Finding True North

There’s a bit of a curse on those of us who studied literature in college. You tend to see symbols, metaphors, and analogies all around you. Maybe you see the games of Chess and Go as defining Western and Eastern societies.  Maybe the seasons take on symbolic significance. For me, using a compass has always felt like more than just literally finding your way and not getting lost.

Let me set aside symbolism for now and write about my own experiences with maps and compasses. As a kid, I was always playing with compasses. At first, cheap ones of the Cracker Jack prize variety probably, and then later a real compass by way of Cub Scouts. I knew very little about how to use it. Like most people, I knew it pointed North, which was useful if you wanted to go North. I had no idea how it would help you if you were in the middle of the forest lost and pulled it out. Which way is home?

It took me a while to learn that the compass really was only useful if you used it when you went into that forest, and it would help if you could use it along with a good (as in topographic) map.

Of course, this was all before GPS could be in your hand. But the GPS you have on your phone or car is not going to help you if you are in the middle of a big forest and get lost. I’m sure that using a map and compass will one day be considered an oddity – like doing calculations with a slide rule.

I enjoyed the compass and map and the drawing lines and angles on the map. It made me feel like a navigator or adventurer from the books and movies I loved in my youth.

Many years later, I got into orienteering for a time. Orienteering is a sport that requires using a map and compass to navigate from point to point in diverse and usually unfamiliar terrain. It can be very competitive.

You get a specially prepared orienteering map which has on it control points marked by flags (like the one shown above). The objective is to get from point to point as fast as possible. In many events, it becomes very much a race through the woods. I found your speed using a map and compass was sometimes only half as important as the speed of your running.

One of the big lessons for me in using a compass was the discovery that if you don’t know how you got somewhere, a compass won’t tell you where to go to get back to where you began.

That’s where the English major in me took over. I would often think in my daily life about where I was – not literally on a map – and wonder “How did I get here?”

Once lost, taking out a compass is nearly worthless. You needed to take a bearing at the beginning. You needed to keep taking bearings throughout the journey. You needed some kinds of reference points for when things around you look unfamiliar.

Why does a post I wrote here years ago called “Getting Lost” continue to be one of the most-read entries on the blog? I’d like to think that it was well written and a good combination of both the literal and figurative aspects of “getting lost.” I think it touched on something that sometimes sends people to counseling, religion, drugs or alcohol, or even thoughts about suicide. How did I get here? How do I get back on the path?

Orienteering courses have boxes (controls) that have been set up for you. and a path is there. You just need to find it. I lost interest in formal orienteering. That was a combination of time constraints (I had two young sons then.), bad knees (trail running is tough), and an inability to do the navigating fast enough to be competitive.

I started creating my own maps and courses. I drew my own maps of local woods. I picked landmarks – huge boulders, the confluence of streams, an unusual tree – and created my own courses. I walked them without concern for speed.

I bought my two sons compasses, gave them lessons, and took them out on treasure hunts. There was one in the Maine woods that we did with friends that led them to a cache of candy treasures that they still talk about 20 years later.

I liked the details in most orienteering maps – the large boulder, isolated tree, big stump, stone wall, fence, swamp, dry river, fields, dense bush – the personalized nature of the landmarking.

I have also had a lifelong fascination with survival techniques. My youthful readings of Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson, and adult readings of survival guides like those by Tom Brown, and non-fiction accounts like Into Thin Air and especially Into the Wild by John Krakauer always send me back, not away, from the woods.

Early on, I came across the survival acronym STOP.  Stop,  Think, Observe, and Plan.  You learn that the single most important survival tool is your brain.

Of course, I also liked the accessories of orienteering and survival training. I own too many compasses, too many maps, and plenty of store-bought and handmade items to take into the wild. (Vaseline-soaked cotton balls, packed in a film canister make a reliable, cheap, non-spoiling, non-spilling fire starter.)

This brings me to True North. True North is the direction along the earth’s surface towards the geographic North Pole. If you get into using a map and compass, you quickly learn that True North usually differs from magnetic north. That’s the direction of the magnetic north pole – the one that your compass needle to dawn to. The North on that compass I had as a child pointed at a North, but which one was the true North? (On the technical side, there’s even a “grid North”  – the direction northwards along the grid lines of a map projection.)

I learned to look up from my map and the trail.  The direction of true north is marked in the skies by the north celestial pole.  Basically, it’s the position of the star Polaris – AKA the North Star, the Pole Star, or the Lodestar. But, due to the precession of the Earth’s axis, the true north rotates in an arc. That arc takes about 25,000 years to complete. I found that to be a staggering thought.

In 2102, Polaris will make its closest approach to the celestial north pole.  (In comparison, 5,000 years ago the closest star to the celestial north pole was Thuban.

Find whatever symbolism you want in that looking up to find True North that I discovered. I did learn that looking only at the trail ahead was not going to get me where I wanted to go.

On maps issued by the United States Geological Survey, true north is marked with a line terminating in a five-pointed star. If only it was so clear in our own lives where True North was located. Not knowing our own destination before we start out, not taking note of the landmarks and milestones along the way, and not knowing that there are unseen forces affecting where True North is located make the journey far more frightening.

More Reading
Be Expert with Map and Compass, the Orienteering Handbook
Orienteering
A Field Guide to Getting Lost
Orienteering: Skills and Strategies
Wilderness Navigation: Finding Your Way Using Map, Compass, Altimeter & GPS
Finding Your Way Without Map or Compass
Land Navigation Handbook: The Sierra Club Guide to Map, Compass and GPS
Walking and Orienteering

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Ken

A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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