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Survival 101: A compass is useless if left in the truck

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For years, my father has given me compasses as gifts: pin on compasses, technical palm compasses, even a small, easy-to-carry neon blue compass with a built-in survival whistle.

Other than it being tradition, I never really appreciated his nagging concern for my safety.

That all changed Saturday while hunting ruffed grouse in a remote section of Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota.

"You didn't happen to bring a compass, did you?" my friend, Erik Marquette, asked as we stood in the middle of a dense tangle of broom handle-sized poplars.

When your guide, whose hunted an area for the better part of a decade, is asking for a compass, you know you're in some deep-woods doo-doo.

Of course I hadn't brought a compass. Why would I? It's not like I drag along a proverbial survival cache of gear on every outing. Just because my college buddies nicknamed me "boy scout" all those years ago, doesn't mean I, almost obsessively, bring matches, a lighter, two compasses, knives and other means of keeping myself alive on even the most harmless of outdoors walks.

Utterly preposterous.

Who was I kidding? There's a reason I'm "boy scout," but in any case, on this hunt, I decided to let that survival-first mentality lapse.

In a panic, I began patting myself down like an obsessive-compulsive ATF officer on a caffeine high. Maybe there was the off chance that I hadn't purposely decided to keep all my usual survival stuff back in the truck to lighten my hunting vest. Maybe, just maybe, one of those dozens of compasses I'd collected through the years had managed to wedge itself into an unforeseen corner of a hidden pocket.

I inventoried along the way: shotgun shells, dog treats, a half-empty water bottle (this definitely wasn't a half-full moment), wallet, knife, and a Leatherman multi-tool.

Alas, no compass.

Well, at least I had a driver's license, so the search party would be able to identify my rotting corpse.

In my front right pocket I suddenly felt something that had been grabbed on a whim. Originally, I'd brought the mobile phone to take pictures, since the batteries were dead in my point-and-shoot camera. Now, however, that phone might just be the ticket out of this mess.

That is, if there was a signal. Had I not been on the verge of an anxiety attack, I would have laughed at the notion. Really, how in the world would I ever get a signal when I had a hard time just finishing a conversation in the basement without getting cut off? That was why I rarely brought a phone out in the wild, as it more often than not was nothing more than additional bulk to already full pockets.

I held "end" to fire up the unit, and the sing-song startup music momentarily broke an eerie silence I'd been trying hard not to notice. Then I saw it: four bars. How in the Sam Hill did I have a stronger signal than my own home in the middle of an ancient forest in remote northern Minnesota?

Whatever, it didn't matter. What did was if the map program on the old LG slide phone would be able to tell us exactly where the heck we were.

As the progress bar slowly filled to 100 percent, a million thoughts raced through my head. All the stories of survival from lost hikers to hunters, replayed in a hodgepodge medley of meddlesome worry.

A short story from my youth struck a particular harmonious chord. It had been about a young hunter who was, coincidentally, targeting grouse. He'd bagged a couple birds as he cross country skied through some mountainous region of the U.S. Suddenly, a covey broke and his shotgun blast triggered an avalanche that buried him under several feet of snow.

Not being able to reach the release mechanism on his bindings, the young kid was stuck for days in a snowy, cold coffin. But he survived by meticulously working his extremities as much as possible, staving hydration with snow, and sustaining himself with the raw bird meat in his hunting pack.

Besides the wintry setting, there was a glaring dissimilarity between that young man and myself: he'd shot grouse. I hadn't.

An indicator beacon on the phone signaled the mapping program was working. At first, all it showed was brown: no streets, no city names. Nothing. Then I realized it was zoomed in to 100-foot intervals.

I zoomed out to 200 feet, then 500, then 1,000. Finally, on the edge of the tiny 2-inch screen, skinny gray lines representing roads popped into view.

"Let me see that," Erik said. "You're shaking too much."

Based on the cell phone, he figured we were a good mile from the road. All we had to do was head south or east.

Boy, a compass sure would come in handy at this moment.

Instead, we prayed the wind, which had been out of the south when we started, remained in that direction and pushed forward. Eventually we stumbled out onto a used woodland trail, deeply pitted by the metal treads of some large machine. It led us to the back of a neighboring junk yard.

Erik knew the area, but had no idea we were as far west as we were. No wonder he was turned around.

Relieved, the two of us worked back toward the road, thankful to be reoriented and ready to continue hunting.

"I bet you could write a book about all the stuff I've gotten you into," Erik said, laughing.

Not a book, buddy; an anthology.