Getting Lost

If you do any amount of wilderness paddling, it's not a matter of if this will happen to you ... it's a matter of when.

Getting Lost Nearly all of us have had the experience of looking around and feeling that sinking feeling that what we're seeing around the lake doesn't match what we're expecting or what we're looking at on the map.  Mind you, I put 'getting lost' into two distinct categories.  There are the times that we're really, really lost, and then there are the times that we can say "We're not lost, we just don't really know where we are."

There is a difference.  As an example, I can recall paddling the Spanish River in Northeastern Ontario.  the river is long and winding, and for long sections has no real landmarks that would identify the exact location.  That was one time that I wasn't lost (I know we were on the river, and had a rough idea of where we were) but I didn't know exactly where we were on the river.  Touch wood, I've never had the experience of being completely, absolutely lost.

The most important thing to do when you realize you're not sure where you are is to stop immediately.  We all have the tendency to want to poke around a little bit more and check out those other few bays or side channels before we admit that we're lost.  The further you go, the less idea you'll have of exactly where you are, and how to backtrack.

Although it sounds very clichéd, it's important to stay calm.  People that panic often make poor judgment calls and get themselves into more trouble than they were in originally.  Remind yourself that people in most of Canada's canoe country don't generally get lost so badly that they starve to death waiting for help.  In general, getting lost is more of an inconvenience (and embarrassment) than a dangerous situation.

When the realization hits, pull over to the shoreline, have a snack, get out the maps and do some thinking.  Often, ten minutes of map study, observation and discussion with the rest of the group will save a couple of hours of misdirected paddling. 

If there are recognizable landmarks in the distance (manmade features, high topographical features, etc) you can determine your position by taking compass bearings and triangulating.  You did take the time to practice your compass work before the trip, didn't you?
All triangulation involves is taking a bearing on a recognizable feature, then using that bearing on the map to locate where you'd have to be to in order to get that bearing.  Sounds a bit complicated, but it's quite simple, and every wilderness traveller should know how to do it.

Remember that topographic maps are not always accurate.  Topo maps are developed from aerial photographs, and if the photo was taken when water levels were higher (or lower) than current conditions, the representation they convey may not be totally accurate.  That island you just paddled around may appear on the map as a point.  The point of land beside that you just dead-ended in might have been an island at one time.  There are also many, may topo maps that show rapids and falls where there are none, or don't show the same when they are there.  Remember that these topo maps were made by a government agency, not by God.

The process of getting "un-lost" generally involves backtracking until a recognizable feature is found.  Once that point is reached, it's a matter of being a little more careful in navigating the course the second time.

Helpful Hints

As you're paddling, take a look back over your shoulder every so often to see what your route looks like paddling in the opposite direction.   That way, if you have to backtrack, the area you have to paddle through will be familiar.

Get yourself a GPS unit.  You can purchase an inexpensive model for just over $100, and it can be a real timesaver if you lose track of where you are.  You should also take the time to read the book that comes with it, and learn to  use it.  The time that you're lost is not the time to be wading through the fine print of a GPS instruction manual.

Get yourself a good quality compass with declination adjustment and learn to use it.  Unlike GPS units, compasses don't have batteries to die or electronics to fail

Bring an extra copy of the maps for your trip and make sure they're stored separately from your original set.