Recently I attended a navigation workshop for women offered by Two Blondes, a fabulous business run by two women dedicated to getting everyone outside exploring (check them out: http://www.twoblondeswalking.com). The idea of other like-minded women, interested in the outdoors and Dartmoor appealed to me. But learning to properly use a compass, well that was the cherry on top!
How had I gotten to my fifties and not learned this skill? Three of my four brothers were Eagle Scouts and my Dad was a Scout Master with the Boy Scouts. As a family, we frequently went camping. And yet, no one taught me this basic skill.
Is it possible I’ve never learned because I never needed to do so? Years ago, friends and colleagues gave Roger a silver cup engraved with “The Navigator”. When it comes to using a compass in the wild, I’ve obviously relied on Roger. It’s easy to let him figure out our route, while I mind the dogs, look at the landscape and enjoy myself. And given that engraved mug, who wouldn’t cede responsibility?
But it is not sustainable to take the back seat and rely on others to explore new areas. The times I’ve gone out to explore on my own, map in hand, I’ve managed to get somewhat lost on Dartmoor. Not so much lost, really, but haunted by an overriding awareness that I could get lost at any moment. Then what?
Dartmoor is a tricky challenge, which is why the military train and orienteering activities like the Ten Tors or Duke of Edinburgh are held here. The usual landmarks found in other national parks are often absent. Forests change due to cutting. Walls on the map aren’t always there as they may be historic and grassed over. Pillow mounds and hut circles, easily identified by archaeologists or skilful navigators, often look like a pile of rocks to me. Add to that, the weather can be like the ocean with shifting tides from clear, calm waters to rip tides putting an innocent swimmer in peril. Knowing what you’re doing on Dartmoor is a good idea to say the least.
Thirteen of us gathered for our workshop by Two Blondes. Armed with our OS maps, compasses, and enthusiasm, we chatted about why we were there: “I want to get my skills and sense of direction back.” “My partner always reads the map….what if he drops dead?” “I just want to do something for myself and sometimes that means walking by myself.” I was in good company. All these women, ranging in ages and skills, backgrounds and interests, were crooning just like Annie Lenox and Aretha Franklin, we were doin’ it for ourselves.
Soon, the workshop begins and we open our maps to locate towns, pubs, buildings, footpaths, woods, and rivers and streams. We calculate distances, times and read the contours of elevations. All of this was familiar from the hours I’ve spent pouring over OS maps. I love them for their detail and history. These beautifully scaled representations of the land are the key to exploring, complete with the easy to use 4 or 6 figure grid reference system. This part of the workshop was interesting, but when we were going to get to the compass? That little magnetic mystery that somehow holds the key? Every skilled navigator will say, “trust your compass.” But mine, with its needle, orienting lines, directional arrow, declination line, magnifying round and compass scale sat there teasing me. Then suddenly, one of the Two Blondes announced, “Okay, everyone pull out your compass.” At last! And within minutes, what had always seemed difficult and elusive, was made easy.
Roger has explained how to use a compass before, but often he assumes I know what he’s talking about. Because it is familiar to him, he enthusiastically shows me all the cool things, without ever setting up the basics. He tells me about true north, magnetic north, and how the map shifts out of north by 1 degree, 29 minutes every year. My mind drifts. Is this how Robert Scott and his men missed their South Pole destination only to die tragically close? It is fair to say, Roger is operating from the notion that I surely must have some basic concepts about this simple, yet revolutionary, circular instrument. But the Two Blondes knew that we few, we happy few, we band of sisters didn’t know and thus provided a simple, encouraging, and educational approach to using our compasses. And it is so easy and fun! I now see why Roger would make the assumption I had a basic understanding.
After mastering our compasses inside, we set out on a walk. Navigating is not just about the compass, it is also about timing and distance, so we learned our pacing. We set a bearing and headed off to find a pool on the moor. Why would anyone ever want to go off a path and find a pool/bog marked on the map? Well, because it’s on the map and with a compass and a little know how you can. And what a find! This bog area was covered in all manner of wildflowers and dwarf shrubs of heather and billbery, along with sedges, cotton-grass, deer grass and purple moor grass, the likes of which I hadn’t noticed along the path. And because of the boggy nature of the area, all the grazing animals stayed clear, so there was indeed a different wildness to the flora and fauna. The path we left was still busy with other walkers, families, bike riders and the like. But up by this pool, away from the path, we could only see the Dartmoor wilderness — that vast landscape rich with varied ecosystems. We noticed small blue flowers, heard bird song, and spotted sundew, a small carnivorous plant with red spiked leaves to enable it to catch insects to supplement its diet due to the poor nutrient levels of the blanket bogs. What we couldn’t see was the footpath, or anyone on it, and we were a mere 250 meters away.
Oh, I’m hooked alright. I love the compass and the idea of being able to learn to orienteer with greater skill. I love how ordinary it looks, but that it powerfully denotes direction. I also prefer my little compass to the modern geospatial app on my phone, which is useful but not foolproof. When I got home, I told Roger all about my day. He shared my excitement and showed me another type of compass, a sighting compass. I had no idea we had this little treasure. He attempted to explain to me how it worked, and nearly failed until I explained how the Two Blondes taught us to use a compass at which point, he wound back his enthusiastic description so that I could see its potential. Practice and patience will improve my skills as it isn’t exactly rocket science. In the coming days, I plan to set out and make a few discoveries on my own so that all of us can safely get lost together.