Saturday, April 19, 2014

Lost. So lost.

I am working on improving my navigational skills. It is a terrifying prospect. In my early 20s, I leaned on friends to handle much of the route-finding on backpacking trips through Utah's canyon country. By my late 20s, I was leaning on GPS. I had my Atlas and USGS topographic maps to piece together mountain excursions in Juneau, bikepacking trips in Utah, and jeep road explorations in Montana — but GPS was always there to lend a friendly screen as I stared bewildered into the tree- or fog-obscured wilderness. Orienteering sounded to me like a not fun sport. Constant focus and translation of maps and non-specific gadgets like compasses and altimeters took away all of the fun of hiking. I like to just hike and look up. What's so wrong with that?

Lately I have been spending more time looking at maps and am beginning to read up on orienteering techniques. Completely unrelated to my map study, on Thursday I set up a plan to meet a friend in Berkeley in the late afternoon. In an effort to beat what can often be horrific traffic, I left two hours early and figured I could kill some time writing at a coffee shop. But then I thought it sounded better to head to Tilden Park for a quick, maybe hour-long run. I'd run with Ann in Tilden Park before, and I knew the general layout and a few specific trail sections. My car's GPS was not so helpful in finding a known trailhead; after accidentally crossing the first half of the Bay Bridge (yeah, I suck at freeway navigation, too), I meandered somewhat aimlessly toward the hills until I happened upon an entrance to the park. I looked at the clock. I still had time.

The trailhead post offered free trail maps. I studied the lines and contours and determined what looked like a great five- or six-mile loop, climbing up to a ridge, dropping into a canyon, and following a creek back to the trailhead. Easy Peasy.

Disorientation set in within a half mile. There were twisty turns and unmarked trail junctions, and yet somehow I made it to the ridge, ran along the smooth and comforting rollers with lots of landmarks in view, located the turn 2.5 miles in, and dropped into the canyon. After a half mile of twisty turns through the woods, I wasn't exactly sure whether I was running west or south, or whether I was even on a mapped trail. There weren't that many other trails on the map, but there seemed to be plenty of junctions. Yes, I get it. Maps are sort of useless without a compass. Another quarter mile across a rocky creek bed and back up a steep hillside had me questioning whether I'd even started where I thought I'd started, if I was still somewhere in Berkeley, or maybe space-time had transported me to southern Oregon or an oaken hillside in the year 1886. I mean, when you feel lost, you feel lost. The ridge was still up there somewhere, so I took the first opportunity to veer onto a fire road — not signed — and began to climb up a steep, grassy hillside.

Of course the climb was about a thousand feet. Of course I ran out of water. Of course I was behind schedule. I grabbed my cell phone to call my friend — not only to inform her I'd be late, but also hopeful that if I described my surroundings, she could tell me where I was — but there was no reception. Maybe I had been transported to 1886! But no, there were the shimmering skyscrapers of San Francisco. How the hell can I be lost in Berkeley, California? How have I gone so many years and so many adventures on my own, while remaining so bad at orientation and navigation?

Finally I gained a summit with a view of San Pablo Reservoir. This was the right ridge. I just needed to find my original route. The fireroad turned in the wrong direction, and impatience had me nearly slicing through brush flourishing with poison oak, but I held off until I located an intersection. Really, not that difficult. But it's funny how panicked I become when I don't understand exactly where I am. This does not bode well for improving my navigational prowess. Not at all.

Going back the exact way I came something like five miles later wasn't even completely straightforward. I didn't remember the trail being so narrow, so steep, so brushy. Maybe I just didn't remember. Ga! By the time I stumbled back to the trailhead, I buried my face in a drinking fountain for several minutes and then sheepishly made my way through the meandering streets to my friend's house. Maybe I could tell her I got stuck in traffic and no one would ever have to know. But no, shame is probably the only way I'm ever going to get any better at this.


12 comments:

  1. Being able to get lost in Berkeley is more of a tribute to Berkeley than a slam on you.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I rely WAY too much on GPS also I also must admit. LONG ago in another lifetime I was pretty good at map/compass nav...and depending on the terrain map nav w/ no compass can be "easy peasy" or not so much (as you can now attest). It's super easy to become disoriented after multiple turns and intersections. Some people just seem to have that built-in compass, and some of us don't. I always thought I was a '"don't", but then compared to my wife I'm a jedi-master of nav, so I guess there are all kinds of levels. Great post!

    ReplyDelete
  6. ack! I also need edit capability for my comment also.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Great job, Jill! Getting lost is a wonderful way to explore an area. As soon as you realize you're lost, you really start paying attention to your surroundings much more. I've done that more than once.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I've had to navigate for jobs using ocean charts, topo maps, and aerial photos (in Alaska). The most lost I ever felt was in the Everglades. Aargh! Flat, no trees to climb, the swamp all looked the same! I never get lost in the woods but always, always in a city.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Ah well, I am sure there is hope for you. I had a similar experience when I was 21, with an evening start so the delay due to disorientation resulted in a night in the woods in a pair of running shorts. No shame in carrying the GPS as a back up.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Lost in the hills of the bay area, could be worse :) I'm up in the north bay and it happens to me quite a bit. Usually I'm able to back track, otherwise same thing... get up high and have a look, then head in the general direction of civilization. I've had some short runs turn into long ones. Good times.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Those pictures are beautiful! I've had a few of those adventurous runs lately where I run a bit short on water and I start fantasizing about chugging an enormous Mountain Dew when I get back to civilization.

    ReplyDelete