All dense woods look much alike. Trees of most species grow very tall in a forest that has never been cut over, their trunks being commonly straight and slender, with no branches within, say, forty feet of the ground. This is because they cannot live without sunlight for their leaves, and they can only reach sunlight by growing tall like their neighbors that crowd around them. As the young tree shoots upward, its lower limbs atrophy and drop off. To some extent the characteristic markings of the trunk that distinguish the different species when they grow in the open, and to a greater extent their characteristic habits of branching, are neutralized when they grow in dense forest. Consequently a man who can readily tell one species from another, in open country, by their bark and branching habits, may be puzzled to distinguish them in aboriginal forest. Moreover, the lichens and mosses that cover the boles of trees, in the deep shade of a primitive wood, give them a sameness of aspect, so that there is some excuse for the novice who says that "all trees look alike" to him.
The knowledge of trees that can be gained, first from books and secondly from studies of trees themselves in city parks or in country wood-lots, must be supplemented by considerable experience in the real wilderness before one can say with confidence, by merely glancing at the bark, "that is a soft maple, and the other is a sugar-tree." And yet, I do not blow any study that, in the long run, would be more serviceable to the amateur woodsman than to get a good manual of American trees and then go about identifying the species in his neighborhood. Having gained some facility in this, then let him turn to studying peculiarities of individual growth. Such self-training, which can be carried out almost anywhere, will make him observant of a thousand and one little marks and characteristics that are sign-boards and street-numbers in the wilds.
After a novice has had some preliminary training of the kind I have indicated, so that all things in the woods no longer look alike to him, he will meet another difficulty. His memory will be swamped! It is utterly impossible for any man, whether he be red, white, black, or yellow, to store up in his mind all the woodland marks and signs that one can see in a mile's tramp, to say nothing of the infinite diversity that he encounters in a long journey. Now, here is just where a skilled woodcraftsman has an enormous advantage over any and all amateurs. He knows what is common, and pays no attention to it; he knows what is uncommon, it catches his eye at once, and it interests him, so that he need make no effort to remember the thing. This disregard for the common eliminates at once three-fourths, yes, nine-tenths, of the trees, plants, rocks, etc., from his consideration; it relieves his memory of just that much burden. He will pass a hundred birch trees without a second glance, until his eye is riveted by a curly birch. Why riveted? Because curly birch is valuable. In the bottom lands he will scarcely see a sour gum, or a hundred of them; but let him come across one such tree on top of the ridge, and he will wonder how it chanced to stray so far from home. And so on, through all categories of woodland features. A woodsman notices such things as infallibly, and with as little conscious effort, as a woman notices the crumbs and lint on her neighbor's carpet. The Homing Instinct_(?)—We hear much about the "innate sense of direction," the "extraordinary bump of locality," of savages and of certain white woodcraftsmen. "A good woodsman," we are told, "finds his way, just as an animal does, by a certain kind of instinct." If by this is meant that some men are born with a "gift," a sixth sense or homing instinct comparable to that of a carrier pigeon, I am more than sceptical. In the art of wilderness travel, as in other things, some men are more adept than others who have had equal advantages, and a few possess almost uncanny powers, amounting to what we call genius. To my notion this means little more than that some individuals are quicker to observe than others, reason more surely from cause to effect, and keep their minds more alert; and I believe that this is far more due to their taking unusual interest in their surroundings than to any marked partiality of Mother Nature in distributing her gifts. Instinct will work as well in one place as in another, but human "sense of direction" will not.
This is not saying that all men are born equal as regards the faculty of orientation; some have a Knack; but that knack is not an instinct; it is worthless until sharpened and trained by experience.
In the Great Smoky Mountains, which separate part of North Carolina from Tennessee, the "standers" in a bear drive are stationed along the main divide, or near it, at elevations of from 4,000 to 6,000 feet. We are out in all sorts of weather. The chase may continue from dawn Until midnight, the bear perhaps running ten or fifteen miles through the roughest of all this rough country. At almost any time clouds may descend upon us, or ascend from below, and the fog, as we call it, is sometimes so thick that a man cannot see thirty feet in any direction. It may lift in five minutes, or it may continue for a day, two days, three days—there is no foretelling. It may be accompanied by drenching rain, or by a keen wind, or may turn into a snowstorm; so we cannot sit around waiting on the chance of its rising.
Below the balsam zone (5,000 to 6,000 feet) the leaves, in autumn and early winter, lie very thickly upon the ground, so that a scurry of wind may at any moment obliterate the trail for some distance. When a cloud settles upon the mountain, a man hurrying along to get into the valley before nightfall, and over-confident, perhaps, of his bearings, may easily miss the trail and find himself on the wrong ridge—where? Once off the trail, there are no blazes to guide him, and the going gets worse and worse until it becomes damnable. If one could see out, he would not hesitate; but he cannot see a tree two rods away.
In such case, it is of serious import for a man to decide, rather promptly, upon which particular ridge he may have straggled; for many of these ridges are very thickety, some of them lead into laurel "hells," and on others one's progress is impeded by cliffs. To descend immediately into a creek valley would be the worst thing he could do, for the headwaters generally rise in almost impenetrable thickets of laurel and rhododendron, and their beds are rough and steep.
Now, what does a mountaineer do in such dilemma? Trust to instinct? Not a bit of it. Our strayed man might not be able to explain the process, he probably would not even be conscious of the infinitude of details involved, he might lay it all to "woods sense" and let you credit him with a mysterious "gift"; but this is what he would do: first, he would scan the trees and shrubs, closely observing their prevailing habit of growth; then he would examine the ground itself; he would move about like a dog scenting for a track; presently he would find evidence, not single, but collective—gathered from many sources—which his memory and reasoning powers would combine into a theory of locality, and, five times out of six, his theory would prove correct.
I have known a mountaineer, on a pitch-dark night, to identify the ridge he was on by feeling the trees; and there were no blazes on those trees, either.
Our mountaineers know the peculiarities and variations of their home hunting-grounds most thoroughly, so far as they relate to the hunter's and herdsman's arts, and from this intimate local knowledge they have gained certain general signs of direction that are fairly reliable throughout all the main ranges of the Southern Appalachians (mountains densely covered with more varied forest growth than any others in the world). So they have not the least hesitation about traveling into unknown parts for a week at a stretch, and without a compass, even though they may get into fog so thick that, as they quaintly say, "You could nigh stick your butcher-knife into it and hang up your shot-pouch".
But there is no dog-like or pigeon-like instinct about this. I can take one of these same men to the city of Boston and get him thoroughly lost within half a mile of his hotel. If he had the homing instinct he could find his own way back on the city streets; but he has not the ghost of such endowment. He is bewildered by the maze of things new to him, as a city man is in the forest. His attention is attracted to other things than signs of direction: so he goes astray.