Autumn is the perfect time for hikes. The air is cool; the fragrance of the leaves is sweet; water levels in wetlands are low, making them easy to traverse.
When we first moved here, we heard a lot about “The Mountain” from friends and neighbours. It is a wide plateau with steep sides surrounded by wetlands, almost a mesa, that looms above the surrounding land a couple of kilometres northeast of our house.
The man who homesteaded our farm, Minor Detlor, used to hunt his deer on The Mountain, and he gathered blueberries there to supplement his beef and salt pork. One crisp day, we decided to explore his old stomping grounds. After a brief glance at the topographical map, we packed water and binoculars, and told our two kids we were heading out for a two-hour hike there and back.
With our dog, Major, ranging far and wide in front of us, we started east along the seldom used two-track that is locally called the Parkes Road. About a kilometre along, we came to the small, two-acre Lyman Lake and headed north by jumping from hummock to hummock across the many streams that fed the lake through a deep east-west gorge. We scrambled across the bottom of the gorge over many deadfalls and detoured around the areas too thick to penetrate.
After 50 metres of hard going, we were at the base of The Mountain. In many places, a sheer 15-metre cliff prevented our ascent, but we found a gradual slope with enough trees and bushes to allow us to clamber up at an angle. Once on top, we found a small grassy meadow with occasional oaks growing thicker and thicker to the horizon. We sat on the edge of the cliff for a drink of water and enjoyed looking around over the tops of the trees below trying to make out any features of the landscape that might be familiar. We could see Lyman Lake to the south and a faint line gap through the trees here and there that was the Parkes Road. It was beautiful.
After a short rest, we decided to work our way west across The Mountain along the north side of the gorge we had crossed, which would complete our circle and put us back home. What we didn’t know was that The Mountain was a tongue-shaped plateau and that we were walking north, not west, as we strolled along the top edge. Our backs were to the sun and we weren’t particularly noticing where we were going.
As we walked, we gradually realized that there were few places to get down off The Mountain and that the gorge we were following below wasn’t the east-west densely-wooded one that led back home. This gorge was over 100 metres wide and full of tall grass. Then we did the first smart thing of the day and turned to look at the sun to try to get our bearings.
The problem was the sun. It was in the wrong position in the sky. I looked at my watch and knew it was 3:00 in the afternoon, and I also was certain where the sun should be from many months of moving our solar modules on their stand several times a day to face the sun. But today the sun wasn’t cooperating. How could it be on our left in the sky when it was supposed to be ahead of us?
I was experiencing a phenomena common to hikers: once disoriented, people tend to try to go with their instincts and ignore the obvious directional signs. I thought the sun was wrong rather than me.
After a few moments, I realized that an inter-stellar cataclysm involving the position of the sun was pretty unlikely, and that the sun’s position was probably right. We had to start walking west toward the setting sun if we were to get home anytime soon, and that meant we had to get down off The Mountain and cross that grassy wetland.
Susan found a way down and, as I stood on the edge of the wetland, I realized that the grass was four to five feet tall and that we couldn’t really see our footing very well. I found an eight-foot pole at the base of The Mountain and hoisted it on my shoulder in case we needed a bridge over any small streams. With Susan leading the way, we began our slow step-by-step crossing of the wetland, stepping from hummock to hummock above the mud.
Our intrepid ranger dog, Major, followed behind in our trail looking chagrined.
It was hot and airless in that deep grass, cicadas and tree frogs screamed, and the stink of the rank mud was strong enough to build a garage on. The hummocks were wobbly underneath our feet. I remembered a friend of mine who sprained his ankle at the beginning of a five-kilometre trek back to camp across tundra hummocks and how the pain nearly killed him.
There was only one stream about halfway across, and it was jumpable. After what seemed like ages, we climbed up a low bank on the other side and breathed cool air under the trees, very grateful that we hadn’t had to make that crossing during a wet time of the year.
Still following the sun, we began a long journey down gullies, over hills, and around beaver ponds on the way home. As the sun was setting, we came out opposite a large beaver pond at the summer cottage of neighbours a couples of miles north of our place, much farther than I thought we were. A long traverse around the pond and we were very glad to be standing in their front yard listening to the deep sounds of their four-foot, wooden wind chime.
Nice chime, the sounds of civilization.
We stood there for a while, talking about our route and how far off our sense of direction was, how we should have brought along a map and a compass and food in case we were really lost, and how lucky we were to have a sunny day to guide us. That is, when we agreed to be friends with the sun.
We walked down our neighbour’s driveway to the main road, turned south and hiked the two kilometres back to our farm, arriving four hours later than we had planned. We were worried about the kids’ response. “Were you upset that we were gone so long?” They barely glanced up. “No, we knew you were out there somewhere.”
We learned the importance of being prepared, I now often carry a compass with me on hikes, and we bought a wind chime for our own yard shortly afterward.