Finding your way
By Luke Clayton
Sep 24, 2017
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At one time or another, most of us that spend time in the outdoors get a bit “turned around” -- not necessary lost, just a bit disoriented as to the direction back to camp or the boat ramp or that remote tree stand. For a couple of decades, I made my living as a survey crew chief. I was always out in the field with a crew, locating property corners, surveying rights-of-ways, etc. It’s a surveyor’s job to determine the exact position of features and objects on the earth’s surface.

Throughout my years as a surveyor, I learned a few tricks that have helped me greatly as a hunter and fisherman, ways to keep orientated when in the woods or on the water. Granted, with today’s state-of-the-art GPS units and navigation apps for smart phones,  finding one’s exact position on the earth’s surface is as easy as punching a button. But, what about the times when that all important little units get dropped in the water or the battery looses power? It’s still important to know where we are and where we need to go!

Luke keeps a north arrow drawn on the rail of the porch of his hunting cabin. His buddies ask about this arrow, which often results in more information than they desire, but it's information that might someday save their lives. photo by Luke Clayton

There an ancient little instrument called a COMPASS that works as well today and when the Chinese first learned that a “loadstone” or naturally occurring magnetized ore of iron had the power to point the direction to north. When hunting in the mountains of Colorado, I use my GPS unit which works when I have a signal from 3 satellites, but I never leave camp without my compass. I’ve learned through the years that where I “think” north is and where it actually is often differs by 25 degrees or more. A compass will do one thing: point to magnetic north which in the northern hemisphere is 8 to 10 degrees east of true north. Point north is all that it will do, but that’s enough, assuming you take the time to learn natural features on the land you are hunting or traveling through.

It’s very easy to get “turned around” in heavy timber or mountain country.  When I hunt a good distance back into the interior of a big piece of property, I first take a compass bearing on a road of fence line. To keep things uncomplicated, we’ll say the compass bearing on the fence on 1,000-acre piece or timbered property runs due east and west and the tract we are hunting is to the south of the road/fence. I don’t worry about running an orienteering course where I keep track of each angle or bearing I turn and distances I walk. I simply walk in a southerly direction into the property and occasionally glance at my compass to determine the direction back to where I entered the place, back to the north if I’m walking south.  I might come to a pond or big patch of brush that I have to walk around. Actually keeping up with each angle turned during the course of my walk and the paced distances I walk would defeat my purpose of scouting the place for the sign of the deer, hogs or whatever I’m hunting. I just want to know the direction to go to get back out and it doesn’t matter if I come out exactly where I entered the tract.

I do a good bit of hunting at night and have learned to navigate by the stars and, for short periods of time, when I can’t see the northern sky, the moon or a bight planet. Polaris, the North Star, is the most constant of all the stars; it sets over Earth’s north pole and doesn’t remain perfectly in place, actually Polaris makes a tight little circulation, but, for all practical purposes, Polaris points north. Actually, when viewed from the northern hemisphere, Polaris is true north when it’s at the peak of its upper or lower culmination but that’s survey talk and not pertinent to what we as sportsmen need to know to find our way at night.

Polaris is easy to spot on a clear night. I begin first by locating the Big Dipper. At the bottom of the cup of the Big Dipper are two stars known as pointer stars. A straight line projected from these pointer stars intersects Polaris. The distance to Polaris is about 5 times the distance between the two pointer stars. Polaris is actually the very last star in the handle of the Little Dipper. 

Latitude is determined by the vertical angle up to Polaris. In Texas for instance, the vertical angle up to Polaris at Brownsville at the tip of the state is about 26 degrees; at the top of the Panhandle, the angle increases by about 10 degrees.

When covering distances at night I seldom take the time to stop and actually look for Polaris or get a bearing from my compass. I will occasionally but I’ll often pick out a bright planet or the moon and determine with the compass how many degrees right or left I need to go and start walking. It’s important to know though that these objects in the night sky are constantly changing positions but not enough to matter for short periods of time.

The humorous little tale I’m about to relate to you might serve as a good reminder that anyone can get “turned around.” Several years ago, my great friend, the late Bob Hood, and I were turkey hunting on a ranch in far West Texas. We were following the ranch owner in Bob’s truck, talking and laughing and excited to get back to the interior of the ranch where we were going to hunt. We took many turns on the old ranch road and once way into the interior of the place, the rancher asked if we could find our way back after dark when we finished hunting. OH YES, no problem, we both replied.

Well at dark, with a couple of fine gobblers in the back of Bob’s truck, we started heading “back” to the main gate. After several wrong turns, we both discovered we didn’t have a clue which way to go to get back to the gate. The rancher called my cell phone. “Where are y'all, Luke?

“I see a green 55 gallon barrel feeder ahead beside a single live oak tree,” I replied.

“Well," he chuckled over the phone, "that pretty well describes the other 35 feeders we have on the 9,000 acre ranch.”

It was time for some fast thinking, Bob and I were getting tired and hungry.  I told the rancher that in the far distance I could see the radio towers of San Angelo. I asked which direction they were from his parcel of land. “You’re due south of the towers; my gate is on the east side of the property. Find a ranch road that runs east and you will find the gate. In fifteen minutes we were turning the combination to the lock at the gate.  There are all kind of ways to keep yourself on track! We would never have gotten turned around had we took a bearing on the front fence or road, but we had our mind on turkeys and following the rancher!

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