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Birdshot and backlashes: Being lost in the woods

It’s a big woods. Especially at night when it’s raining and there is no trail or other indication as to how to get out of it. Just trees, rain, bugs, total darkness and silence.This was the situation faced by a young man who became lost in the woods looking for a remote wilderness walleye lake last week. He and a companion started out, both young men in their teens, with a yen to find that secret walleye bonanza we all hear about. They portaged into Wind Lake, then took the trail to Washte Lake. Their goal was Witness Lake, reportedly loaded with big walleyes. Only they couldn’t find the Witness Lake trail. After hunting around, one of the young men split off to “brush crash” the hills and either find Witness Lake or the trail to it. He found neither. To keep track of each other, the young men yelled back and forth which worked fine until they got a ridge between them and communication ceased. One of the men cut back to their campsite and sat down to ponder the situation. The other one, now thoroughly confused, began hurrying along, looking for a way back. And then it got dark. They had a map between them in the possession of the young man back at the camp. Neither had a compass. The young man lost in the woods had a lighter, so he set about kindling a fire to dry out his soaked clothing. His friend at the camp huddled inside the tent, hoping his companion would return. He went outside periodically to shout, but got no reply. The man in the woods left the fire to do some more searching and lost track of the fire. His lighter stopped functioning. He huddled up in some brush to keep warm. He was wearing his life jacket which helped ward off the cold. Still it was a wet and lonely night. With daylight, they were both on the move again. The man in the tent, after some futile shouting, set out for Moose Lake to report his companion missing and seek help. The lost fisherman kept walking, probably in circles. Once the incident was reported to the Lake County sheriff’s office, Deputy Nick Milkovich contacted the Forest Service and was soon in the air with pilot Wayne Erickson in the USFS Beaver. Several searchers set out by canoe from Moose Lake heading for the campsite on Washte Lake. Eventually, the lost angler made his way to the shore of Washte Lake where he was picked up by the searchers and returned to Moose Lake. No harm was done other than the victim lost some sleep, got bitten by mosquitoes and got fairly well scared. The Deputy Sheriff, USFS pilot and the ground searchers got some practice they really didn’t need. I interviewed both young men who were terribly embarrassed by the episode which is why their names aren’t printed. They knew they had screwed up royally, first for not being prepared, second for wandering around in an unfamiliar area. Luckily they did some things right. They had means of making a fire. The young man who stayed at the camp had the presence of mind to hurry back at daybreak and seek help. Lake County and St. Louis County have trained search and rescue personnel. The Forest Service has air patrol and trained searchers. They are all old hands at finding lost people, even in deep wilderness situations. As for the young men, they learned not to go into the woods without both having a map and compass… and knowledge of how to use them. They learned not to leave a trail or the lakeshore, known reference points, and they also learned not to split up, but to stay together. The forest is a benign, relatively safe place. Much safer than cities they call home where there are an infinite number of hazards. But there are rules for traveling in the woods, rules set by generations of hikers and canoeists, rules set by the woods itself. There are a number of good books on wilderness travel including how to use a map and compass. Anyone can find a way into the woods, but it takes a measure of knowledge to find one’s way out. Trying to get out becomes a lot more difficult when night falls, rain begins to come down and the person in the woods has no idea where “out” may be.

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