Sometimes I take a circuitous route to find the topic of Unorganized Territory. Last week I wrote about the “what if” game our family sometimes plays in which we consider all sorts of doom and disaster scenarios and how to prepare for them. Last week’s column ended up being a plug for National Emergency Preparedness Month, which isn’t a bad thing. We can all use a reminder to update our home and vehicle emergency kits.
But I didn’t start out in that direction. It was to be a cautionary column of a different sort. The idea for last week’s Unorganized Territory, which got lost as my thoughts flowed, came from a comment my six-year-old grandson Carter made while we were on a hike.
At least once a year we take a hike with our grandkids up the “root beer river.” That is what the grandkids call Cascade River because of the bubbling brown-colored water that flows in that magnificent river. It is a wonderful hike because it works for just about any hiking skill level and offers amazing views of many waterfalls.
It is also a bit nerve-wracking for grandparents, as kids love running and peering over the edge of walkways and bridge rails. I spend most of the trek saying, “Slow down!” “Don’t run up to the edge!” “Don’t dangle on the railing!”
It’s that worrywart gene once again. But as my sons keep assuring me, “Kids have been hiking these trails for hundreds of years.”
Once the trail wandered inland, I was able to relax a little bit. But then we got spread out along the trail and someone mentioned getting lost. I couldn’t resist reviving the “what if ” game with the grandchildren.
We used to do this all the time when our boys were young. When we lived away from Cook County as a military family, we resided in primarily metro areas. There were a lot of check-in requirements for our kids when they went bike riding or to play at a neighborhood park. If we went to a mall or theme park, we always had a plan to find one another in case we got separated. We had a lot of discussions such as, “What would you do if a guy asked you to help find his lost puppy?”
So, I decided to play the backcountry “what if ” game. I asked the grandkids what they would do if somehow they did get lost in the woods on a hike or while camping. Carter grinned and replied, “Hug a tree!”
I was delighted. Apparently his parents also play the “what if ” game. And instead of making the caution complicated by explaining that people can’t find you if you are constantly wandering through the underbrush, someone told Carter to stay put—by hugging a tree.
I added to the advice though. Hugging a tree to stop aimlessly traveling in circles and frustrating potential rescuers is wise, but it’s also good to try to help those rescuers find you. I told Carter and his cousins to also holler. Yell and holler and scream. Stop and listen. And then scream and holler some more!
I also told the grandkids to remain calm. No matter where they are, we will find them.
This is great advice for any of us. Cook County has a great search and rescue system. There are dozens of volunteers who are ready at a moment’s notice to gear up to head out into our forests to find a missing person or to help someone in distress. If we are lost, someone will find us.
It is better to not get lost at all though. The grandkids and I talked a bit about staying on trail and staying together. We also talked about paying attention. Again, good advice for anyone setting out into our boreal forest.
Paths through the woods can all look the same. It’s hard not to zone out when you’re walking along enjoying the wonders around you—the rooted and rocky trail, the wildflowers or mushrooms along the path, the birds and squirrels, the rivers and creeks. I’m as guilty as anyone. But after hiking farther than I intended a few times, I realized I need to be more attentive.
We all should pay attention. Even when hiking with a group, we shouldn’t assume someone else will remember if we turned left or right at the big cedar tree. We need to think about where we are once in awhile. Where is the Big Lake? Where is the highway? How many miles was it between trail markers?
Noting these things can keep us from going astray. But if by chance you zig when you should have zagged and end up being lost in the woods. Don’t panic. Just hug a tree and holler.
That’s the best thing about walking, the journey itself. It doesn’t matter much whether you get where you’re going or not. You’ll get there anyway. Every good hike brings you eventually back home.