F-stopping by the woods

It was a beautiful day for a snowshoe trek, sunny and in the minus single digits, so I had thoughts of busting trail through the bush.

But I neglected to bring either my energy or my knee brace from home and it’s supposed to snow 15-20 cm tomorrow anyway. So I decided to put my ambitions on ice and take a snowshoe saunter instead.

Because I didn’t forget to bring my little point-and-shoot, I thought I’d put together a little instructional photo-essay on How to Find Your Way Along a Snowshoe Trail in the bush. (By the way, if you were to lose your way on the trails my neighbours and I have made, you could wander about 100 km in an easterly direction without running into a house or road, so it’s generally recommended that you don’t lose your way.)

Back in the bush, the snow from a couple of days ago was still sticking to the trees as if it had been painted there by one of the eight members of Canada’s Group of Seven. To show you, I took this picture:

Then I gave it back, because this Lawren Harris image cost somebody about $1.5 million.

Actually, I took this picture, which is almost as good, though my brushstrokes are a little clumsy:

This brings me to my first tip for finding your way along a snowshoe trail in the bush: Don’t spend all your time looking up at the treetops. If you do, you’ll almost certainly walk straight into a tree trunk.

No, you should look around you in all directions, because there are delightful sights to be seen. And if one of those directions is frontward, you might actually see some of the signs that show you which way to go.

The first of your low-tech GPS trail-finders is the blaze, or as veteran hikers refer to it, fluorescent flagging tape. You can see it in this picture if you really look hard or if you’re clever enough to realize that there isn’t a lot of fluorescent red/orange in nature at this time of year:

In the old days, woodsmen and woodswomen marked trails by cutting triangular shapes into the tree, using an axe. But as the trees grew the blazes moved farther and farther up in the air. Before too long people had to crane their necks to see the blazes. There were many accidents with people walking into tree trunks. So they invented tape.

But trail-marker lore has it that if you wrap tape around a tree one year, that tree will be lying on the ground the next year. So you should look for another signpost, a tree that has had all of the branches on one side lopped off in a uniform manner. Like this one:

This lopping is done by beavers, as a public service toward their human friends. They also do it because beavers believe that the faster they can get humans out of the forest the better it will be for the environment.

If you can’t find one of those trail markers and fear you are lost, one good strategy is to follow animal tracks. A fox is a good choice, because sooner or later he or she is going to lead you to your birdfeeder. Here are some fox tracks:

As you can see, following fox tracks through the bush can be tough sledding, particularly since the average fox is not 5’8″ tall and 185 pounds, so can go through some narrow passages and under fallen trees. If you do encounter a fox that’s 5’8″ tall and 185 pounds, you’re toast. And foxes will eat toast.

There’s one other snowshow-trail-strategy you might try, as a last resort. Look for the path that other snowshoers have followed before you. It will be a sort of trough, indented well below the level of the undisturbed snow. Follow it. Don’t lift your snowshoes high enough to step out of it. It’s a longshot, but this might give you a chance at survival.

If you follow the trail I use, eventually you’ll come to this structure:

You might wonder if you’ve stumbled across pre-Columbian architecture way back in the bush. Then you might wonder if the First Peoples invented poly rope, since that’s what’s holding the poles together at the top.

Okay, this tepee might not have historical or architectural or anthropological significance, but it’s a great place to replenish your body’s depleted levels of chocolate, nuts, butterscotch and perhaps beer. That’s vital.

After all, if you neglect your physical wellbeing, all the trail smarts in the world aren’t going to drag your sorry ass back to the comforts of home.

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