We were descending Marys Peak in the Coast Range to the cars, the last part of the hike’s being on a service road used to oversee the Corvallis watershed.  No vehicles were present, and from the blowdowns on the road, none had been there for some time. After about a mile, there was a trail heading off into the roadside brush, with a sign: “Trail Closed due to Operations in Area”.

The person hiking with me said, “Was that the way we went up?”

“No,” I replied.  “We entered about a half mile further.”


Three Sisters from Marys Peak (April 2014)

I am no longer surprised by these comments.  I was the trip leader, and there is no way I would take a group past a sign saying “Trail Closed.”  The trail we had taken 3 hours earlier ascended immediately in forest and this one stayed low and in brush.  But, as I have learned, what is sometimes obvious to me isn’t obvious to others.

“Where was that hike where I got so exhausted with the pack I was carrying that I fell?”

“Browder Ridge.”  I know where on the trail it occurred, too.


Browder Ridge Summit with Mt. Jefferson in distance (2014)

“What mountain were we trying to climb last fall when we turned around because of weather?”

“Crescent Mountain.”  I know exactly where we turned around, and I will see it in a week when we go there.


Crescent Mountain, on a day people did not belong at the top.  We turned around (2015).


Crescent Mountain in June 2014, with lake of same name below.  It is about 5 miles and 2100′ vertical to the summit, where there was once an lookout.


Mt. Washington (far left) and The Sisters from upper meadows of Crescent Mountain

Granted, many of these hikes I have done before, but after one time doing them, I have a sense in my mind of the trail.  I’ve only hiked Middle Pyramid once, but I can visualize the bottom of the trail, the open area with the cliffs high overhead, and the gradual climb up through the cliffs to the top.  My memory is good enough to help me as trip leader.  I am not a Jon Krakauer, who saved his life on Mt. Everest during the 1996 disaster, because when the storm hit, he had a sense of where the trail was and how to get back to shelter on the South Col.


View down from summit of Middle Pyramid, 2014


Author, summit of Middle Pyramid.  It’s a little more than 2 miles but climbs steeply.

I think trail memory is both natural and observational.  I remember trails without usually thinking about it.  I am not as good at remembering steep ascents or descents, perhaps because I tend to hold my speed constant on them, so they don’t stand out so much.

This isn’t to say I haven’t gotten turned around a few times in my life.  In 1998, on the Appalachian Trail, I rested sitting on a rock, and when I got up, retraced my steps about a mile before I realized the traffic I was hearing was a road I had previously crossed.  There was no road the way I was supposed to be going, and bells were going off in my head that something wasn’t right.  That was deeply embarrassing and likely due to fatigue.

In 2006, on Isle Royale, I was hiking at night back to Windigo after a wolf had visited my campsite.  It was late, but I wasn’t going to stay there with a wolf in the vicinity.  I knew that wolves didn’t attack healthy humans, but knowing that intellectually and being alone ten trail miles from the nearest person were two very different things.  It was time to sleep, not hike, but I was going, sunset or not.

Or what passed for sunset under thick clouds that promised snow.

In any case, with a small light, that I hoped would keep working, I went around a blowdown and continued.  But something didn’t seem right.  I had walked around a lot of the blowdown, maybe too much, and I couldn’t say for sure that the trail I was seeing was similar to where I had just been.  Jon Krakuer might have known.  But I had a sense—an uneasiness—that I was going the wrong way.  I stopped, found my compass, and took a bearing roughly the direction I was headed.  It should have been northeast; it was southwest.  I turned around and walked back to the blowdown, confirming my error, and found the trail sooner on the other side, eventually making it to Windigo.


Young moose, Isle Royale, taken from the campsite where 2 hours later I would see the wolf.  10 May 2006.

I’ve been cultivating these senses lately.  I’ve been slow to do this, because I am mostly a linear, analytical person who hasn’t much believed in them.  As I have spent more time in the woods as I got older, I started realizing if I weren’t sure where I was, it was wise to admit—out loud—that I was lost and do whatever was necessary to get myself on track again, usually meaning backtracking, sometimes back to the beginning and quitting the trip.  Trail memory is fine, unless I am on a trail that I have not trod.  I did that on Burntside Lake in 1992, when my map didn’t quite show where I entered the lake, but I reasoned the distance was short so that I would soon be navigating by my other maps.  That didn’t work, I was lost, and I backtracked the whole way.  I felt stupid, but at least I didn’t compound my mistake by continuing.

The last time I really messed up was on Mt. Pisgah, practically in Eugene’s city limits.  I hadn’t lived in Eugene at the time, and Pisgah is famous for two things: a large network of trails and even more poison oak.  The first time I climbed it, I thought I found a different route back to the parking lot.  I soon realized that the trail was not going there, or the Sun had moved its position in the sky.  Finally, I realized I was descending to a different parking lot.  Once there, I walked to a road I thought would take me where I wanted to go.  After a mile, I admitted I had no idea where I was, retraced my steps, and took a chance that a trail along the base of the mountain would get me back.  Had it not, I would have backtracked to the summit and down the trail I originally ascended.

Getting lost still embarrasses me, but I learn from it.  With GPS, I am able to know where I am and can try a different route.  Still, GPS is sometimes not enough to counter a sense that one’s direction is wrong.  GPS is also dependent upon not only battery power, but having a good connection with satellites.  Such connections may disappear In deep woods, and especially canyons.

Trail memory is also useful on those winter nights or difficult times in life, when one wants to escape civilization and find solitude in those hundreds—no, thousands—of trails across the continent.  I can go there in my mind: climb, breathe the air, hear the birds, see the flowers, and be alone.  I get great pleasure at looking at maps and saying to myself, “I’ve been out there.  I know what it looks like.”


High Desert from the top of the canyon overlooking the Owyhee River, 2016.


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