Time outdoors is refreshing but can be life threatening if one does not learn to read the landscape. It is easy to become disoriented and lost. It is easier to get lost in Michigan than in the mountainous west. When hiking unfamiliar territory in the west, I use mountain peaks and ridges to keep my bearing. In Michigan, a compass is more essential because one cannot see distinctive landmarks in the distance.
On cloudy days when the sun is obscured, it is difficult to maintain orientation.
In our personal home range, we become familiar with objects and know exactly where we are and how to get to specific locations. Going to and from work, school, or regular haunts, it becomes so familiar that we can almost travel the routes blind folded.
As a teenager, my father-in-law hunted, hiked, and played in southern Minnesota’s landscape along the Minnesota River near Le Sueur. Wildlife in the forest and fields changed during the year depending on available food and shelter. Walt learned to track animals and it helped him hunt successfully.
Landscape features helped him survive solo outings. The Minnesota River was wide and at certain times of the year was not crossable due to high water. Even in seasons with lower water, crossing required submerging to his thighs or waist. He learned to read the landscape for safe crossing in shallowest water.
To cross the river, Walt would seek a bend in the river where a sandbar extended from the inside of a curve toward the downstream bank on the opposite shore. Water flowing toward the curve would flow straight into the outside edge of the curve, hit the bank and be diverted toward the center of the river.
Sand and other material carried by the river dropped in the slower current on the inside of the curve and created a sandbar. Directly opposite another sandbar extended toward the center of the river because the stronger current was diverted from the bank to the center of the river. Slower water on the far side dropped sediments.
When Walt crossed the river, he waded on one sand bar, was able to cross deeper water in the center, and finish crossing on the other sandbar. The Minnesota River was wide and reasonably shallow so he could wade water that was usually shallower than the length of his legs.
In February, when the temperatures seldom rose to zero during the day and dropped to -15 to -30 F at night, the river surface froze enough to walk on despite the flowing current beneath. One winter day he was crossing the frozen surface and the current had thinned the ice. He broke through and submerged to his waist. The air was about -20 F.
He scrambled out of the water and started running as fast as he could for home a mile away. Wet clothes on skin draws heat quickly from one’s body. He knew hypothermia would come fast. When he arrived home, his pants were frozen solid everywhere except at the knees where they were constantly flexed as he ran.
Good fortune allowed him to arrive home, cold and shivering instead of becoming a frozen ice statue in the wild country he enjoyed. It was good he crossed the river where it was shallowest. When venturing outside, we should pay attention to the landscape and read its secrets so when the need arises we can safely navigate. Outdoors should be enjoyed and not feared. Fear will dissipate when we become familiar with the outdoors. Spend time with family exploring nature niches during all seasons.
Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at email@example.com – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.