When You Need a Compass - Part 1


            Jim Dutson and I were in the same National Guard unit in Idaho, our headquarters unit was in Rigby a combat engineer company.  We had finished our basic and AIT training together at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri in the fall and winter of 1970.  The following autumn found us hunting elk together on the west side of Palisades Reservoir.  Our army training was still pretty fresh in our minds and when we went hunting, we made sure to bring along a topo map of the area and a good compass.  We had never hunted in this area, so having the map and compass was a good thing to bring. We had trained together in compass training at Fort Wood, Jim was better at it than I was, and I was glad for that.

            We crossed the Palisades dam and drove up the Jensen Creek road hauling just one horse, Jim’s. We planned on using him to pack in our supplies, and pack out our meat. It was bow season only, so we hoped to bugle in a bull within bow range. We parked at the top of the divide where the road starts its decent toward McCoy Creek at the north end of Star Valley, Wyoming.  We unloaded the horse and left the outfit, hiking for a few miles up to the top of the ridge that overlooks the reservoir. It was a beautiful sight, especially with all the gold aspen that time of year. We made camp before night fall and prepared for the hunt next morning.

            We found elk down low close to the reservoir the next day and finally got on to a nice bull and his harem. He answered our bugles, but would not leave his cows to come for a fight.  We spent a lot of time stalking him and got close, but he gave us the slip just before night fall, so we never got a shot. We didn’t expect to stay so late, but when you’re on to a good bull… well enough said.

            Dark came on fast, and then a fog moved in off the lake. We had a long way to go to get back to camp at the top of the mountain and as tired as we were and it was so dark, I suggested we just build a fire and stay the night. Jim said he needed to get back, he had an ulcer and without food on his stomach it just hurt too bad. We had eaten all the food we had with us, so it was important to get back to camp and take care of his ulcer.

            We were in thick timber, and with the dense fog, it was so dark you could not see your hand in front of your face when you waved it, absolutely a black night. Even with a flashlight you couldn’t see too far because of the fog. We traveled for what seemed like a long time, and it was very steep.

            Finally, at one point Jim said that something didn’t feel right to him, that maybe we were headed in the wrong direction. I thought we had to be going right because we were on the same ridge we came down that evening so all we had to do was just keep going up and we should come out at our camp at the top of it. It sounded right, but Jim said it didn’t feel right.

            We pulled out the map and oriented it with the compass. The compass said we were way off course, headed about north, northwest, when we should have been going almost due west.  How in the world?  I could hardly believe it, because we had never left the ridge we came down.

            If it had been a clear night, we could have known a lot just by the North Star, but the fog blocked everything out. We studied the map for quite a few minutes trying to see what had gone wrong. Finally Jim saw the problem. There was a spur that angled off the main ridge, and we had unknowingly taken that spur, which ran almost parallel to the main ridge, but the farther the spur went the more it veered to the north, little by little, until we were almost 70 degrees off course...

To be continued...

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