In the Field

While many survivor kits include a compass, the small size can be problematic. In the case of this one, the compass failed to move with magnetic north. Instead the needle stayed in one place while the author inadvertently proved that when “lost” a person really does travel in circles.

Photo courtesy of Amber Travsky

It is disorienting. I peer ahead, and the snow-covered prairie blends in with the overcast sky. Ground and sky are the same off-white color. A thin line, barely visible in the distance, marks where one stops and the other begins. Luckily, it is still clear enough to allow me to point my skis in the intended direction and stay somewhat on course.

I’m skiing across my project area located an hour northeast of Laramie. In my work as a wildlife biologist, I have been documenting wildlife use of this area for nearly two consecutive years and, before that, I conducted baseline surveys for about a year. In other words, I am very familiar with the area. While lacking many trees or other prominent vegetation or landforms, I am well aware of the location of fences, windmills and even metal bins used to hold salt for the cattle in the summer. I know all the two-track roads but, unfortunately, due to the snow cover, they are now mostly undistinguishable.

Due to the long length of the site making it physically impossible to ski in and out in one day while also visiting the necessary observation points, I’ve established a waystation. Far from fancy, my refuge is a metal barn, about halfway across the site. A backroom, once used by the ranch hand during the summer months, provides my home-away-from-home.

While the room lacks any heat, lights or water, it is out of the wind. Earlier in the year, I cached necessary gear and supplies to provide a bare-bones overnight camp complete with a small propane heater, a stove and sleeping gear. While far from posh, it provides a necessary refuge that allows me to spend multiple days out on the site.

While I always carry a GPS receiver with my observation points already entered as waypoints, I haven’t turned it on in months. I never need it since I know the site so well.

Or so I thought.

About four hours into my survey, the fog descends. I pass through a gate and know exactly where I am, so I just kept moving toward my next observation point.

As I ski, I occasionally glass the area with my binoculars, hoping to catch movement of any critters out and about. On the plus side — and it is a very big plus — it is completely still. There is nary a whisper of wind. All is silent while the inch of fresh powder muffles the sound of my skis sliding across the snowy surface. I ski and listen, hoping to hear howling coyotes or, at a bare minimum, maybe the raspy caw of a raven passing overhead. I note plenty of coyote and swift fox tracks in the snow, so I know I’m not alone.

Suddenly, I am startled out of my revere. There in front of me are my own ski tracks, running perpendicular to my current direction of travel.

“What the heck?” I say out loud. “How did that happen?” I look around, but I am unable to locate any notable landmarks. Instead, I dig through my pack and find my GPS receiver. I check for the nearest observation point, then activate the compass to orient myself. The battery symbol shows I have plenty of juice, so I’m back in business, using the GPS to keep in the right direction.

It works for about 30 minutes. I hear a beep from the GPS and am dismayed to read “Low battery.” Even as I watch, the battery symbol goes from half full to empty in a matter of seconds; then the screen is blank. I scold myself when I discover I have no extra batteries.

Not to worry. I dig through the pack again and retrieve an object I always carry. It is a small survival tool that includes a knife, whistle, fire starting flint and, most importantly, a compass.

I hold the compass flat and orient myself to head west. As I ski, I recheck every few minutes to ensure I’m going the right direction.

Then, it happens again. I cross my own ski tracks.

I’m baffled. I get out the compass and discover the needle is sticking in place rather than turning with magnetic north. While I thought I was going due west, I was actually circling. They say when people get lost they tend to wander in circles. I thought it was a myth, but the proof was in front of me.

I’m an old hand in the backcountry and admit to being “temporarily displaced” on more than one occasion. Rather than panic, I make a plan to get to the barn where, in my cache of supplies, I have plenty of extra batteries.

Thankfully, the fog lifts enough to help me get to my waystation. It’s late in the day, though, so I opt to stay put and resume the surveys in the morning.

Alas, instead of clear skies as was in the forecast, the fog is even thicker the next morning. I opt to ski back to my truck and am thankful for the GPS to keep me on course. If not for it, I might still be going in circles.

Amber Travsky earned master’s degrees in wildlife biology and exercise physiology from the University of Wyoming. She runs her own environmental consulting company, as well as a martial arts school. She authored “Mountain Biking Wyoming” and “Mountain Biking Jackson Hole,” both published by Falcon Books. She is the tour director and founder of the Tour de Wyoming bicycle tour, which crosses the state every July.

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