GPS and Common Sense

Last October during a primitive Colorado elk hunt, I returned to my campsite before dark to get a fire going and heat up some tea. We were camped along a drainage in a remote location accessible only by foot or horseback. Even the nearest logging road was a three-mile hike through aspen groves and dark timber. With darkness coming on, and a snow squall working its way down the valley, I bent over to stoke the fire and pour some tea.

“Hello the camp,” a voice shouted from behind me. I acknowledged the unexpected visitor and gestured for him to join me by the warming fire. My fireside “guest” was a middle-aged elk hunter named Steve from Michigan. His rifle was slung over his shoulder and he held a GPS in one hand. It was obvious that he was uneasy and a little out of breath. As we talked it became obvious that he had not a clue where he was, or how to get back to his buddies and their camp site.

I liked Steve immediately. He seemed a forthright guy with enough self confidence to admit that he was lost and, when pressed, also admitted that he did not really know how to use the handy GPS that his hunt companions has passed to him without the benefit of some basic instruction. Eventually, Steve and I figured out where he had been and how to get back to his camp. After I gave him some brief instruction on how to use his GPS and a refill of his empty water bottle, Steve struck out for camp. I wished him luck. He still had about 30 minutes of daylight with a two mile trek in front of him.

An hour later, as my hunt companions and I ate our freeze-dried suppers around the campfire, yet another visitor announced himself from the shadows and strolled into our camp light. Guess who?

Yes. Steve. The lost hunter was back. It was, as Yogi Berra said, deja vu all over again.

But this time Steve was not the relaxed guy that had wandered into camp earlier. Steve was bug-eyed. His jacket was unzippered and he was in a cold sweat and in near panic. In trying to find his way back, he had ignored the GPS and tried a shortcut relying on his best guess as to which way his camp was. The poor man came full circle. Although the snow had stopped and the moon was bright, we tried to persuade Steve to hunker down by our fire for the night and strike out again at first light. Worried about his hunt buddies worrying about him, he insisted on trying again to find his camp.

We loaned Steve a radio (his friends did not know that he had forgotten to bring his handheld radio), gave him some more water and some food, and drew him a map of a horse trail that he should be able to navigate in the moonlight. He planned to radio his companions upon finding our truck at the end of the horse trail. If he did get hopelessly turned around again, he was to radio us and we would try to find him at daybreak.

This story had a happy ending, at least as far as we know. Steve left our handheld radio behind our truck tire.

Yes, the moral to this story is pretty self-evident. Those of us who helped Steve out of his jam just shake our heads in wonderment. Steve was no dullard. He was an seemingly intelligent guy who had hunted deer in Michigan and was apparently not new to the woods. Perhaps he knew how to use his compass, but he certainly had no idea how to make his GPS perform its basic function. The assumption has to be that he was relying solely on his GPS and had not employed his compass as a backup navigational tool. Thus, he did not know his location, so there was no way he could find his way back!

A GPS, whether in an automobile or in the hand of a hunter, is only as good as the person using it. A modicum of common sense must be part of the navigational equation. Just ask Jeramie Griffin. He’s the Oregon man who took a GPS shortcut through the Cascade Mountain range this winter, got hopelessly stuck in deep snow and nearly killed his wife, his baby daughter and himself.

The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal and has written his first book, A Maine Deer Hunter’s Logbook. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WQVM 101.3) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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