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Morning in the woods offers close encounter of the lost kind

The faint trail through the cedar swamp had disappeared in a tangle of blown-down trees and brush, and it didn't take me long to realize I'd wandered off course.

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The faint trail through the cedar swamp had disappeared in a tangle of blown-down trees and brush, and it didn't take me long to realize I'd wandered off course.

Heckuva dilemma, that. I was hunting alone. No one knew I was here. And my cell phone didn't have any reception.

Fortunately, my GPS did. I knew where I was, more or less. As long as the batteries held out, I figured, I'd be in good shape.

If the batteries went dead, I'd probably be in for a long day -- a long day that hopefully wouldn't extend into night.

That was the scenario I found myself in during a recent ruffed grouse excursion on a gray November morning somewhere just a little bit east of nowhere. There was no sun to help me find my bearings, and the canopy of trees blocked out much of what little light there was.

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The dim light gave the surroundings an eerie appearance.

Staring at the tiny GPS screen as I tried to regain my bearings, I couldn't help but think about the folly of relying on technology to get me out of this jam. Hand-held GPS units are amazing tools, for sure, but they've been known to fail in areas where dense cover blocks access to the satellites.

By any definition, this qualified as dense cover. The compass I'd failed to carry would have provided a welcome measure of assurance.

To complicate matters, the "bread-crumb" trail the GPS had lain down to this point was beginning to look like the staggering steps of a drunken sailor. Trying to follow the twisting and turning trail back to the point where I'd gone off-course was proving to be more difficult than I'd imagined.

Everything around me looked the same.

I was beginning to feel twinges of concern -- I won't go so far as to call it panic -- when I realized I had to stop and reassess my next move.

The answer, I saw, was right in front of me -- in the form of a tiny icon showing the location of a waypoint I'd marked on the GPS a couple of weeks earlier.

The waypoint represented an old deer stand right where the trail disappeared into the mass of blown-down trees and brush. Lucky for me, I'd had the foresight to mark the spot just for this eventuality.

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Find the old stand, and I'd be back on the trail to my truck.

I set up a navigation track on the GPS, and the arrow indicated I needed to walk 388 feet -- in the opposite direction of where I thought I had to go. No doubt, I was turned around.

I looked at the battery meter on the GPS and it read 50 percent. There was no danger of the unit going dead on me, and that provided a welcome assurance I soon would be back on track.

One slow step at a time, I followed the arrow on the GPS and began closing the distance to the waypoint -- 300 feet, 250 feet, 188 feet ... 30 feet.

Within minutes, I was back at the old deer stand and the trail I'd followed from the truck.

The GPS, to put it bluntly, had saved my butt.

Logic at that point might have dictated heading back to the truck and calling it a morning, but I'd taken this trail dozens of times over the years and I wanted to reach the higher ground beyond the cedars because it offered the best grouse hunting potential.

This time, I navigated the blown-down trees and managed without incident to find the remains of the trail that took me to higher ground and the area I wanted to hunt.

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The area didn't produce any birds, but at least I knew where I was. My return through the cedars was equally uneventful.

I only was off-course about 15 minutes, but the encounter offered a reminder of just how quickly things can go wrong when navigating backwoods country. Aside from carrying a GPS that worked, I'd broken just about every rule there was to break when traveling in the woods: I

hadn't told anyone where I was going, I wasn't carrying a compass and I hadn't planned for the possibility of getting lost.

It easily could have happened. I got lucky.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to bdokken@gfherald.com .

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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