I’ve always had a good sense of direction. I would like to believe my friends, family, and hiking clients would fully trust me on such a statement. I’ve travelled Niagara’s meek but empowering forests, plus the regional roads, and between hiking, hockey, and family across the peninsula, I’ve got an unshakeable sense for where places lie in proportion to one another.
If I got you lost, I promise, it would at least be some definition of fun.
Another resume skill, which has yet to make it on paper or be quantified in any way, is my “tree memory.” I can remember how the tree with the dark bark was overarching the little beech saplings near the edge of the escarpment. In that spot. I’ll remember a buttonbush growing in the depths of Wainfleet Bog, somewhere over a kilometre off trail. In that spot.
I have revisited particular provincial and national parks with many years in between, only to find myself excitedly remembering a certain tree, wetland feature, or stump in the area. These mental markers have become important navigational tools over the years, especially when off-trail, and at risk of getting lost.
Hey, it’s 2020, and we’re all a little lost right now! Here are a couple stories where the feeling of uncertain geographical whereabouts became an accomplishment of beating that lost feeling.
When I through-hiked the entirety of the Bruce Trail in 2014, I didn’t get truly lost, per se, but one time, I got spun into a giant circle that nearly chewed away half a day of hiking. I still don’t know how it happened to this day.
I was two weeks or so into my expedition, working my way down from Tobermory to Niagara. Around Collingwood, something peculiar happened. I remember, hours later, returning to the same spot on the the hiking trail, and just standing there and thinking, I was here this morning.
It dumbfounded me, and still does. Many locals know that following the white rectangular blazes of the Bruce is a surefire and simple way to hike this beautiful path. Somehow, I must have walked an entire loop of sorts, only to return to my relative ground zero. All I could do was laugh at myself in disbelief.
That might not be a scary type of lost, but it was certainly bizarre. That’s what getting lost truly feels like — you’ve been tricked by your own senses and Mother Nature’s works, like you’ve been pranked by some unholy force. It can leave you feeling very vulnerable, very quickly.
Now, what about being lost in the Amazon jungle, with nightfall and no cellphone reception?
I was filming Hidden Corners: East Andes Ecuador, in 2016. My best friend and cameraman, Dave Tebbutt, was along for some critical adventures while providing his respected camera expertise to the episode.
Our guide was memorable. A young native man in his early 20s, he was built like a well-fed bull. Round in the face and belly, he was strong and durable and built for the jungle. He confidently took us out on foot into the rainforest, until his confidence in one very important thing suddenly subsided — where the heck we were.
With the sun getting lower, and the jungle getting exponentially darker, this is when “El Capitan,” as he preferred to be called, told Dave and I we were lost. More importantly, our guide was lost. It’s one of those classic moments where you find yourself years later saying, “do you remember where you were, or what you were doing when you learned about . . . the fact that you are lost?”
I remember standing in rubber boots, watching the crystal clear tiny stream run over the tops of my toes. The water quietly twinkled its last reflections for the day. The little creek was gentle, but the jungle was getting louder. The lush vegetation around the small tributary was brushing up against our belt line. We felt closed-in by the lack of light and indifferent vegetation.
I took a deep breath and realized that this was going to be an excellent story within the story. Dave didn’t look so comforted at first, but I have to give it to him, because most people would have caved and panicked. Dave kept it together like a champion. Perhaps, others would have been mad at El Capitan, or started throwing their arms in the air like in the movies.
We embraced the wildness of saying we were lost in the Amazon. At the end of the day, it was calm, trust, and some “tree memory” that got us out of there. Albeit, it was late and pitch black once we returned back to the wooden shacks for dinner, where El Capitan cooked us a scrumptious meal of mysterious meat and some veggies.
If you’re ever lost in Niagara or the Amazon, or a large city, just remember that you owe it to yourself to take a deep breath. When our species takes the time to physically breathe in deeper and exhale slower, we bring precious oxygen to our brain and slow down time for a moment. It produces moments of clarity that are critical for resolution, which may not be found if we’re in state of heightened panic or confusion.
On that note, I end with a few quick but foolhardy tips for those who may find themselves lost in Niagara Region.
For one, the Niagara Escarpment generally runs a consistent east-west direction (except in Short Hills Provincial Park, where the escarpment is a post-glacial mess). There is always human development below the escarpment, as well as immediately above it.
Speaking of human development, you are truly never far from any named road in Niagara. Even in the depths of Wainfleet Bog or the Niagara Gorge, you are never far from a road. We no longer have true wilderness areas here in Niagara.
The vast majority of said roads run in a north-south or east-west direction, making much of the Niagara Region a gridlock layout on a map, composed of reliable right angles in nearly all municipalities.
The Niagara River, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario box in the Niagara Region to make it a true peninsula. On satellite image, you can see Niagara is generally a rectangle with water on three sides. The river runs north to south, and the two Great Lakes have coasts going from east to west.
Before you set out to hike in a more profound patch of forest, it’s always a decent idea to look at the maps beforehand and know what you’re up against. If you can, download a map from somewhere online, or, take a photo of the maps at the trailhead before you enter the parks. If you hike in the evening, it’s never a bad idea to have a flashlight or charged phone at the ready.
Being lost can be something goofy and trivial, but it can turn to true terror if left in a stressful, unprepared mindset.
Here’s a final quote from a shaman I hiked with in Ecuador’s jungle. “In the forest, all the trees look different to me. In the city, the grey buildings, they’re all the same. That’s why I get lost in the city, but not in the forest.”