fall helps set your bearings

I think it might have been around this time of the year that Hansel and Gretel found themselves venturing deeper and deeper into the forest.

I think it might have been around this time of the year that Hansel and Gretel found themselves venturing deeper and deeper into the forest. There is a temptation to it, particularly in late fall.

Not only does the nip in the air make the cabin feel all the more welcoming and cozy upon return (another hint of the witch’s appeal to Hansel and Gretel, maybe), it makes you get out all that winter clothing and actually already wear it. Those of us over the ripe age of about 30, anyway.

The funny thing is, we’ll be wearing the same layers of clothing and not a stitch more when it’s another 20 degrees colder; always a marvel to me as I shiver on the first few hundred meters of a walk.

This in-between time of fallen leaves, nude branches and the first hesitant sprinklings of snow is the bushwhacker’s delight as all the game trails stand out like beacons in the woods.

Not that they are particularly hard to find at other times of the year, but the way they beckon now under a dusting of snow makes you wonder what you might find at the end of the path — and before you know it, your feet are on it and you’re lured into unknown parts, throwing breadcrumbs over your shoulder, if so equipped.

It is funny when I think back now to how it felt the first fall out here, exploring the bush, when every walk was into unfamiliar territory and we were constantly using our compasses. It used to unnerve me when I’d lose sight of all landmarks in the forest and would have to place all my trust in the compass to find my way back to the familiar lake shore; with some annoying little voice in the back of my head all the while asking “but where am I?”

My fuzzy idea of being, say, somewhere to the northwest of the cabin, about a 45-minute scramble through the bush in a roundabout way, would produce only more urgent inner questions: “but where is this exactly? And why is it taking so long to get back down to the lake?”

Those blundering expeditions, with the compass gripped tightly in hand and the primeval fear of getting lost clutching at my throat, led us in an entirely planless and haphazard way all through our backyard until we began to recognize more and more features of the landscape and understand its patterns. How, for example, a string of wetlands (unmarked on the map) eventually led to a pond, with many moose trails congregating in the area.

The topographical map turned out to be rather whimsical about features involving water, anyway: showing non-existent creeks and leaving out a number of ponds. Of course, these all come and go over time with the beavers and snow and rainfall levels, so the cartographers may well have looked at a somewhat different landscape.

As we came to trust our compass skills and common sense more, and realized the dogs’ ability to find a trail and lead us back home, it became fun to venture off into the bush at will and guess where we might come out.

How gratifying to recognize a certain clearing or patch of pine trees and thereby connect the area just walked through to our mental image of this place.

Other times, we emerge unexpectedly in a spot quite distant from where we thought we’d come out, causing us to wonder where we actually just walked.

Then there is the matter of a major moose highway, a big connector trail, that we seem to be unable to find when we’d really like to use it, but frequently stumble upon when not looking for it.

Over time, we have created our own little trail network by linking up a number of game trails to spots we particularly like.

The comparative ease of walking this offers, as compared to the obstacle course of bushwhacking, now has us often choose one of our own trails over the myriad of entangled options to the left and right of them. But there is something about late fall that keeps luring us, Hansel and Gretel-like, into the woods, away from our trails.

Maybe it is the fairytale quality that a winter forest has.

Admittedly, I also nourish the secret fantasy of one day stumbling onto a tiny clearing with a cabin and unknown inhabitant in it, a recluse from the world; quite possibly a witch.