Juneau Nature

Natural & cultural history of Juneau & Southeast Alaska

Juneau Nature - Natural & cultural history of Juneau & Southeast Alaska

Field navigation skills

Bushwacking, map and compass, GPS

First a caveat about technology, adapted from a sidebar in our course manual What would Raven see:

The downside of gadgets
Sitka anthropologist Richard Nelson remembers that when younger Inuit first began to use compasses, the elders worried. The compass, they claimed, was weakening peoples’ intimacy with their treeless northern landscape. No longer could hunters orient themselves by the concordance of subtle natural signs, such as the way snow deposits in prevailing winds. The compass was, in a sense, weakening peoples’ relationship with their environment.

Today the compass—once ‘cutting edge’—is now increasingly left behind by outdoorspeople armed with more advanced navigational tools. As of 2015, even dedicated GPS units are being displaced, because our phones and watches “can do all that.” But does ever-advancing technology place even more buffers between the navigator and the terrain? We might bear this cautionary note in mind as we explore the use of technology in this course. Few would suggest we abandon useful tools such as compasses or GPS units. But we should remember Raven’s perspective. Do our tools sharpen or dull our perceptions?

Trails are cool. I’ve written a 72-page guidebook about them. But on page 65, I admitted:

Juneau’s trails are wilderness training wheels. Ultimately, good hunters, gatherers, naturalists and visionaries step off the trail. Resilient cultures hire fleet-footed scouts, and humbly heed their warnings.”

The best synopsis Discovery has produced on the rationale and philosophy of leaving trails was written by naturalist Steve Merli in our fall, 2001 Discoveries newsletter.

Bushwacking is a slowly-acquired, multi-dimensional art. In the realm of athletics it involves learning to slip unscathed through devils club or salal. But in the realm of landscape ecology and air-photo-interpretation, it involves predicting shrub density from over-arching tree canopy structure, to avoid those d6+ thickets in the first place.

Which brings us to the bushwacker’s difficulty ranking.