When you are physically lost (and found) in nature

Have you ever been lost in nature even for some significant time before you were found? It can be more than a bit unnerving, near fatal, and rewarding all at the same time.

When this occurs, what might you be lost from?  The trail head? The ‘tamed world’? Your home? Often all of these things set up churning emotions. Most often, you galvanize the experience as one of those ‘edge’ times and you carry it with you for the rest of your life.

One such time, in deep wilderness, I went to search for a remote and favoured site with a great friend and colleague. It was a place I had often visited as a wildlife biologist. I had noted several female rattlesnakes returned each year to share a ‘rookery rock’ where they gave birth to their young. You might be thinking, “If I arrived at a rock with 50 rattlesnakes, I surely would be lost!”

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This is what large parts of Georgian Bay (location described in this blog), Lake Huron, look like. Beyond rare snakes, you can see the appeal.

For me of course, the site was sacred. I used to eat my lunch sitting beside probably a cumulative total of 20 feet of rattlesnake (we all pick our poisons). Crazy or not, my heart longed for the landscape, their gentle serpentine souls, and the place I once knew so well.

I have a good sense of direction. Sometimes, however, nature changes the directions. In the ten or so ensuing years since I’d been there, the beavers had played ‘God’ on the landscape. Their engineering efforts played mental gymnastics with my mind. They had enlarged existing wetlands, created some that weren’t present, and deepened a great number that were easily traversed in the past.

Twisting and turning to find dry enough ground, I lead us astray. Dusk approached. Then, I recognized an area. Or at least I thought. One ridge looked remarkably similar to one unforgettable incident I experienced nearly a decade early. On this ridge, I had watched from behind a tree as a wolf trotted by with a blood-dripping bear paw in his mouth. I’m not talking about the chocolate, staying fresh for too long to be good for you, ‘Bear Paw’ cookie you can buy for your kid’s lunch (we all pick our poisons). This was a real bear’s paw. How did a lone wolf get a bear’s paw? Any suggestions?

Starting to feel a bit desperate, I felt like I’d failed my friend and colleague. Together we had been through much adversity in the field before. We had our coping tools. Humour and our playful bravado served us well many times in the past. We’d have to go there again.

In trying to make up time and space, I lead us through what used to be a shallow pond. As the water got waist high we hoisted our backpacks, laden with cameras and research equipment, over our heads on our outstretched arms. We reached a small island in the middle of the wetland. We climbed out of the swampy water for relief, but then shuttered and squirmed at the ghastly site of each other. On our bare legs, arms, and necks were – leeches – and lots of them, writhing on our skin. Our bodies were a ‘bar’ for black, slimy blood-suckers.

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Here we are emerging the ‘out of place’ wetland with what was a self-timer (pre-selfie era) shot of our bloodied bodies, after pulling all the leeches off one another. (I’m on the right, pal-colleague ‘Doc’ Willson, on the left). This is when I realized we were lost.

The worst part about pulling them off was not that the attachment sites bled profusely. It was the knowledge that we had to get right back in the water to get through the other half of the wetland. Feeling far from home in that moment, I recognized we were indeed, lost.

We’d lost more than direction. We’d lost comfort, safety, dryness. We’d loss hope of finding our intended place. We lost the ability to go anywhere with any sort of acceptable pace. We were forced to go slowly. We trudged in a heavy motion, trying to push time as walked through thickness of the swamp.

We never did find the rattlesnake birthing grounds. That place still lives like yesterday in my heart.

I pause from the drudgery of the soggy substrate and take a deep breath.

I see my targeted place. My mind’s eye won’t let go of the detail; the rock ridges, the low wet spots, and the patch work of the endless connections. I see the young newborn animals take in life, one increment at a time. Stretching their expandable bodies, they cross the crunchy Reindeer Lichen, interspersed with hard pink granite rock and small pockets of soft Sphagnum Moss. This is where they warm up for life.

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An inquisitive, frightened rattlesnake inspects my water supply and then moves on to find cover.

I didn’t get there physically, but I am there. I am in their home. It becomes my home. I own it for the brief passage of time. I open my eyes. I see my own path. I lead us home in the nearly darkened sky and sleekly silhouetted forest.

Being lost in nature in this manner can spawn feelings of fear of immortality. The basic absences breed hot-button insecurities in us; little food to eat, little water to drink and unfamiliar shelter.

The frustration of the perception of being a poor navigator, and ‘the loss of time well spent’ can become vehicles of ultimate trickery. This can lead to a place of ultimate danger; the mind.  The mind is the place that can take what ought be a lesson from the momentary loss of mindfulness, and turn it into the extreme; loss of life. Coming to one’s senses, when lost in nature is the number one way to find our way back.

Only in rare and extreme cases are people never found (a.k.a lost and sadly never discovered in time). The vast majority of times however, the journey of being lost and the triumph of being found are the norm. These stories become established as legends and common lore of our own personal journeys.

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Returning with my son quite a few years later, I was back in the beauty of the water of “The Thirty-thousand Islands.” This time, I was much more prepared. We breathed in the beauty of the landscape and respectfully observed the Massasauga Rattlesnake once again.

As such, we can experience a paradoxical ‘happy time’ whence lost in nature. How so, with the stress that’s incurred with being lost this way?

There are many times when I didn’t get lost in nature. These were times when I had a compass. I had a knife….a container to collect water…food…all of the things that could have kept me alive and ‘found’ quickly. These were somewhat memorable and fun, but I seldom recall in vivid detail or re-tell those stories.

There’s something about the uneasiness of being physically lost and then found in nature that makes such a story long worth telling and retelling.

Even more so, being lost and found in nature ties us closer to nature in ways that we experience for the rest of our lives.

Am I advocating to get lost in nature?  In many ways, it’s more than what any doctor can order (except for the new-aged doctors who prescribe several doses of ‘time in nature’). If it happens you’ll surely be happy to have be found. I also sense you’ll be equally pleased that you had become lost in the first place.

3 thoughts on “When you are physically lost (and found) in nature

  1. Shame on you, blaming the poor beavers for your disorientation! Only kidding, of course. They do “play God” and drastically customize vast lands to suit their needs. Wow, what a story. The leeches, oh my goodness, nope. That’s an ‘edge’ I hope I don’t have to come across. I’m glad that you and your colleague were able to find your way eventually.

    I’m inclined to say that I get lost outside of nature far more than in nature. I would be happier to be in nature and wonder where I am, than to be in the ‘tamed world’ and look around and realize I don’t know where I am. I daresay I need to be lost and found in nature in my immediate future! I’ll write my own prescription for that.

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    • Thanks Lindsee. It’s amazing what these animals can do in a few years on a landscape. I’ll be honest that I don’t like leeches! They make me squirm but of course it was worth the memory. Please let me know how your prescription goes! Ben

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