When I set out on a cold, gray Thursday afternoon, I hadn’t intended to get lost. Yet that is exactly what I managed to do. That might sound like a bad thing, but in the process of losing myself, I found a part of myself I never knew existed.
This whole adventure was a part of “The Day of Discovery”, a combined History and English class which hikes into the Sylvania wilderness area in order to gain inspiration for a project about protecting it. Each person can have one of four jobs: writer, artist, photographer, or scientist. There were eight students in my group and one adult leader. As the students waited in the classroom for the hike to start, the air was alive with a current of excitement and anticipation. Once ready, we flew out the door like we were being chased by a wolf, and in no time were standing at “Bear 42”, a marker on the edge of Sylvania. Sam and I were chosen to be navigators, took a bearing—313°, or roughly northwest—and all of us embarked on the journey to Mossy Lake.
I’m a fast walker. I tend to notice things as I walk, picking out small club mosses and enormous hemlocks with a single glance. I rarely stop to attend to detail. However, as we walked, I had no choice but to slow down and wait for the rest of the group. The photographers wanted to capture everything, it seemed, and in addition, the group kept hugging trees to measure how big they were (we found a birch that took three people to encircle!). As the other people were distracted by their respective jobs, I was left alone, in the front of the pack, with nothing to do. As a writer, I wanted to wait until I arrived at my destination to start my journaling. So there I stood—pawing impatiently at the frosted ground, annoyed at the slowness of others. But as I was waiting, I began to notice things I hadn’t seen as I was walking. The thin sheet of ice extending into the bogs, an interesting ball of moss, a cedar and a birch that had intertwined as they grew, and a million other things. Though my legs were idle, my brain was buzzing with activity.
Since Sam was too busy taking photos, I took over the role of navigator. I led the group to Mossy lake without too much trouble. It was further away than I had expected, but I was confident in my navigational skills, so I didn’t let that bother me. Once we reached Mossy lake, the group split up and each person found a spot to write, paint, or take photos. The lake itself was gorgeous. There were no waves, but thousands of ripples and the reflection of the gray sky made it look like an enormous puddle of television static. The forests rose up around the lake, with towering pines and hemlocks mixed in with tamarack bogs and maple forests. Whenever I visit Sylvania, a certain passage from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Evangline comes to mind:
"This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of old, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms."
Sylvania mirrors those words with an intensity that strikes me every time I step across the border. Back in the present, the happy “chirp” of a chickadee broke through the silence of Sylvania like glass shattering. The coming of winter had sent a hush over the wilderness, tangible at every turn. I leaned back and took a deep breath of cold, sharp, brisk air. It sent chills all over my body, but at the same time warmed my soul. The air was wild.
We had a snack of hot cider and cookie bars and then began the trip back. We had been walking back about twenty minutes when two things happened. Firstly, Myra realized she had left her iPod at the lake, and secondly, a couple people hurt their feet while walking through a bog. At that point, we had to make a decision about what to do. We didn’t want to make the injured people walk an extra half hour. Should we split up the group? Should all of us walk back to the lake? Should we just leave the iPod there?
We decided to split up. Adam (the adult leader), Myra, and I went back to look for the iPod while the rest of the group stayed on the edge of the bog. I raced back through the brush, walking at top speed. We made it to the open maple grove that lay behind the pines and hemlocks on the lakeshore. Confident that I knew what I was doing, I strayed from the compass bearing and took what I thought was a shortcut leading down a creek to the lake. This turned out to be a bad decision. Emerging from the maple thickets, I tried to get to the edge of the lake, but all we met were balsam fir. “This isn’t familiar,” I thought to myself. I was still speeding through the brush, ducking over and under logs, when I realized that Adam and Myra weren’t keeping up. When I stood still for that moment, it hit me as though I had just walked into a tree. I had reached what I thought was the edge of the lake, but it was an icy, open bog. For the first time in my life, I was lost.
Let me repeat this—I have never been lost. I was endowed with a good sense of direction at an early age, and have always been the person in any group to know where we are and what direction we’re facing. To be frank, I am quite proud of my navigational skills. To be completely disoriented was a strange and frightening experience. I felt my adrenaline rush, I noticed the sun slipping away from the sky, and as I looked around all I could see were trees and bogs. I began to pace, maybe even hyperventilate a little. We decided to abandon all hope of finding Myra’s iPod and instead focus on returning to the others. Adam took control and we started heading southeast, and then a bit more toward the east, then turning to the south, but it just seemed to me like we were going in circles. We decided to make the call back to the school that we wouldn’t make it back to the rest of our group anytime soon.
After we made the call to Michael, the history teacher, I looked carefully through the trees and realized we were standing a mere fifty feet from a line of metal yellow posts—the Conserve School border! We followed the line until I found a sign, laying on the ground, weather-beaten and rusting into oblivion. Somehow it was familiar… Bam! I remembered that a student had painted a sign oddly similar to this one at his Solo site. I walked a little further, looked a little closer, and found the spot; it was rather obvious, really, but easily missed by the anxious and wandering glance of someone who is lost. But one thing was certain: I was no longer lost.
By this time, my mind had transitioned to the remaining members of the group, who were huddled out in the growing dark of Sylvania. Michael had called the rest of the group and hadn’t made contact. As we walked back along the trail to Bear 42 to meet up with Michael and Jeff (the English teacher), my mind was racing with possibilities. What if the rest of the group had gone looking for us? We called Michael again and he told us Sam had picked up. I felt a sense of relief wash over me like a cool shower in the summertime. We met up with Michael and Jeff and set our bearing. Michael had instructed them to take a back-bearing and start walking, and that we would meet them in the middle. Thankfully, we did, and everyone walked back safe and sound.
About twenty minutes after we returned, Jeff sent us a quote of Thoreau’s, which happens to be one of my personal favorites :
"...Not till we are completely lost, or turned round,—for a person needs only to be turned round once with their eyes shut in this world to be lost, do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of nature. Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves."
This quote made a deep impression on me. Maybe, in addition to having a great story, this experience changed me. Being lost for the first time allowed an unknown part of myself to surface. In the short term, it brought fear and anxiety, but now, my longing to explore wild places has grown. I feel more deeply connected these place than I ever have before. It helped me explore who I am and who I want to be. And in the end, I will always be grateful that I was lost.
Photos Contributed by Sam, CS17, Delafield, WI.