compass

Naturally I lost my bearings

Gordon lifted the oversized compass to his face. The transparent plastic flexed in his hands, making his nose appear to wiggle. His voice was less animated. His words came out deliberately.

“Turn the bezel until the arrow is in the box.” He turned the disk on his plastic demonstration model. His nose wiggled again.

We complied. Our group sat at the table with real compasses balanced on our upturned palms. I twisted the bezel on mine. The needle danced briefly, then settled dutifully.

“It doesn’t matter how many bells and whistles a compass has,” Gordon said. “It does just one job...” We recognized the prompt and chimed as chorus, “…it points to magnetic north.”

This was old school at the local REI. We were studying the compass, paper quadrangle maps, and the mystery of declination. Gordon was the perfect teacher. He was articulate and patient.

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He also warned us about ever-present danger of table legs.

“Watch.” Gordon slid a compass across the plastic table. At one point the needle wobbled and forgot its singular purpose.

“Remember, it’s a magnet. The table legs are metal.”

He illustrated his point with a story about hikers he had once observed working off a quadrangle spread across the hood of the car. “That engine block will really mess you up,” he chuckled.

Tools and tricks of the trade.

Tools and tricks of the trade.

He didn’t need to remind me.

I drifted out of the classroom to a dark and rainy night on the streets of Jaffa, Israel. I was driving a tiny rental car. Inside was Tanner, my son, Jody my graduate assistant, and Karl, a good friend. We had just arrived in Tel Aviv a few hours earlier and were quite bleary after an all-night flight. We were attempting to find a hostel where I had made reservations.

This was back in the 1990s before the widespread use of miraculous technologies like the handheld GPS, the cell phone, and the Ninja smoothie blender. We were true pioneers, just a generation away from the discovery of fire. Jody held a paper map and a compass. “Turn right.” “Turn left.” “Try right again.” We wandered for what seemed to be hours. Hopelessly befuddled, we found ourselves at the spot where we started.

Without alternatives (like the mossy side of trees) to guide us, we gave up. We deadheaded our way to Galilee. We pulled onto a dirt road beside the Horns of Hattin at about four in the morning and slept in our seats to sunrise.

Jody, Tanner, and yours truly from a compass-directed Israel experience many years ago.

Jody, Tanner, and yours truly from a compass-directed Israel experience many years ago.

Only later did we discover that something in the vehicle was messing with Jody’s compass.

Thanks to Gordon I now know that it doesn’t take much. The earth’s magnetic field is relatively weak. Science suggests that this force is measured at 5 × 10−5 tesla (or 50 µT).

Did you that before it was a space car, the Tesla was a unit of magnetic field strength? I didn’t. Neither did I know that while the value of the earth’s magnetic field is strong enough to protect the earth from harmful solar wind it is not strong enough to overcome the mysterious powers of some small European rental cars.

The earth’s magnetic field protects us from dangerous stuff flying around in space. I’ll bet Starman has a GPS. He is not going to mess around with distortion or declination. Image from    here   .

The earth’s magnetic field protects us from dangerous stuff flying around in space. I’ll bet Starman has a GPS. He is not going to mess around with distortion or declination. Image from here.


Our local REI store offers a variety of courses regularly. One of them is “Map and Compass Navigation Basics.” For a small fee, you can find yourself in a good introduction to compass navigation or be reminded of things you forgot since your Boy Scout days.

If an REI is not convenient, the book of choice is Bjorn Kjellstrom’s Be Expert with Map and Compass (Wiley, 2010). This is the classic guide to compass use. Its author was a Swedish orienteering champion and cofounder of the Silva compass company. Be Expert has been revised since the original 1955 release and is now in its 3rd edition.


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We have seats available on a couple of trips scheduled for summer of 2019. The good news is that we will be traveling in a wondrous GPS-equipped motor coach. I haven’t gotten lost in a few years now.

Registration will be closing soon on our May 25-June 4 excursion as well as our June 4-15 trip. These are similarly paced and priced. If you are interested in either please contact me immediately at markziese@gmail.com.

For a complete list of travel opportunities in 2019, see our schedule here.