If it were fiction, I wouldn't like the story. For starters, it features a reasonably experienced outdoorsman doing something stupid. This part, of course, is believable, and probably as many veteran explorers get lost from overconfidence as novices do from lack of skill. The real problem, though, comes with the appearance of an archetype, a Bagger Vance-style wiseman who saves the day. More on him in part two.
Even so, it's how it happened, so here it is. I was heading down a new piece of water. I started at a trailhead and quickly got down to the river. Where I came in was a small divergence from the main stream. My plan was to fish my way down this side portion and then work my way back up the other side of the large island. I'd be able to find my way back to the trail simply by heading straight uphill from the upstream tip of the island.
When I got to the downstream end of the island, though, I discovered the main stream was too deep and too fast to wade safely. I decided to work my way downstream a little, and then pick up the trail. I did that fine, and started hiking downstream. I found some nice spots, and I saw a huge fish jump in the middle of a shallow run. I couldn't catch him, and I finished my day with nothing but a little smallie, some bluegill, and a handful of river chubs.
I started back upstream, which is where I ran into the older black man who would be my guide. More on him later, but for now it just matters that he convinced me I was in the right area for some big fish. With that in my head, I took a few more casts. I took no fish, but something enormous surfaced, possibly a gar. It was unlike anything else.
Finally I had to go, and I hopped the trail and headed back. The plan is simple: follow the trail back to where I started, walk up to the main road and get in the car. Of course, I hadn't paid enough attention on my way downstream, as I didn't realize that near where the island ends, a little feeder stream runs in. It's about the size of the river section I had waded down. So when I was hiking back and began following a narrow stream, I thought I was still on the main river.
Quickly things looked unfamiliar. There were the train tracks I had passed on my way in, and there were the orange moving vans. Both, though, seemed to be placed oddly. I hadn't crossed the river (and at any rate could orient myself by the stream's flow). I couldn't imagine how I could be lost, because I was simply following the trail. It became harder. I had to crawl at one point, and I knew this was wrong, but I couldn't figure out my error.
For the first time in a long time, if ever, I felt the beginnings of real anxiety in the woods. I was close to town, yet hopelessly lost. I didn't want to spend the night going back and forth on the trail. Worst-case scenario: I call for help and get rescued, probably within city limits. Eventually I figured out I could climb up the bank to the train tracks above me and get an aerial view. From there I could see what had happened, and, while it took me some time, it was easy enough to get back on the right trail.
The lesson was obvious: pay attention. I still don't know if I saw and forgot the feeder stream, or if I simply missed it while carefully fishing the end of the island. Fortunately I was someplace where I was in danger of nothing worse than embarrassment. I could even have followed the tracks back to town. Even so, I took the lesson to heart. I've been out of the woods for a few years, and I shouldn't act like I haven't. Given that nearly outing for me is new territory now, it's time to get back to the basics of planning and observation.
I don't mean this post to be didactic. If you're reading Anglenook, you probably know all this already. Mainly I just wanted to tell a story in which I'm an idiot. It's also a set-up for the big fish and mysterious stranger that come in the next installment.