In the summer issue of ML Blue Mountains we examine the themes of “Wayfinding.” The past year has tested our skills of navigation on many levels. Simply: Where are we going? And how are we coping on the ride? The upside of the pandemic era is the opportunity to discover new routes we might’ve overlooked had COVID not blown up our complacency.
I’ve never been lost in the wilderness for longer than about 15 minutes. Maybe that’s why I’m gripped by accounts of those who have. I want to sample a tiny portion of their disorientation and fear. And I want to learn from their mistakes, if they made any.
Several years ago my friends Dan and Jeff got lost while hiking in Silent Lake Provincial Park. Today I see their story as a metaphor for our off-track human race, hobbled by a disease and staggering in all directions. The story: Two city guys, inexperienced hikers, drive to Silent Lake on a Saturday in September to hike the Lakeshore Trail loop. They start late; it’s a long drive, and by the time they reach the trailhead it’s late afternoon. They’re both reasonably fit but they’ve underestimated the length of the route. When darkness begins to fall, they’re roughly halfway through the loop.
They have phones, but this is before all such devices had built-in flashlights, so for a while they navigate by the weak and fading light of their screens. There’s nobody to call; they’re not that lost yet. Jeff talks to his girlfriend for a while before signing off to save the battery. It isn’t long before both phones die and darkness reduces the landscape to a labyrinth of long shadows and faint starlight.
They hear a largish animal behind them. When they stop, the animal stops. When they move, the animal moves. They never see it, but something’s there, and it’s freaking them out. Off-trail now, they convince themselves they’re walking east, which should eventually lead back to the trail. Stopping to rest, one of them asks: Should we stay put until first light?
They hear a largish animal behind them. When they stop, the animal stops. When they move, the animal moves. They never see it, but something’s there, and it’s freaking them out.
The walking hasn’t been easy, through twisted underbrush or over Shield outcroppings with jumbled ledges. But the thought of so many stationary hours in this forest is unbearable. So they walk a bit more, finally spotting a clearing through the trees. It turns out to be a large lake. Silent Lake. And even better, lights flicker far on the opposite shore.
Jeff voices an idea: Let’s swim across to the lights!
Silent Lake isn’t small or shallow. The water may be calm tonight, but water is definitely cold, and the air is late-summer cool—the guys are lucky to have their hoodies and long pants. Swimming was not ever in the gameplan. The distance to the opposite shore could be, Dan guesses, four kilometres or more. With a growing sense of dread, he wonders about Jeff, who is making front-crawl motions, claiming he could swim across in 15 minutes. Dan laughs nervously, trying to make light of the preposterous suggestion. Are you serious, dude? Swim? Dan begins to walk along the shore to demonstrate the finality of his resolve.
Jeff eventually falls in behind. The shoreline rock is frequently steep and irregular, forcing the guys back into the forest for long, battering stretches. After what feels like many hours, they reach the source of the lights: a campground whose occupants are beyond startled to see two wild-eyed and haggard guys stumble into the light of the campfire. Dan and Jeff discover the trailhead where they parked is only a 10-minute drive away.
My takeaway? Humanity’s reckless exploitation of nature has led us into an inverted “wilderness” of junk values, heedless consumerism and surging pandemics. We’re lost here, just like Dan and Jeff. We’re off-trail. Many wish to find the way back—to walk reciprocally on the earth as one among many species. This is not necessarily the easiest route, but it’s the only one if we wish to survive. Some, like Jeff, see lights flickering in the distance and fall under a spell. Against all reason, they believe they’ve found some easier way across. Any one of us, similarly disoriented and afraid, might fall under this spell.
But if we pick our way carefully around the lake, at long last we will reach the light. –Ned Morgan
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