June 12, 2023

FTV: Misplaced . . .


     When photos were posted of eight year-old Nante Niemi being piggybacked out of the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park on Eli Talsma’s back this past spring, a combined sigh of relief and shouts of joy echoed far beyond the Western Upper Peninsula.  NBC’s Today Show led off the parade of national media stories.  Later the same day, NBC followed up with  extensive coverage on The Evening News with Lester Holt as did multiple media outlets far and wide.  It was a feel good story many needed to hear with the rash of less than good news that seems to permeate the airwaves these days.  It was also a bitter reminder to the families whose loved ones have disappeared in the U.P. wilds and were never again seen alive.  With this happier ending, we can now look back at Nante’s ‘adventure’ in May of 2023 as a reminder one should never underestimate how quickly things can go south when one treks or wanders into the wilderness unprepared.

     During the 25 years we took our Ontonagon Area Schools eighth graders orienteering in the area northwest of the Lake of the Clouds viewing area, we had multiple educational lessons in mind.  We spent a good deal of class time learning the ins and outs of using topographic maps and compasses.  Using this knowledge in the field was an ideal way to connect the ‘in class learning’ with actual boots on the ground practice.  There were years when we would have nearly 100 students and chaperones assembled for lunch on Green Mountain Peak (and later, a small hilltop NE of that peak).  After our lunch break, we prepared each group to depart back to the Lake of the Clouds parking lot by saying:  “Look at how many of us there are.  Each group will be taking different bearings (routes) back to the Escarpment.  Take note how quickly everyone melts into the forest.  It is another reason we want your group to stay together.  Never travel faster than the slowest group member because it does not take long for one person to lose track of the whole group out here.”

     In our first couple of years, we trained upper class volunteers by taking them on the same hiking routes the eighth graders would take a week or so later.  These volunteers came forth because most of them were interested in being outdoors and were comfortable being in the wilderness.  No matter how skilled they were, we had incidents where their younger charges got ‘misplaced’ (yes, we consciously avoided the term ‘lost’).  Eventually, we changed our plan by having a couple of adults with each group.  How did they get ‘misplaced’ if they had older students (and later adults) guiding them?  We told the guides they were there to be the safety valve and they should let the students do the map and compass work.  Our early outings were set up with a forester trained to run these kinds of events and he wanted the program run with student guides.  When he was no longer involved in the program, we decided we needed a little less ‘unpredictability’ in our hike day outcome and moved to the ‘adults with each group’ model.

     How can a planned hike have an ‘unpredictable outcome’ you ask?  Let me give you an example from the first year we took this hike.  Our adult chaperones shadowed groups to Green Mountain Peak, meaning, we traveled behind and out of sight so we could sweep up any groups that got way off track.  My groups had the longest paths to follow so I arrived at GMP well after everyone else had settled down for lunch.  The forester gave me a light hearted ribbing (“Well, look who finally got here!”) until I looked around and asked, “Where is Group 1?”  We did a quick chaperone huddle and discovered there was indeed one group not yet at the lunch spot.

The foester took half a dozen of the older students and sent them out on a sweep toward the Escarpment to look for this group while the rest of us headed back to the buses.

     The missing group was supposed to hike to a point on the Escarpment Trail where there is a large dip, or saddle, between the Escarpment and Miscowaubik Peak.  At the bottom of this dip, they were supposed to take a new bearing toward Green Mountain Peak.  Even with that spot flagged with brightly colored forestry tape, the group marched through this valley and continued up and over Miscowaubik Peak.  The upper class guides missed their mark and they had hiked all the way to Lafayette Peak before they took their new bearing.  They proceeded to cross a good size creek and ended up on the opposite end of Green Mountain Peak from where the rest of us were having lunch.  The guides could not agree on anything up to this point but when they took a bearing on Lone Rock (they were told to take a bearing on this to confirm they were in the right location), they finally realized they were a mile and a half farther west then they should have been.  We learned an important lesson about how student guides work, or don’t work, together.

     After doing just about everything they could do wrong, one of the guides finally sat down with a map and figured out where they had ended up.  When her safety training kicked in (we taught them ‘if you get misplaced, do this’), she then took charge and they (finally) did everything they needed to do.  The guide showed the group where she thought they were and told them, “We need to follow our reverse compass bearing, recross the creek, and find the trail at the top of the ridge.  Then we will hike out the way we came.”  About the time they began descending Miscowaubik Peak back into the saddle they had missed, they encountered two of the more experienced woodsmen the forester had sent out to sweep that area.  The other groups hiked nearly five miles that day, this group ended up going closer to nine.  

     They were tired and happy to be back on the bus, but they could not have been happier than we were to have found them.  We adjusted our plans accordingly by adding adult supervision to each group and portable radios so we could be in contact with the other groups.  We went through a couple of types of radios but found in this rough country, the more powerful units we borrowed from the Porkies Ski Patrol were the most effective.  With that said, there wasn’t a year that went by when one of the radios lost the will to live, but with each group having an embedded adult safety valve, we never worried like we did the first time we misplaced a group.

     Misplacing a group wasn’t terrible once we knew we had guides with each group who knew the country and how to get them back to the starting point if they got turned around.  I will venture to say some of our best lessons about map and compass work came courtesy of the groups who did get turned around.  It got to be a running gag that one group would probably not make it to the lunch spot – a prediction that came true just about every other year.  A couple of us involved in the program had hiked all of the potential routes over the years so it made it much easier to troubleshoot the groups who got misplaced, especially if the radios decided to not play nice.  When we lost radio contact with a group, we were always glad to know they had their embedded safety valve with them to make sure they got back to the buses on time.

     The most fun I ever had on this hike happened one of those years when it was my group that got misplaced.  Our primary route was to go to our original lunch spot on the eastern end of Green Mountain Peak.  After we left the same saddle Group 1 missed the first year, I gently reminded the kids hiking out front that people tend to drift ‘uphill’ when traveling diagonally down a slope like the Escarpment.  This was the second time I had a group lead me into a lovely little valley between the Escarpment and Green Mountain Peak so I was not at all surprised when we topped GMP well west of where we needed to be.  We sat down with our maps and I showed them where we probably were and reminded them how we got there (“Remember the reminders about drifting uphill?”).  

     At this point, the group made a decision:  if we were indeed on Green Mountain Peak, we should follow it until we hit the end and then take a new bearing from there to the lunch spot.  It was a good plan but the going was not good so we moved down the north face of GMP where it would be easier to navigate.  Unfortunately, as we traveled toward the east end of the peak, they again began getting off bearing, only this time they were drifting downhill and away from our intended check point.  We crossed some small streams and got into some of the most dense balsam fir and cedar thickets I have ever seen.  It became obvious they were getting farther and farther off track.  Finally, I said, “Okay, Lefties, (the nickname I coined on the spot for their tendency to always go off bearing to the left), let’s sit down and figure this out.  It is 80 degrees and muggy and we are already supposed to be at the lunch spot.  Take a rest and I will radio them to let them know why we are not there.”

     The first contact I made was with another group that had topped GMP and were just about to leave for the lunch hill.  Ordinarily, having someone yell to find them isn’t the best way to go as sound can travel in funny ways in hilly terrain.  None-the-less, I had the group on GMP  give a big yell and to my ears, we were now directly north of where we were supposed to be.  Looking at the map, I showed the group where we probably were and asked what they thought we should do about it.  One hiker immediately responded, “Oh my God, we’re lost!” and I assured her we were not.  Pointing to the map, I showed her what we had covered in class:  “If we take this exit bearing, no matter where we really are, we will come back to the Escarpment (which is hard to miss as it is hundreds of feet tall and two miles long).  On top of the Escarpment is the trail back to the buses.  Before we resort to our exit plan, let’s see if we can get to the lunch hill.”

     We laid out one of our maps and I made contact with my daughter who had come home from college for summer break and volunteered to guide a group.  We repeated the ‘holler as loud as you can’ bit with the groups eating lunch.  “Okay,” I asked my group, “where did that sound like it was coming from?”  Each and everyone pointed in the same direction so we aligned this information with our map and plotted a new bearing to follow.  Rested and hydrated in the brutal conditions, we literally put our heads down and crashed through the heavy balsam underbrush in the direction we had plotted on the map.  Would it surprise anyone that this group of ‘Lefties’ repeated their previous mistake and kept shifting to the left of our actual route?

     It took about 15 minutes for us to reach the base of the lunch hill.  I had reminded them we were looking for a sharp upturn in the landscape but they were content to keep traveling past our intended target.  A half hour after we set out to find the lunch hill, I called a halt and asked the crew who were now done with their lunch (and resting at the top of the hill) to yell one more time.  “Where did you hear that coming from?” I asked and to my dismay, each and everyone pointed back from the direction we had just come.  “Okay, so no one noticed the base of the hill we hiked by 15 minutes ago?”  Hot and exhausted, my group had now been hiking for nearly an hour more than everyone else so I radioed we would take our lunch and rest stop right where we were.  The other groups were instructed to take their bearings on the Escarpment and head out while we took a half hour rest/lunch stop.  “See?  We ARE lost!”… it was the voice that had made the same statement thirty minutes earlier.  “Nope, that is the Dismal Swamp over there (the name we bestowed on a several acre size cedar swamp one of my groups had wandered into a few years earlier – we were on the rock ridge just north of that feature).  The lunch hill is that-a-way.  We will eat lunch and then take our exit bearing to the Escarpment after we rest up a bit.  We are not where we wanted to be, but we are NOT lost.”

     Right after I made this encouraging pronouncement, we began hearing voices and the cracking of brush from the opposite side of the Dismal Swamp.  A couple of hikers wanted to yell to them but I said, “No, they are on their bearing and you do NOT want them to try and get to us.  That would require them to wade through the Dismal Swamp and having done that once, I would not recommend it to anyone else.”  We could hear individual voices for a little while but the swamp between us was so dense, we never saw any movement or flashes of color from them.

A few others wanted to head our right away and catch up to them but I again reminded them, “We also do not want to go through the swamp and we have been hiking an hour longer than anyone else.  Eat, rest, and then we will set out on the most direct route back to the buses.”

     There was one more hazzard we needed to avoid.  If the ‘Lefties’ kept at it, it was possible for us to end up paralleling the base of the Escarpment and come out by the little park ranger’s hut on the road up to the parking lot.  “Who can follow a bearing without going to the left?” I asked.  Two hikers stepped forward so they were charged with getting us to the base of the Escarpment The others were told, “If you feel they are drifting, you better say something because I am not going to do any more course corrections today.”  Okay, it was a bit of a lie, but it seemed to put the group on alert and all of them took a keen interest in getting back with no more diversions.  We did just fine but to say this group was tired and drained by the time we got back to the parking lot would be an understatement.

     The day after these hikes, we would always dissect what happened to each group on the way to and back from the lunch hill.  I summarized what the other groups had done and had just started on our adventure when a familiar voice blurted out, “We got lost!”  I pointed out that ‘lost’ means calling out Search and Rescue and maybe spending the night in the woods.  “Did we need to call out Search and Rescue?  Did we spend the night in the woods?” I asked.   To underscore my point, I passed out ‘I hiked AROUND the lunch hill’ buttons for my group of ‘Lefties’ and thanked them for a most entertaining hike.  As I said earlier, sometimes getting ‘misplaced’ made an even better map and compass lesson than actually making it to the lunch spot.  There would be other groups ‘misplaced’ over the years, but we never had anyone spend the night in the woods or have to call out Search and Rescue. 

     As I was getting this article prepped, my wife talked to a friend who had recently hiked to O-Kun-de Kun Falls.  On her way back to the parking lot, she encountered a young couple who said they were thinking about going cross country to get to the falls.  She encouraged them to stay ‘on the map and follow the trail’ because, she reminded them, “There have been too many people who have disappeared in the woods around here.  To start crashing through the brush off trail is one sure way to become one of them.” 

     Thanks are due to everyone who helped find Nante Niemi.  Not needing Search and Rescue is the preferred option, but we are always grateful when we know they are but a phone call away when needed.  Congratulations on a job well done! 

Top Piece Video:   It isn’t a song about getting misplaced, but Mark Knophler’s Sailing to Philadelphia is a wonderful tail about the two men whose lasting claim to fame is the Mason-Dixon line – refer to your United State’s colonial history if you missed that lesson!