Illustration by Sam Morton

Did you know there were three degrees of lostness? There are, and none of them have anything to do with your car’s GPS going black halfway between your garage and the grocery store. Fortunately for those of you who are members of one of the more recent generations, I’ve spent decades exploring the art of getting lost and can explain in full detail…

First-degree lostness occurs when you don’t know where you are, but you do know how to get back to familiar territory. For example, the first year we hunted together, Mike Jenkins—who eventually overcame his big city roots to become the best hunting and fishing partner I’ve ever had—and I were following a heavily used deer trail when Mike asked me if I knew where we were.

Did I mention that it was a brutally hot and humid August afternoon or that the trail was on a shelf about two thirds of the way down an almost—but not quite—vertical bluff? I didn’t?  Then I probably didn’t mention that the shelf occasionally widened to nearly a foot or that keeping spider webs away from the face required the full time use of at least one hand, either.

Operating on the sometimes-true theory that honesty’s the best policy, I replied, “Not exactly, but I do know how to get out of here whenever I want to.”

Mike then plaintively asked, “How about, want to?” That’s when I learned that two people can be together and still be experiencing different degrees of lostness.

Second-degree lostness is more serious. It occurs when you know where you are and where you want to go, but getting there is confusing, uncertain, and scary.

One night several years later, the same Mike and I were anchored five miles or so upriver from the gravel “road ends in water” access where we’d left our car and boat trailer. It had been a pleasant, catfish-filled evening, and all was right with the world. Or at least it was until we were suddenly engulfed in fog so thick it was impossible to see from one end of our 16-foot boat to the other even with the aid of a spotlight.

I was familiar with the area and knew that hugging the left bank almost all the way back was the least dangerous course, so with Mike keeping the spotlight pointed at the bank and me keeping the boat no more than 10 feet away from it, we started inching our way back. He did his part to keep our progress exciting by more than occasionally swinging the spotlight’s beam toward the bow instead of the bank. Then the light reflecting off the fog would blind me, and he would lose contact with the bank. I found this very irritating at the time, but in retrospect, bow and bank do both start with “b,” so I suppose a certain amount of confusion was inevitable.

We made it back, but if something similar happens again, I’ll stay put until daylight.

Given your mind is sufficiently warped, it’s possible to laugh during episodes of second- or first-degree lostness. Years have to pass before anyone can find any humor in third-degree lostness, which occurs when you have no idea where you are, and you can’t find either your original destination or your starting point.

A friend and I found ourselves in exactly that predicament one day in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area back when the BWCA was a true wilderness. All we’d wanted to do was see a waterfall that we’d been told was located somewhere near the middle of a mile-long stretch of river that connected two lakes.

What could go wrong? All we had to do was trek straight through about a billion identical birch trees.

Although we weren’t to the admit-it stage yet, we were already lost when we stumbled onto the bloody scraps of hide and bone that were all that remained of a very recent encounter between a moose and a wolf pack. An eternity or so later, we still hadn’t found the river or the portage trail, but we had found the dead moose three more times. As should be obvious since I’m here to tell the tale, we did eventually find our way back to our waiting canoe but not without considerable effort and a big dose angst. 

So, to those part of the more recent generations, may you never experience third-degree lostness (after all that’s why you have Siri, right?), but if you do, may you regain cell service sooner than later. You don’t want to end up like that moose.