Finding Our Way

[Note: The following was first published in the May 2016 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2016 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.


First Place, Magazine Column
Outdoor Writers of Canada
2017 National Communications Awards


We shared Eskimo Tea under tarps wrapped around our two snowmobiles. We had boiled the tea on a small stove we’d hauled for the purpose. What made it “Eskimo Tea,” as described by my Inuk partner David Nanuk, was the two tablespoons of sugar spooned into each cup. David insisted there was no better way to have tea in the Arctic, and after the day we had had, I had to agree.


On the arctic tundra, Inuit experienced in traditional skills can find their way from the orientations of these hard-packed snow ridges (in this case, Mapsuk).

The early June day had started out nice enough, as we tracked a herd of caribou to its calving ground as part of a study of caribou movements in relation to a proposed gas pipeline. After a few hours spent watching the herd from a blind in some rocks, David interrupted my observations to inform me a storm was approaching and we should get back to camp. The approaching clouds from the west didn’t look too threatening; but after several weeks on the tundra with David, I had learned to respect his knowledge.

Sure enough, as we made our way back, following the faint traces of our morning tracks across the wind-blown, hard-packed snow, we suddenly found ourselves in a whiteout. Everywhere we looked all we could see was white — no distinction between sky, ground, or any sudden drops or hard objects ahead. Indeed, I nearly ran into David’s snowmobile as he stopped to suggest we wait out the storm.

So, we tied the tarps around us and boiled the tea. The wind and snow blew hard, shaking the tarps and making me realize how vulnerable we were, exposed to what nature could throw at us. Although we each wore parkas and insulated pants to keep warm (David in traditional caribou hide, me in modern down-filled cotton and nylon), it was obvious we needed to get to better shelter if we were going to survive.

Finally after a couple hours, the wind subsided, the land became distinct from the sky, and we decided to continue on our way. My problem was how we were going to navigate under the low overcast sky that obscured the sun and landmarks. David told me just to follow him, and of course I did.

Wrottsley River Camp

Our camp on the Boothia Peninsula in early June was often fog bound.

Now in those days (the 1970s) there was no GPS and a magnetic compass was useless because we were close to the magnetic pole. I carried a cumbersome solar compass that could determine direction from the position of the Sun in the sky, provided you knew the latitude and time of day. It was difficult to use but accurate. However, on a sunless day, it was also useless. I had no idea what David was using because our tracks from this morning were gone. He kept driving ahead and I followed. In a few hours our camp appeared out of the fog and cloud.

When I asked him that evening how he knew which direction to follow to find our camp, he said he was following what his father had taught him about the hard snow ridges we bounced across throughout the day. They indicated the direction of the prevailing wind or that of the hills and other obstructions redirecting that wind. I asked him how he could put all that together over the considerable distance we travelled. He said, “You have to live here.”

I was reminded of that experience when I read an article in the New York Times about some scientists trying to preserve “The Secrets of the Wave Pilots” (March 17, 2016). The piece described the legendary Polynesian sailors who first traversed the vast expanse of the Southern Pacific Ocean over 2,000 years ago. They did so without a compass or other instrument and very few landmarks. Yet, they regularly traveled over the horizon to the next island using techniques that have, until now, defied scientific explanation. Today, less than a handful of the people who occupy those islands have the knowledge of those “old ways” to navigate. These scientists sought out one such sailor to prove the validity of the technique and preserve it from extinction.

Much like David using the snow ridges, wave pilots use the complexity of ocean waves to determine the direction to be sailed and the proximity to land. They do so by sight and feeling the swells of more subtle waves through the hulls of their sailboats. To learn these techniques, the pilots have to serve long apprenticeships under elder master pilots. The scientists believe that such skills are a combination of learned and inherited elements.

Most wildlife species, especially those that migrate, have ways of orienting themselves with the planet to find their way back home or indeed fly thousands of kilometres to breeding or wintering grounds. The methods vary, depending on the species. Some use the earth’s magnetic field, others the position of the Sun or Milky Way. Whichever method they use, the information is used to calculate their position on mental maps handed down through the generations in their genes. For example, some populations of the monarch butterfly migrate from Mexico to Canada and back again over five generations. Each generation only lives long enough to make a portion of the trip but passes along the map of the trip to its offspring to complete the next portion, and so on.

Smoky River Valley

Until GPS units became commonplace, we depended upon our mental maps to orient ourselves with landmarks, the Sun or the direction North indicated by a magnetic compass.

We humans might have similar “dead-reckoning” capabilities handed down to us through our genes. For example, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been lost; i.e., not sure how to get back to my vehicle or camp. In all cases the Sun had been obscured and I had been involved in tracking an animal through the bush. Without the Sun I had been “momentarily confused” until I took out my compass and determined that the route I was following was a wrong one.

When we have a point of reference, like the Sun, a landmark or a compass to point north, we can recalibrate our mental map and picture in our minds how to “get back to camp.” Each recalibration strengthens that map and our ability to use it. We most likely received the format of that map from our ancient ancestors who depended on such a map for their survival and indeed our own existence. Although we pass that map format from generation to generation, elders must teach each generation how to use it, or the knowledge of it could be lost. For example, David told me that much of the knowledge he had learned from his father about living off the land in the Arctic was not being passed to people younger than himself because they had been taken from their families to go to residential school in Yellowknife at the age their fathers would have passed that knowledge along.

Closer to home, many of us no longer carry or know how to use a magnetic compass or find north using the stars. We’ve come to depend upon mobile devices, like smartphones and GPS units to find our way. As a result, few of us get lost but we’re also not using our mental maps like we used to or passing on such knowledge to our children. That could be a problem if our devices or the systems that support them should fail. Perhaps we should be learning the old skills as well as the new.

Comments are always welcome (below).

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

About Don Meredith

I am a writer and biologist living in Alberta, Canada. I wrote a monthly column for the Alberta Outdoorsmen magazine, and have published articles for several other magazines.
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