Last night, Checkpoint 13 thwarted me—again. It is my second try at the Land Navigation night test in the woods and hillsides surrounding Hall Lake at Yankee Springs Recreation Area, Michigan.
The moon, waning, is an orange fingernail in the western sky at 9:00 p.m. when I leave the parking lot, pace-count 400 meters west down the road and turn right, enter the woods, looking for Checkpoint 14.
I take a bearing and measure how far into the woods I need to go to bump into that 4×4 marked post. With confidence borne by a very successful practice (in daylight) earlier in the day, I set out. Step-one, step-two, step-three, each evolution equaling one pace. I take 61 paces more or less forward through the dark and downfall and brambles to…nothing. No post. Nothing even in the decent circumference of my flashlight. Look at the map, note the terrain features; match them to what I can see. Should be here. Should. Be. Here.
I return to the road, re-calibrate my bearing. Try again, noting that already from the get-go I’m headed elsewhere, slightly. Arrive. Nothing. Zip-zero. Nada. Wander a bit. Try a different approach; go to the lakeside, examine the terrain features, measure, get a new bearing, power myself up the rise. Nothing.
Damn! Well, my inner cynic remarks, you can’t look at a shelf full of soups and pick out the tomato soup either, even in the warm, well-lit environment of the grocery store. How did you ever expect to pick out a six-foot post among all these trees? Silly girl.
I’m burning up so much time, I already know I’ll never finish finding the six checkpoints on my list in the two hours allowed. I could quit. I consider it briefly, but no, I can’t quit. If nothing else, I’m gonna find Checkpoint 14. I am! I quiet the cynic, take a breath. Look around.
I wander. I re-visit the map. Maybe there’s more of a ravine over there, yes, I see the steeper ravine, yes, I finally see Checkpoint 14. How good! I was gonna quit, maybe, but I didn’t and there it is. Checkpoint 14. I’ll figure out where I initially went wrong later, but now, it’s on to Checkpoint 30. Easy-breezy: using the lakeside path (which I discovered, by chance—it’s not on the map), I pace-count 400 meters to that little notch of shoreline with the steep slope rising behind it. After a few false starts of dense uphill bush-whacking, there it is. There it is!
Off to Checkpoint 4, a hike around to the west edge of the lake. I consider shooting an azimuth using the moon and quickly decide that’s way past my skill level. Besides, it’ll set by the time I get there. When I finally arrive at the new checkpoint, feeling pretty good about my route-finding (blended with a little luck), I see I have only 20 minutes left to find 13, then 2, then the finish line at Checkpoint 1. I already know I’ve failed the test, but I have to try finding 13. It “got” me last time I took this infernal test (in deep snow that time). It’s a mean checkpoint! It’s on a marshy flat place, it hides, it ducks and weaves in the trees. I think. I’ve never actually seen it. I’ve refused to come here and practice in daylight. However, I may revisit that intention after this night.
I check my (presumed) location, find a bearing, measure distance. It should be maybe 290 meters at 302 degrees. Really? That, I see almost immediately, will take me through a mucky (and probably deep, this time of year) slog of bottomland. I revisit the map. Maybe I could go in from a different angle and skip the bog.
I’m 125 meters and counting up that line when Mike (who, it turns out, has been watching me for awhile from a distance), calls time. As it turns out, I was headed up the wrong drainage anyway, almost dead-on for Checkpoint 9 (not one of my objectives).
Midnight, on the drive home, I am happy nonetheless. That went way better than last time, and I think if I’d done better at post 14, I would have passed. Well, maybe. Land Nav 4—the night test—is really hard! One guy finally passed tonight, on his fourth try. Almost no one passes on the first try.
The point is: using a map and compass means something. Sure, I could GPS but where’s the skill in that? Batteries die. I felt comfortable in those woods, quiet though they were. I knew where I was, and how to get out. I think it matters, to know which way is north. To know the lay of the land. To be able to get from here to there because looking at a map can infuse a sense for the terrain into my bones.
And I didn’t quit. I sure thought about it, there at #14. And then there’s Checkpoint #13, which is now my official nemesis. But even once I knew I was surely going to “fail” the test, I felt I was passing something else, something bigger. I think it doesn’t matter what a person is trying to do, it somehow matters to have the grit to try and the courage to move on even when “success” is elusive. These lessons are bigger than the woods at Yankee Springs.
And I will go back there. I will. I’m not beaten, yet.
Apparently, Post #13 does exist – but try finding it in the dark!