About fifty years ago, Enose Mills, a mountain guide, became snow-blind and found himself lost when he was on the summit of the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains, 12,000 feet above sea level with the nearest house many miles away across rough mountain ridges. His factual story of how he successfully found his way by the intelligent application and observation of natural things is recounted in his book, Adventures of a Nature Guide, written some thirty-six years ago.
It is an excellent illustration of how the practice of noticing nature’s signs can be developed by learning to interpret them. Mills was an unusually keen observer of nature and he managed to remain calm and confident of finding his way back when he found himself lost. He said of the incident: “My faculties were intensely awake. The possibility of a fatal ending never occurred to me.” His matter-of-fact attitude coupled with his ability to interpret the natural signs of that particular region — e.g., certain pine trees growing on a slope, the bark of trees, trail blaze marks on trees, echoes and aspen smoke — enabled him to survive.
Mills was confident of his ability to get out of the predicament in which he found himself. He could not use trails because of the extreme depth of snow, but in his mind he had a clear mental map of the slope down which he had to travel. It was made up of the impressions he had gathered before the darkness of snow-blindness settled over him.
Carrying a long staff, he set out on snowshoes to find the blaze marks on the trees which he had made on his forward journey. Making his way from tree to tree he thrust an arm into the snow, feeling the bark of the trees until he discovered the mark of the blaze. He resorted to the trees for the points of the compass. In his study of tree distribution he had learned that, in the locality, canyons running east and west carried limber pines on the wall that faced south and Engelmann spruce on the wall that faced north. With limber pines on his left and Engelmann spruces on his right he was now satisfied that he was traveling eastward and should be on the eastern side of the range. To check this, he examined the lichen growth of low-lying boulders and the moss which encircled the trunks of trees, concluding that the surrounding area must be such as to admit light freely from all quarters.
To get an idea of the topography of the canyon he shouted, noting from which direction the echoes came, their intensity and the cross replies — concluding from these that he was going into the head of a deep forest-walled canyon.
In the night a snowslide almost smothered him as he made his way and progress was made more difficult by the enormous rock masses and entanglements of fallen branches and leaves.
Suddenly he caught the scent of smoke, which he recognized as that of aspen, a wood burned in the cookstoves of the mountain people. Under favorable conditions a person with a keen sense of smell can detect aspen wood smoke for a distance of two or three miles. Going forward in the direction from which the wind was blowing, he emerged from the woods where the smoke was strongest and knew that human habitation was near. In fear of passing it, he stopped to use his ears. As he stood listening, a little girl gently, curiously asked: “Are you going to stay here tonight?”
(Hat tip to Wrath of Gnon.)