Navigating the Blue Hills

Hi, my name is Jess and I’m navigationally impaired.

My dad has the internal compass of a passenger pigeon. That trait apparently skips a generation. I needed something to do today so I figured I would go for a leisurely hike and try to develop my navigational skills.

With my trusty map in hand I got in the car and drove a whole 10 minutes (maybe) to the Blue Hills Reservation in Milton, Mass. The Blue Hills Reservation is very close to busy highways and is pretty flat…much different than what I am used to, hiking in the Whites. It’s not easy to get lost out there when you stay on maintained trails, since the trail junctions are well marked and there aren’t that many trails to begin with. But the Blue Hills has an astounding network of trails, some blazed but most un-blazed. Every time I’ve gone, I’ve gotten somewhat lost (and yes, also hopelessly lost). The goal for today was to work on getting better at placing my location on the map.

I planned to start out by following a well marked trail and then began to wind my way through multiple side trails. Ultimately, I would create a convoluted loop of a to-be-determined distance (3-ish hours?). Not 100 yards into the hike I missed the first turn onto the orange-rectangle trail and instead followed the red dots. This would be one of only 2 blunders all day…not bad!

Once I realized my mistake I changed my route. I could see where I was and where I would go. The good thing about the Blue Hills is that almost all of the trail junctions are marked with numbered signs that correspond to the map. If you have a map, you know exactly where you are. And since there are trail junctions every few hundred yards or less, it is always possible to find your way out. I figured this was the perfect place for someone like me to practice using a map.

Essentially, I took the long way from a parking lot on Chickatawbut Rd. to Buck Hill, Tucker Hill, and Houghton Pond, then came back using different paths. All day I meandered through swamps, around ponds, up and down hills, over rocks, and through fields. The trails were sometimes narrow, sometimes wide. I also stumbled upon the old route 128, which runs parallel to the newer and substantially bigger 93/128. Along the way I stopped to take many pictures and I really wished that I’d have brought my sketchbook along too. The only people I encountered were on the popular Skyline trail, which I avoided as much as possible. When I hike, I like to get away from people.

This was a great exercise in reading and understanding maps for me. Most of the folks on hiking sites seem to have quite a bit of experience and knowledge in outdoor skills but I am really new to this. I kind of like being new because every adventure brings so much wonder and excitement to me; sometimes I feel like a little kid out there. But I also learn so much every time I hike, or walk, or climb, or stroll…that each path is interesting no matter how flat or close to the city it may be.

So for those people hiding in the woodworks, getting intimidated by the endless threads about technical gear or outdoor skills, etc… my advice is simple. Hiking is glorified walking. Go out there and do it. Pick a place near home like the Blue Hills to wander around and get lost without the possibility of getting in trouble. Bring a map so you can get found again. And just discover for yourself what you need to know about walking outside. Obviously some hikes require technical knowledge and winter weather requires technical gear. But I stand by my belief that the best piece of gear you have out there is your brain. And developing basic skills in observation, sound judgement, navigation and survival are of more value to me than a $400 jacket that required more engineering than my car.

Next time I’ll bring my compass…there’s nothing that intimidates me more. No one yet has been able to explain to me what to do with that thing. I think I’ve got to get out in the woods and figure it out myself. You know, not too far from one of those numbered markers in the Blue Hills.

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