Head First

This post will focus on some of the pre-trip preparation for a hike called the Long Range Traverse in Newfoundland. When I sat down to write this post I had a momentary gasp realizing that we did that hike in 2012… 9 years ago… which is very close to 10 years…. which is a long time for something that I can still vividly recall. It’s similar to that feeling when you look in the mirror and gasp at all the grey hair you have that seemingly appeared over night (but really it was always there).

As I mentioned, this post will be about the preparation for the Long Range Traverse. I’ve got a longer more in depth post planned for the hike itself that will be released at a later date, and possibly in multiple chapters since I can literally talk about sweet outdoor activities all day long and I will likely get lost in the photos and memories from this trip for quite some time during the writing process. This particular hike is located in the backcountry of western Newfoundland the begins at the eastern most point of Western Brook Pond and finishes in Gros Morne National Park. This hike is a multi-day backcountry hike that is self supported and requires that you utilize skills of route finding as there is no defined / marked trail. You are required to check in with park officials and complete a quiz to confirm you possess the necessary knowledge of map and compass navigation prior to departure and you are required to check in after the hike. You are also required to carry a tracking device with you which would aid search and rescue if needed (if you are late by more than a day they will come looking for you). It’s common for this area to be completely socked in with fog or rain for days on end which would greatly increase the risk of getting lost.

During the planning process for the hike one of the main obstacles was to ensure we were prepared to navigate the terrain with map and compass (we would also have a GPS as backup but did not want to be solely reliant on a battery powered device). Past experience told us that the best way to learn a new skill such as this was to dive in head first (hence the title of this post). Our version of diving in head first was to sign up for an adventure race / orienteering challenge hosted by the Halifax Regional Search & Rescue called the Eco Endurance Challenge (E2C). The E2C had two different durations, an 8 hour challenge and a 24 hour challenge. The 24 hour challenge started at 12:00 p.m. and ran until 12:00 p.m. the following day. Naturally being young and naive we signed up for the 24 hour challenge even though we had never participated in such a competition before. Our logic was that the 24 hour challenge would help simulate the experience of being multiple days into a difficult hike in the East Coast backcountry, being tired and possibly cold / wet and needing to rely on our orienteering skills to safely finish.

The E2C proved to be the perfect learning ground and our approach allowed us to maximize the learning in a short period of time. We read a book on navigation with map and compass the days leading into the competition and made a deal with ourselves that we wouldn’t worry about our placement and that we would just focus on practicing the necessary skills and finding as many controls (checkpoints) as we could. I can still recall the feeling of “navigating” our way to the first control wondering if we were even close to being on the correct bearing. Imagine our surprise when we located it on the first try! Our first 8 hours went really well and we were finding a solid number of controls both with map bearings and magnetic bearings (a very important distinction and easy to forget when you’re exhausted). After the first 8 hours was when things started to get difficult. At one point we were all feeling quite exhausted, it was getting dark and we had a moment of realization that maybe we would need to go back to the car and rest a bit… but we were 14 kilometers from the car as the crow flies… and we had dense East Coast forest complete with windfall zones, lakes and swamps between us and car.

At first, when hiking back to the car for a couple hours of sleep, our resolve remained strong and we were still trying to find controls along the way. As the night wore on even going a couple hundred meters out of our way to find a control was out of the question. By that point we were somewhere between 12-16 hours into the competition and utterly exhausted and there wasn’t enough Mike & Ike’s in the world to keep the spirits up. I will admit there were a few moments, sitting on a mossy log for a rest, where I was questioning all of my life decisions. But we finally made it back to the car and grabbed a couple hours of sleep. The next morning we got back out on the trail but realized that bushwhacking through 50 plus kilometers of uneven terrain the day before left our muscles and joints utterly destroyed. We got out for the last hours of the competition, hobbled another 10+ kilometers but only picked up 2-3 more controls.

At the end of the competition we placed somewhere in the bottom of the pack in the 24 hour recreational category. This is a category that allows use of a GPS (which we brought as a backup) but we ended up using the map and compass the entire time which was our main goal. We picked up about 85% of our points in the first 8 hours of the competition which was a solid lesson in how much more challenging navigation can get when you are exhausted and when it’s night time (as it turns our night was a good simulation for dense fog since you couldn’t see land marks or unique geographic features). It was an extremely physically and mentally challenging experience, we hiked over 60 km in 24 hours, but it served it’s purpose wonderfully. By the end of the competition our navigation skills with map and compass had increase significantly and we felt much more prepared to take on the Long Range Traverse.

As an aside, we enjoyed the challenge of the competition enough that we went back the following year to compete in the same category. We took the same approach of navigating the entire time with map and compass and planned our route so we would circle back past the vehicle sometime during the night for a couple hours of sleep. We also planned our route such that most of our travel after dark would be on dirt roads we could see on the map which helped compensate for how difficult it is to navigate with map and compass after dark. The second time around we placed mid-pack in the category which was a significant improvement on our previous attempt.

For us there were many benefits of competing in an orienteering challenge like the E2C to learn this new skill. The E2C is run by a professional search and rescue operation, there were a large number of other teams out in the woods at the same time and there were checkpoints you could stop at if you got into trouble. This also added a lot of enjoyment to the process of preparing for the hike. As I have said before, the planning process can add months of enjoyment to a trip that may only last a week. Once you start adding in experiences like a competition, regular training hikes or just getting out for car camping or short hikes to test your equipment you will be even more prepared and a single hike can turn into an entire summer of fun outdoor experiences.

I hope you enjoyed this post. If you have had a similar experience were you dove in head first to learn a new skill I would love to hear about it. Feel free to send an email or reach out through our contact page. Your story may even be featured in a future blog post!

Happy Trails,

Dave T

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