How long has it been since you were where you were certain of your location? Probably not a long time. Suppose you have traveled half an hour after leaving a known landmark. What is half an hour in the woods ? A mile, say; perhaps not so much; for one does not keep up a steady jog in the wilderness; he often pauses to look or listen, and is bound to move slowly when off a beaten path.
But you don't want to stay here like a numbskull and face the sly grins or open ridicule of a searching party? Very well, the bugaboos are fleeing. Now take a stick, make a bare spot on the ground, and try to trace your probable course from the time of leaving camp to the time you first suspected you might be wandering astray. Mark on it the estimated location of such landmarks as you noticed. If you are not altogether a tenderfoot, you will remember how many streams or ridges you have crossed. Anyway, you will recall some features of the country you traversed. Not unlikely, when your mind has recovered its equipoise, you will be able to "backtrack" without much difficulty.
But in any case, no matter how confident you may be, don't take ten steps from the place where you are until you have marked it. If the location is favorable for a smoke sign (in flat woods1 it is of no avail) build a fire, with enough damp or punky stuff on it to keep up a smoke for a good while, and bank it with earth so it cannot spread. Or, blaze a tree on four sides—make big blazes that can be seen from any direction. Do this even though there be several hours of daylight ahead, and although you have no present intention of staying here; for you do know that this spot is only so many hours from camp by back trail, and that you may have good reason to return to it. This blazed tree, moreover, will be of great assistance to your camp-mates in searching for you, if you should not turn up later.
Then take note of the lay of the land around you3 the direction of its drainage, the character of its vegetation, and the hospitalities that it offers to a siight-bound traveler, in the way of drinking-water, sound down-wood for an all-night fire, natural shelter, and browse or other bedding.
Now when you start out to recjver the trail, make bush-marks as you go along (see Chapter III, Fig. 6) ; otherwise it will be the easiest thing in the world to lose the way back to that blazed tree.
In trying to pick up your old footprints don't give much attention to dry ground, except where there may be dusty places, or rocks where your hobnails might have left scratches. Look for tracks (I don't mean run around hunting for them) in the damp places that you pass, mossy spots, swales, margins of brooks, and for "scrapes" on the tops of fallen logs.
When searching for a trail, do not look close to your feet, but three or four yards ahead of you; for a faint trail is more readily seen at that angle than by looking straight down upon it. Cast your eyes also from side to side, bearing in mind what a trail should look like when you walk parallel with it, as well as when approaching at right angles.
If you get a shot at a squirrel or other animal (of course, you don't wander around looking for them) kill it and tie it fast to you. It is one of the little-ironies of wilderness life that food may be extraordinarily scarce when you most need it—and that may be to-morrow.
But- if you don't soon find that back track of yours, and if no familiar landmark shows up before the sun is within an hour of setting, QUIT IT for the day. It is high time, now, that you go right to work to make yourself snug for the night. Your success or failure to-morrow will depend very much upon what kind of a night's rest you get.
In nearly every story that you read of a lost man's misadventures you find him struggling desperately on until black night shuts down. Then he throws his exhausted body upon the cold, damp ground, soon to awaken in bitter misery, and back himself up against a tree, to droop there through the long, long hours; or, the cold being intense, and he without one dry match, the man totters crazily all night, 'round and 'round, to keep from freezing. What could he be fit for next day?
Of course, if the Swiss Family Robinson should get turned around in the forest primeval, they at once would find a shallow cave, a projecting ledge, a great hollow tree, or some other natural shelter ready-made on the spot. We often come across such natural harborages in the wilderness—when we don't need them. (Three of us hunters once spread our blankets inside a hollow cypress and had room to spare.) But no special providence looks after lost men.
It would be so easy to make a comfortable "one-night stand" if you had a knapsack of supplies on your back! Yes, you could get along very well if only you had a featherweight poncho, a 12-ounce tomahawk, and several big bites of grub (next time you go out alone you will have them). But to-day you just went off to one side after a crippled deer, or something, and your outfit comprises nothing but. a gun and the contents of your pockets. Pretty prospect, isn't it?
"Under the greenwood tree, Who loves to lie with me" . . . is all very nice on a summer's day; but under the greenwood tree on a cold night in the big sticks, and the Lord knows where, with no me to share who's troubles—oh, darn Shakespeare!
Well, you must rustle. Just now you need four things.—
(2) A fire that won't go out till morning.
(3) A windbreak to keep the other side of you warm.
(4) A bed to rest your bones and to keep off the chill of the ground.
And, my friend, you want to get these things with the least expenditure of time and effort. Night approaches; to-morrow may be a hard day. Besides, you are quite too tired already to waste the crook of your finger on non-essentials, while aimless pottering would be your ruin. The job must be tackled methodically.