February 2, 2024

From the Vaults – Misplaced – Part 2


     Back in June of 2023, the first part of FTV:  Misplaced (6-21-23) discussed the 25 years we took our Ontonagon Area Schools eighth graders on an annual orienteering hike in the Porcupine Mountains.  In orienteering, we used map and compass skills to travel from point to point without relying on trails, trail markers, or signs.  Naturally, there were times when a group of students did not arrive at their appointed checkpoints – but in those cases, we purposely avoided using the term ‘lost’.  Groups were equipped with the knowledge of how to find their way back to the Lake of the Clouds parking lot (and had a couple of adult ‘helpers’ on hand should they get really turned around).  We reasoned, “If they get back to the bus, do not spend the night in the woods, and we do not have to call in Search & Rescue, they weren’t lost – just misplaced.”  Even with more than adequate training in the art of navigating with map and compass, this Geography / Earth Science major admits to being part of more than one ‘misplacement’ (see Misplaced – Part 1).  If you never admit you can get misplaced, you might actually end up getting to spend the night in the woods or being found by search and rescue.

     One thing I never did receive any formal training to use was something most folks with a cell phone are already familiar with:  GPS.  Phone users below a certain age are proficient with this common phone app – even so,  some have no idea that GPS is short for Global Positioning System – the hardware that makes GPS aps possible to begin with.  As I said, I have never been formally trained to use GPS, but I was introduced to it early on by a volunteer chaperone on one of our earliest orienteering hikes at the Porkies.  In those days, we always took the hike twice – the first to train our student helpers and after which took the eighth graders on the actual hike.  In later years, we downsized our helper group to an adult or two and a couple of students embedded in each hiking group.  The adults had all been on this trip enough times we eliminated the training hike altogether.

     On this particular training hike, Jerry Myrblom showed me his new fangled hand-held gadget.  He was anxious to show us how it worked and claimed it would soon displace the compass as the preferred tool for wilderness hiking.  I reminded him that we preferred to keep teaching compass skills the old fashioned way.  When he asked, ‘Why?’ I countered with my own question:  “What happens if the batteries die?”  As we traveled west on the Escarpment Trail, it was rather impressive how this little device tracked our route while pointing out the compass bearing we needed to follow.  When we descended the north side of the Escarpment into the dense forest below, we found the flaw in this early iteration of his GPS device.

     The ‘S’ in GPS could also stand for ‘Satellites’ and Global Positioning units in those days required input from at least 3 satellites to pinpoint your location.  GPS satellites are positioned in what are known as geosynchronous orbits – they orbit the Earth at the same speed the planet rotates – thereby keeping them over the same spot all the time.  As long as there are three of these Satellites ‘above the local horizon’, the GPS device can use information from them to correctly locate the unit’s position on the surface.  When we got to the base of the Escarpment, we found Jerry’s GPS unit couldn’t ‘see’ through the tree canopy enough to make contact with three satellites.  With more satellites in orbit and advancements in the technology of newer GPS units, this has become less of an issue than it was thirty years ago.

     When the WOAS West Coast Bureau was still located in Los Angeles, I would marvel how they would use GPS to navigate around the city.  Having never driven in L.A. myself, I was always a passenger and could spend my time keeping an eye on the GPS directions.  The voice directions (which the WCB dubbed ‘The Lady’) were clear enough and perhaps I only sensed a little panic in ‘her’ voice when we missed a turn and she would try to get us back on track.  I have used GPS to look up routes and distances since the WCB relocated to Oregon, but most of my long trip planning was still done with old fashioned maps.  My first use of GPS on the road happened by necessity on Election Day of 2020.

     The morning of the 2020 Election, I had driven our son Daniel to the eye clinic in Calumet.  He had been seeing a shadow at the side of his visual field and the doctor confirmed he had a torn retina.  We left Calumet with instructions to go right to Green Bay and the address of the eye care clinic there.  We had to stop at home to pick up things for an overnight stay and departed the gas station promptly at 3:00 pm EST.  We had to do a little additional prepping as this all took place during the early days of the COVIC-19 pandemic.  The vaccines had not been rolled out yet and the Green Bay area was exploding with cases.  Just before we left, I punched the clinic address in my phone and jotted down the route we needed to take knowing my navigator was not going to feel much like keeping an eye out for road signs.

     Others who travel to Green Bay frequently remind me the quickest route there runs diagonally across the U.P.  I have always been comfortable heading south on US 45 to Wittenberg and then east on US 39 into Green Bay.  Apparently the clinic expected us to be there by 4:00 pm CST as they called the house twice to ask my wife why we weren’t there.  When my cell phone rang at 6:00 pm EST, Daniel answered it and said they clinic wanted to know where we were.  I said, “Tell them we are 30 miles out on 39 and will be there as soon as we can.  The traffic is kind of heavy right now.”  Once we hit the beltway in Green Bay, it was a couple miles down, take an exit and hang a left.  Easy enough with my scant directions and a ten year gap since the last time I was in Titletown.

     By then it was 7:00 pm EST (6:00 pm CST) and the parking lot was empty.  A nurse met us at the door, told me I could not go in with their restrictions so Daniel went in, had a rapid COVID test and went in to see the doctor.  I had been reluctant to stop on the way down so after four hours, I had to resort to finding a brushy area behind the parking lot to take care of business.  Half an hour later, the nurse came out and apologized for not thinking to let me in to use the restroom.  As long as I had her there I inquired what, when, and where Daniel would be sent for his surgery.  She told me he would no doubt be scheduled for the morning so with time to kill, I punched in the GPS directions to the hospital.  I am glad I did because when Daniel came back to the car, he had a hand scribbled map of the beltway with instructions to ‘go to the ER entrance right now.”

     The GPS directions were clearer than the hand drawn map the surgeon had supplied.  Being a little hard of hearing, I had Daniel translate the voice directions so I could concentrate on driving.  Fifteen minutes later, he was whisked off for surgery prep and I settled in a chair in the lobby where I would spend the next four hours marveling that I had passed my first GPS ‘trial by fire’.  Having located lodging within sight of the hospital, we did not have far to go when he was signed out at nearly 2:00 am EST.  We were told to be back at the clinic at 9:00 am CST the next morning so the last thing I did before turning in was punch in the reverse directions.

     All in all, we ended up making three trips to Green Bay over four weeks and found using the same GPS directions made staying at our original hotel handy.  The fact we saw one 30 mile stretch with some wet snow coming down near Eagle River on three trips taken in November and December as a real bonus.  I never dreamed I would be putting my new found GPS skills to use again three years later when my wife suffered a heart attack that landed her in Wausau.  It turns out I was a little rusty by then.

     Before I departed for Wausau the day after she was transported there, we had talked on the phone and she said the construction around Rhinelander made for a real bumpy ride.  Pulling out my phone, my map reading brain hatched a plan – take US45 down to Pelican Lake and then go diagonally from there to Merrill.  I was more familiar with this route anyway and the lack of traffic on that snowless Sunday afternoon in late October made the trip less stressful as I worried about how my wife was doing.  With my less than optimal hearing, I happily sailed past my intended route just past Pelican Lake.  When I saw a sign that said ‘Antigo, 20 miles’ it compelled me to pull over and make a new plan.  The option with the least amount of time was to continue to Antigo and then go west to Merrill on W64.  Arriving 30 minutes later than planned after what turned out to be a very scenic drive, it took me a while to navigate the Aspirus campus to find where my wife was holding up.

     There is nothing wrong with Wausau but I did find navigating from the hospital to my overnight lodging more difficult than it had been in Green Bay.  My good old GPS skills failed me again when I missed a turn on the less than two mile drive to the hotel and ended up in a church parking lot looking for the right way to go.  In the morning, I asked the desk clerk the quickest way to the hospital.  Retracing the steps I should have followed the night before, it became obvious that paying attention to the GPS made me miss the side street where the hotel was located.  To make matters worse, Mr Map did the same thing the next day and ended up in a different parking lot looking over the directions.  At that point the bright hotel sign just off the freeway caught my attention so I resorted to driving in that general direction until it loomed in front of me.

     By Tuesday morning, we knew we would be heading home so we checked out the Google maps again to find a coffee shop we could hit up before heading north.  We IDed several but as per my previous GPSing around Wausau, we got tangled up in a maze of one way streets and never got near one of the places we were seeking.  The other Google map decision we had made was to avoid the construction in Rhinelander and simply take US51 north to Arbor Vitae, jog east to Eagle River, and then jaunt home the rest of the way on US45.  Having never been to the Minocqua / Arbor Vitae area, it sounded like a nice alternative.  

     The ‘north on 51’ plan also solved the where to get a cup of coffee and snack problem.  As soon as we neared Merrill, the ‘food next exit’ signs directing us to the Golden Arches gave us the quick stop we needed without having to get too far afield.  If we need to venture back to Wausau in the future, that is the route we will take.  I have since talked to several folks who travel to Wausau regularly and they confirmed that is their favorite route to travel.

     With GPS in such wide use, one might wonder ‘how did we ever get by without it?’  As an old pen and ink map drawing guy (cartography became more of a computer driven field long after I got out of college), traveling by map was never an issue.  The first year we were back in Ontonagon after living in Marquette the first year we were married, I was asked to be the best man at my old friend Jim’s wedding in Westland just outside of Detroit.  We plotted our route and we arrived at the church late Friday evening just in time for the rehearsal and dinner.  The wedding and reception were held early Saturday afternoon so a group of us who had all traveled down from the U.P. decided to go out and have a little post-reception social of our own.  My brother was there and knew the area, having worked in the Lansing / Detroit area for some years.  He suggested a place down the road that everyone  seemed to be familiar with except for us.

     “Well,” I told my wife, “we can just follow one of them.”  It was a great plan until they all roared off and we got hung up at a stoplight.  By the time we were on the road again, they were all long gone.  Ron had said the place was ‘only about ten miles away’ so when we neared that magic mark, I started looking for familiar vehicles.  If we hadn’t spotted my brother’s Camaro out front of the Holiday Inn, we may have made it all the way to Lake Michigan before we found them.  We knew we had passed the place we were staying on the way to the lounge so it was pretty much a straight shot back the way we had come from.  When we cruised back through that area to get on the freeway going north the next day, I marveled that it was actually more confusing in the daylight.  The land was flat and the criss-cross grid of roads and streets provided very few identifiable clues.  In a landscape like that, GPS certainly would be helpful!

     They say the difference between a four-wheel drive vehicle and a two wheel-drive vehicle is this:  You can get a lot farther from the paved roads before you get stuck.  Geographers and people who like maps are in a similar position as I have learned over the years:  One can get twisted around and misplaced by ‘knowing where you are going’ but not admitting you really don’t.  It never hurts to check on the ‘I know where I am part’ with a map before getting twisted into a knot.


Top Piece Video – Remember – you can not get misplaced if you never wander – just ask Dion!