BUSHYTAIL CAMPGROUD, SHASTA-TRINITY NATIONAL FOREST — "Did you know you can eat yellow jackets?" instructor Monte Hendricks told us as we sipped coffee around the picnic area on a Saturday morning.
He went on to describe how you can roast up some "meat bees" in a pan for a few minutes and then pop them in your mouth for a protein-rich, sting-free meal. But then he added: "I have a saying, ‘If you're eating bugs, you've already made a mistake.'"
This is the kind of information I'd come for: useful, and not for the squeamish. I was one of 31 students last weekend in a Land Navigation and Wilderness Survival clinic put on by the California Department of Fish & Game (DFG). We're a mix of hikers and hunters from all over the state-one man came with his eight year-old son all the way from San Diego-there to learn about how not to get lost in the woods.
We were at a campground a few hundred yards from Trinity Lake, a damned-up reservoir in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. By the end of the weekend, we'd know not only exactly where we were, but how it related to numerous other spots around the lake, how to get to them, and how to use them to figure out how to get to other places.
Our instructors were Monte and Julie Hendrix, a couple in their 50s who've been teaching outdoors classes for a variety of organizations for most of their two decades together. Their clients include not just DFG but the BOW program, short for Becoming an Outdoors-Woman, a formerly state-affiliated program that includes numerous female-only classes. Our group today consists of 24 men, three boys and four women-which is both typical and sometimes intimidating for women in these kinds of classes, Julie noted.
The Hendricks also work winter ski patrol and contribute to search and rescue missions, while not spending all that much time in their Pollock Pines home. In between all that, Monte also makes and repairs banjos in a business with his brother, Hendrix Banjos.
While giving us a review of basic map symbols, Monte and Julie toss in the kind of the kind of homespun wisdom nightmares and news reports are made of:
• The most dangerous words in hiking are "I'll catch up."
• "If you want a sunburn you'll never forget, wear shorts and go skiing. Where the sun don't shine, it sure can reflect."
• "When you carry a first aid kit, you're usually not the one who needs it. So always be the one who carries it."
• And the always classic: "If you don't want to get bitten by a rattlesnake, don't pick it up," (Monte, while describing how 95 percent of bite victims are young, male, and did just that).
We spent the weekend working off of quadrant maps from the US Forest Service and the US Geological Survey. These maps are available for every inch of the country, can be bought online, and use consistent rules that really help with compass navigation.
They asked us to work with partners, so I teamed up with Holgar, a German-born web designer from San Francisco who said he'd after eight years in California, he'd finally checked out Yosemite early in the year and caught the hiking bug. We worked with orienteering compasses, made of clear plastic you can see through on top of the map.
First we learn to set the declination of a our compasses-true north is 16.5 degrees west of magnetic north in this part of the country, due to the wobble of the magnetic poles of our planet. By turning the outer rim of the compass, consisting of 360 degree measurements, we learn to determine our location just by our relation to one known landmark. We learn to box the compass and set a bearing in the real world to a point on a map. We even learn how a pair of hikers can use each other a signposts to set a course-a technique Monte and Julie once used to walk down off of a 1,000 foot cliff in a whiteout blizzard.
After class ended about 4 pm on Saturday, several of us set out separately to find survey marker points-little metal plaques stuck at specific points in the forest floor by mapmakers, whose locations are included on our maps. There was one less than 200 yards from camp. I climbed over a small hill to find that Holgar and two other students, Sandi and Larry, had beat me there. My attempts to find another marker and an abandoned mine shaft later that day were less successful.
The next morning, I chatted with Eddie, the campground host, and he told me part of the reason I may have had trouble. One of the markers I was looking for was on the shore of the lake-but the shore is not where it should be. The water is 60 feet below where it would normally be in mid-June. By the end of the summer, he said, it will probably be 100 feet below average. The beaches are mud, and the majority of boat launches on the lake are already too far from the water to be useable. But he's more worried about drought's companion, fire.
"We couldn't get out of here fast enough," Eddie told me. "No one could."
These were not idle words, considering the valley was filling up with smoke from nearby fires. Later, heading home on Highway 99 south of Chico, I was able to see eight separate forest fires billowing smoke into the air.
On Sunday, the group split in two. Julie told one group about how to build a shelter if you're stuck in the woods, along with other survival skills. But I stuck with Monte's group in an attempt to master a skill that has always stumped me: the user interfaces on hiking GPS units.
I wasn't alone in my confusion. We were using a common Garman unit, which Monte notes has hundreds of features but only five buttons-one of which is "power." As opposed units build for use in cars, hiking versions still favor having lots of functions over an easy interface. But under his guidance, I was able to set a destination and follow the unit's instructions to get several hundred yards back to the campsite.
By the end of the weekend, I'd learned several new skills. But Monte added that with a little common sense, most hikers would avoid the types of mistakes that would force them to bushwhack with a compass.
"In my experience, the trail is generally there for a reason," Monte said.
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