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Be prepared to avoid, or survive, being lost

Every fall there are hunting-related incidents that make the news. Some are grim, like hunters being shot; as often as not the victim is also the shooter. Dropping a loaded firearm; forgetting to keep a rifle or shotgun's safety in the "on" position or falling out of a deer stand with a weapon, are among the more common scripts.

Other incidents are potentially grim, but more often than not have happier endings. Getting lost is of this variety. Some forms of hunting — deer and grouse hunting come first to mind — take us into wild country and away from easily-recognized landmarks. They may also take us into country with which we're totally unfamiliar. Even more than deer hunters, grouse hunters over the course of a very long season may seek out new areas in order to avoid over-shooting their favorite covers, and to find new hotspots.

Then there is the possibility of having to trail a wounded deer. Or, a hunter may follow a grouse that has flushed a couple of times and was seen landing at a distance. Either of these may disrupt one's orientation. And there are always newcomers to either bird hunting or deer hunting, who are not returning to familiar, traditional hunting grounds. But whether you're a veteran or neophyte, losing one's bearings is not that hard to do.

Two recent incidents — one in Pine County, the other in Cass County — have reminded us of the unpleasant possibilities. One hunter was lost for three days, the other for four days before being found. If either of these incidents had happened during the kind of harsh weather that Minnesota is capable of serving up — even in September — the hunters could have ended up in a morgue instead of in the arms of loved ones.

I've been in those boots a time or two myself; not to the extent of being lost overnight, but disoriented long enough for cold sweats to break out, the heart to begin to race and a feeling not that far short of panic to begin rising up. It has happened both when deer hunting as a youth many years ago, and grouse hunting later in life. That sudden, chilling realization that I was not sure of my location is hard to describe to someone who has not felt it. Becoming "found" again was aided by the compass I carried, and the fact that I had a pretty good idea of which direction would take me back to more familiar territory. The feeling of immense relief when the episode is over is similarly beyond description.

Many have an unwillingness to trust a compass if it doesn't match up with their instinctive sense of direction. That's usually a mistake, although there are a limited number of locations — in close proximity to iron deposits, perhaps — where a compass can be deceived. But as a general rule, a good compass is more reliable than our own instinct or intuition (or the unreliable notion that moss grows only on the north side of trees!). One hunter recently interviewed by a colleague reported that he carries two compasses. The second is there if one is somehow damaged, or is lost. But I suspect its greatest value might be as a tiebreaker to help override the user's hunch that his compass is wrong.

Of course, a compass is of little value unless its user has some idea of the landmarks they'll find if they believe the device and follow a compass heading. Whether from prior familiarity with a parcel of land, or by scanning a reliable map before a trek begins, one should have in mind landmarks that are virtually impossible to miss if he follows a compass in that landmark's direction. A river or stream, power line, an official maintained road,or a railroad track come to mind.

Of course, a trekker should also have some idea where that road, river or railroad line leads, and how far away assistance may be, if it comes to that. Just knowing the direction of a natural landmark reveals little if anything about the difficulty of the terrain. Trying to find and follow a river in a roadless area, or in deep wilderness, may increase risk rather than reduce it. On the other hand, if a can't-be-missed forest road is where you parked your vehicle, taking a compass bearing and going cross-country to find it may be the right move.

Realistically, most people are reluctant to abandon trying to find their way back to their starting point, and the magic carpet to safety in the form of a waiting vehicle. Who wants to admit they're lost? But this can become an acute problem if the disoriented person continues traveling without direction, hoping to stumble upon the familiar. Instead, he may be getting farther and farther away from the familiar; farther away from help, too.

The most important advice given by search-and-rescue personnel — to whom the task falls to find lost hikers, hunters and adventurers — is "stay put." The first place searchers begin looking is in the place where you were last known to be; one reason — by the way — why it's so important that someone knows where you're going, and when you expect to return. If you arrived in a vehicle, as will probably be the case, that's where a search for you would begin.

If staying put is good advice for those who are truly lost, how can you increase your chances of surviving if help is not immediate? Carry a charged cell phone, though in some remote locations you may not have phone service. Those who have hand-held GPS devices may find their way back in that manner, but any electronic device can fail. Carry at least one container of bottled water and energy bars. A small plastic tarp and twine could be used to rig a crude shelter; staying dry will help ward off hypothermia. Matches, plus a small candle for a lasting flame — or a cigarette lighter — can help you light a warming fire. Carry a small flashlight, a battery-powered emergency flasher — even one designed for bicycle use — and a whistle, which you may already carry if you hunt with a dog. The flasher might be seen from the air, and the whistle heard by searchers on the ground.

Grouse and archery deer hunting seasons have already begun. Hunter numbers will multiply greatly when the firearms deer season gets underway in a few weeks. It may seem like overkill to worry about staying found, or surviving getting lost. But if ever the Boy Scouts could give us good advice, it would be to follow their motto: "be prepared."