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Lost in the Woods: A Minor Misadventure

How a Down East editor and photographer came to spend an overnight lost in the Maine north woods.

Hoping for an early rescue, the author and the Outward Bounder wave anxiously at their charter plane.
Hoping for an early rescue, the author and the Outward Bounder wave anxiously at their charter plane. Photographed by Tom Stewart.

By Davis Thomas
From our August 1990 issue

How can three reasonably experienced outdoorsmen manage to get themselves lost in the Maine woods only a mile or so from their camp on the shore of a sizable pond? Easy. First, start out after breakfast to rephotograph a fallen pine fifteen minutes from camp that you had photographed in failing light a day and a half before. Second, don’t take a compass or a map. This is to be a short jaunt over familiar ground. Third, spread out and beat the bush so that after several regroupings, no one has a clear idea of the general course already followed. Fourth, give up hopes of finding the pine of choice. Photograph a substitute and strike out hastily for camp so as to have time to pack up, laze about, and perhaps have a swim before arrival of the floatplane at 5 p.m. to take you back to civilization. Fifth, when you encounter a stream that you did not cross on the outward hike, admit that you are indeed lost.

Down East Magazine, August 1990
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We stopped and held a palaver. Photographer Tom, an experienced camper and mountain climber, argues for going upstream. The water was fairly high, indicating that the source could not be far. The Outward Bounder and I agreed to go along. After forty minutes of really painful bushwhacking, we arrived tattered and torn at the outlet of a medium-sized pond. I thought I knew which one it was, from my recollection of the map back at camp. But there was no way to be certain. Afternoon was beginning to wear on. Better to swallow our pride and stay on the pond where we could be spotted from the air.

Our situation was not encouraging. We were standing in our shirt-sleeves with no food, not even a candy bar, among us. We turned out our pockets and discovered two Swiss army knives, three vials of bug dope, a blue bandana, and some assorted change. We also had two heavy packs of camera equipment, including three white, silver, and gold collapsible reflector panels. Finally, inside a bee smoker that Photographer Tom uses for producing misty effects in forest photos, we found a handful of matches. The wind was rising, gusting across the pond, and we heard the mutter of distant thunder. Without the matches, we would have been in serious trouble.

We were counting on Dean, our pilot, to draw the proper conclusion when he arrive at five o’clock to find the cabin empty, dishes unwashed, and nothing packed for the return trip. Surely, he would check the nearby ponds. At a quarter to five all three of us waded out into the water, each carrying a circular reflector panel. At five o’clock we heard the engine of the floatplane but could not decide from which direction because of the wind. Then, silence. We strained to hear the plane take off to begin the search, but all we heard was the drone of jet airlines bound for Europe on the Great Circle Route, 40,000 feet above us.

It suddenly sank in that perhaps we would be spending the night in the woods. The thunder had gotten closer, and we began scrambling about collecting what rotting logs we could find to construct some sort of shelter. We also began piling anything that looked like it might burn in a heap. Despite the fact that open fires are prohibited in the preserve, we knew it might come to breaking the rules. Then, at 6:30 there was a sudden roar and we saw a yellow de Havilland Beaver flash by overhead. At a run, we rushed into the water, waving our reflectors. Dean circled, wagged his wings, and made a low pass to show us that the pond was too small for landing.

One more pass and he vanished in the direction of civilization. We were left with no real clue as to our fate. No small parachute weighted with a wrench and a bearing note came floating down from the plane. We could only assume that Dean would contact Dave Youland, proprietor of a sporting camp on a nearby pond, and owner of the solitary cabin at which we were staying. Dave, we assumed, would do something about our plight in the morning.

Nightfall was ushered in by a rising wind — and a downpour, accompanied by loud thunder and brilliant lightning flashes. We moved our campfire into the shelter and took turns trying to sleep once the storm began to moderate. It was a long night, but the fire kept us reasonably warm, and the shelter and reflector panels kept us dry. Daybreak arrived just as our supply of firewood gave out.

We all took a deep drink of pond water for breakfast and had begun once again debating our options when, almost without warning, a small floatplane materialized. Once again we splashed into the water. We could see Dave Youland leaning from the window as he made his final pass.

The plane headed off to the north. Within an hour and half we could hear Dave’s approach: breaking tree branches, with a few hallooes, and the sound of an ax on tree trunks as he blazed his trail in. Glad to see him? You bet — tempered with more than a pinch of embarrassment. Dave, who has had to rescue more than one party of lost campers in his twenty years in the North Woods was gracious, even philosophical. “Agreed, you did a damn fool thing, but you could look at it this way,” he offered. “Even Thoreau got lost once or twice. And this is still big country.”