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Finding your way with the help of natural landmarks

July 21, 2010
By Joe Hackett, News Outdoors Columnist

I’ve often wondered why some people seem to have a problem traveling in a straight line. I know that I certainly do. It isn’t a good trait for a person who so often travels off the beaten trail.

    My wandering ways are most apparent when there is a distinct lack of landmarks, as is often the case when traveling through a thick cedar swamp after a heavy snow. In such instances, everything looks the same, and distant views are usually limited.

    Typically, we orient ourselves and our direction of travel by our proximity to familiar landmarks. It is a spatial skill that allows us to figure out where we are going.

    If a big hill is on our right side as we go into the woods, we’ll want to keep the same hill on our left side as we return.

    It is easy for most travelers to get reoriented with the aid of a compass, but what happens when there is no compass or no batteries for the GPS? What if there is no sun, visible mountains or other landmarks? A trail of bread crumbs isn’t going to cut it.

    Certainly, travelers can attempt to read the signs provided by some of nature’s natural indicators, like banner pines. These distinctive trees, which are typical of large white pines, are shaped by the prevailing winds.

    In our region, the wind typically blows from west to east as a result of the earth’s counterclockwise rotation. Our weather comes from the west and, as a result, the big pines and many other trees lean to the east.

    The strong winds also shape the limbs, stunting their growth on the western or windward side of the tree and elongating the eastern facing branches. When viewed from a distance, the trees appear to be shaped like a banner or a flag.

    Due to modern society’s ever-growing dependency on electronic gadgets, and its tangible detachment from nature, it appears we have lost our way in matters much more pressing than simple directional applications.

    We have forgotten how to read many obvious natural signs, like the early warning signs of coming rain that turned up leaves indicate. When the white undersides of hardwood leaves are visible on a hillside or lakeshore, it is a safe bet that a looming rain isn’t far behind.

    As we look under our feet as we cross open bedrock, whether on the lakeshore or atop an exposed mountaintop, we’ll find deep long lines that have been gouged into the rock.

    These lines, which are the result of glaciers scouring the land under the weight of ice so thick that it was measured in miles, almost always run in a south to north direction. Why? Because the glaciers receded from south to north, since the earth’s heat is greatest near the equator and colder near the poles.

    In an area as rich in glacially-shaped lands as the Adirondacks, travelers don’t really need to look long and hard for indicator scrapes and scours.

    Consider the orientation of most of our large lakes, like Champlain, Long Lake or Schroon Lake. These long and relatively narrow waters are no different than the scours and scrapes on the bedrock of the shorelines. Most of our lakes are shaped in the same south to north fashion.

    What about the all of the other natural compasses? Does moss always grow on the north side of a tree? Not always, but north facing slopes tend to get less sun. The north sides of most hills are shaded for the greatest portion and, as such, they are more likely to produce moss.

    But other factors, such as a tree that has been twisted by winds or dislodged by high water or rock slides, can result in an unreliable reading. In cases where the prominent direction isn’t always evident, look for more samples. Never trust just one sample as a true indication.

    We all know that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Most of us can pick out the North Star, which is evident from the alignment of the top two stars at the top of cup that forms the Big Dipper.

Inherent sense of direction

    Did you ever wonder if some people are born with a sense of direction, or is directional orientation a learned sense? A recently released study suggests that the brain comes hard-wired with working navigational cells (or neurons).

    The research, conducted with rats at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology reveals that even though neurons mature over time into direction cells — place cells and grid cells — they begin to function in rodents as soon as they make the animals take their first exploratory steps outside of the nest.

    Researchers conducted the research to discover how the brain maps place and space when an animal navigates for the first time. They discovered that rats have working navigational neurons from the beginning.

    Next to mature cells were place cells, which are found in a brain structure called the hippocampus. The place cells represent a specific place in the environment and possibly even a memory that is associated with the place.

    Next to mature were grid cells, which provide the brain with a geometric coordinate system that enables the animal to figure out where it is in space and how far it has traveled. These cells enable the animal to reproduce the mental map that was made last time it was there.

    It is interesting to note that researchers found no differences between males and females in the development of navigational skills. Possibly, the research provides an answer to the old question, “Do males or females have a better sense of direction?”

    It is interesting to note that for the first time in history of mankind, the majority of the world’s population now reside in cities.

    The milestone may signal a dramatic shift in our psyche, for humans are a species that has evolved to live in small hunter-gatherer tribes, traveling as necessary to find resources like shelter, game and water. By comparison to modern man, this trait is not far removed. We still exist in small unit, working together toward shared goals and we are still willing to travel great distances, as necessary to gather or satisfy our needs.

    Now, rather than inhabiting wide-open spaces and ranging far and wide, we’ve been crowded into the confines of concrete mountains and busy thoroughfares, surrounded by a host of unnatural nuisances and a multitude of strangers.

    Research has made it clear in recent years that unnatural surroundings have a negative impact on our mental and physical health. These surroundings, and the noise and intrusions they contain, can be powerful agents of stress that alter how we think, sleep and interrelate.

    As our society becomes further removed from nature, we become further removed from our natural selves. Is it any wonder that we suffer from the woes of this detachment?

    Somewhere, deep inside every human being, is an instinct to be wild. The instinct is muted every time we seek to limit its exposure to a natural environment.

    When it appears on the rare occasion, we are happily stunned to recognize that it still exists. If we could only begin to exercise it more often, our comfort zones would increase, along with our confidence level.

    When we do so, we are more willing to explore, to stay out longer, play harder and take more risks. In a word, we are “alive.”

    It is a notion that can only be realized outside and achieved in a natural setting.  Because we are, after all, just a group of partly civilized animals who, at one time in a most places, ran wild.

Article Photos

Photo by Joe Hackett
Prevailing winds, which blow from the west to the east, have sculpted the limbs of tall white pine trees into flags or banners, providing obvious natural landmarks. In this photo, it is easy to see that many branches are longer on the left (or east side).



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