackle of a bright, warm fire, there is a real peace that washes over me. This is a gift to experience and learn from. I am camping; thriving, not just surviving.
It took me getting lost to truly find the gift of the present moment.
However, as a lover of the outdoors—enjoying a campfire, a night paddle or just sleeping out under the stars—there is a rich adventure awaiting us and our families.
Especially for children, it’s important to have a relationship with the night and having friends up in the sky that are familiar and always with us. By creating routines of awareness of these prominent features in the night sky, we become more at home and enjoy the night, which could be a scary thing; however, having the night come alive with stories and maps that are right there for us, we tend to search out the stars.
Putting the SEARCH back in research and having an irresistible pull as the twilight emerges and then the dusk sets in, our adventure begins!
So Where Do We Start?
We start at the beginning; well, we start during the period of the sun setting and twilight turning to dusk. Dusk is the time of the darkest part of twilight before it gets really, really dark. In the morning, before sunrise, there is a dusk too; however, this is where dusk is before it gets light and before the sun rises.
So after the sun sets, and it begins to get dark, the brightest stars are visible and easily seen. This allows us to focus only on the major features of constellations or groups of stars. This is where we learn how to read the night sky—when it is not so dark that all the other stars are showing and can make it difficult to see only the ones we want to study and become familiar with.
What Do We Do before We Look up?
The sky has been studied for so long and by so many cultures. The most impressive primitive navigators I have heard of are the Polynesian pathfinders; these early explorers traversed thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean in small vessels and were masters of navigation through nature study, bird migration routes and knowing the distance different kinds of birds could fly and how far away from land they could go, wind patterns and especially, the night sky.
Of the sky and in many native stories, there are maps that are woven together within the story that will help find shelter, water and good places to hunt, fish and gather, and also to have a vision quest a form of rite of passage.
There are countless stories you can learn about, and if you listen for the descriptions in them, you can find the hidden maps and special meanings in them.
Do I Need any Special Equipment or Resources?
Many people use telescopes or binoculars; however, becoming a star navigator, you do not need any special devices. This allows you to utilize this special skill when you are lost as well.
One of the most important things you want is a mentor or teacher…someone to guide you on learning to SEE with the naked eye. If you can take classes or become part of clubs that study astronomy, this could be helpful and I highly recommend it. The Northfield Mountain winter sky class by Kim Noyes (a friend of mine) is very well done, entertaining and informative. There are also planetariums and special events like Earth Hour at the Trustees’ Bullitt Reservation where they had people from Arunah Hill Nature Center bring telescopes and had two very knowledgeable experts teaching. This was another great class.
What Do I Really Need?
There are many books and guides out there, and one at the top of my list for beginners is H.A. Rey’s The Stars: A New Way to See Them. You may be familiar with the author because he wrote Curious George, which you may have read as a child. As an artist, he has created images with the stars that make up the constellations as characters to easily remember and make it FUN!
It is one thing to look at all the images in the books, but it takes on a whole new way of learning when you make them on paper and connect the dots. Then it is also a way of connecting to your cellular memory. So take some time and sketch out a few. I suggest starting with the Big 3: Big Dipper, North Star and Cassiopeia.
The Secret Way of Remembering Is Using the Mind’s Eye
Once you draw the picture from looking at the book, close the book and re-picture in your mind from memory, then draw it as you remember on a blank sheet, then re-study the picture of what you missed and fill it in. The next time you draw it, you will remember those certain parts you missed. Open your eyes again and add the pieces you missed then close eyes again and re-picture until it is clear. Viola! This is mind’s eye learning and can be applied to anything.
OK, Now We Are Ready to Venture Outside with Our New Skill and Find NORTH
It is time to get outside and assess our skills. Now find that GIANT group of stars known as “the Big Dipper;” at the end of the Dipper, find the last two stars creating the ladle effect (see photo). These are known as “the pointer stars” and are your guide to finding the North Star. If you look across you will find Cassiopeia.
Now you are following in the footsteps of the old explorers and our ancestors. You are now on the path to becoming a Star Navigator! Good Luck!
Many thanks to the countless friends who have shared their passion with me, and especially my friend and inspiration, Gail Parsloe, who has come to our programs and shared a FUN way to learn this. Thanks Gail!
Until next time, enjoy the outdoors!
Chief Oren Lyons is one of the elders with whom Earthwork Programs has been connected through Jon Young over the past 10 years. He has been involved in helping to shape the awareness of the United Nations, and here he is with a message that all of us should hear.
“And we do have to get back to basics…and values…and our values have to change.” Chief Oren Lyons
From this video experience, we are talking about taking our leaders and going to visit him…