Monday, July 27, 2015

When the Compass Says North is Everywhere

Compass BearingsThe recent pursuit of prison escapees near Mountain View and Owl’s Head in northern Franklin County ignited for me a few memories from the area, both related to iron ore. Lyon Mountain, a few miles northeast of Standish, produced the world’s highest-grade iron ore for a century. Standish was home to the iron company’s blast furnace, and the village is linked to Mountain View by an unsurfaced, 11-mile stretch of the Wolf Pond Road.

When I interviewed old-timers back in the early 1980s for a couple of books about Lyon Mountain’s history, they told me of how the blast furnace stood out several decades earlier for residents of Franklin County, south of Malone, especially in the Mountain View area. Across the valley where the Salmon River flows parallel to the Wolf Pond Road, there was a nightly bright glow on the eastern horizon. At times the furnace, which ran 24/7, looked like a giant torch in the distance. The effect was powerful when nights were truly dark, before everyone decided that floodlights were a great idea.

A very unusual hiking memory from the wilderness near Mountain View is still with me even 30 years later. Due to some as yet unidentified but supposed mental defect, I was a fan of bushwhacking, and in the far north, there was no wilder place than the eight-mile-wide stretch between the Chateaugay Lakes west to the Mountain View area.

I set out early one day with a plan to explore the woods, climb the gradual eastern slope of a mountain, descend the steep western side to the shore of a wild lake and follow it south, finally rounding the base of a small mountain and returning east. In all, it would take an estimated eight hours, so I allowed for ten, giving me two hours leeway before darkness.

An issue that day was for me the glitch of a lifetime, foreseeable, I suppose, had I heeded warnings mistaken for old wives’ tales or hunters’ legends. Neither was the case.

Everything went well until the descent to lake level, where an unmapped swamp blocked the way. In the shadow of the mountain, there was no horizon and no keep-the-sun-in-the-same-place option, so with compass in hand, I began navigating around the wet area. A half-hour or so later, some downed trees looked disturbingly familiar.

binnacleScience has proven that in most terrain, without a visible sun or some type of guidance system, humans will walk in circles. But using a compass, one that had served me well for years, I still somehow ended up in already-covered territory. What the heck was going on?

Thinking a quick test might be helpful, I took a north reading, then chose a tree about 100 feet away in a direct northerly line and walked to it, looking back to exactly mark the starting point. The needle wavered a lot during the first reading, and did so again at the second tree, where it suggested that north was now perpendicular to the earlier result.

I tried it again, and once more, each time with different outcomes. North was everywhere – and I was four miles deep in wild territory. For the first time in my hiking life, I was shaken.

And then suddenly, an epiphany. That old story of iron ore deposits driving compasses crazy was true! Well, great … so you learned something new. Now what?

Looking at the map, I figured on following the swamp’s edge to the lake’s shore, and continuing to the southern tip, where I could turn left, which was due east. At that point I would have at least some sense of direction. But I’d also be in unfamiliar lowlands, and at least four miles in a direct line away from my car, late in the day. Anyway, I gave it a try.

However – and it was a big however – the swampy area seemed endless. After chewing up a lot of time, I began to think the swamp was actually the lake, and that maybe the map misrepresented it as open water.

Finally, discouraged by thick brush and no results, I turned back towards the mountain. It represented the one direction I could count on with certainty: up. The plan was to re-ascend, reset my directional bearings, and head east. Maybe with a little luck, the compass would work atop the small mountain and I’d have an easy hike back.

But the western side was nothing like the gradual eastern slope. What a chore it was to climb 350 feet of steep ledges, the kind of stuff where you’re thankful for brush and small trees to hang on to.

Surprises are always fun, and what a surprise to reach the summit only to find all views blocked by foliage. The mountain’s gradual slope angled east, but the rounded contours made east indiscernible from northeast and southeast – not very helpful in aiming for a target four miles distant. And the compass was still misbehaving. During the ascent earlier in the day, I hadn’t detected the problem because climbing the gradual slope was just a matter of continuing uphill. The compass rode along in my pocket.

To determine where due east was, I chose a tree and began climbing. Finally, through the foliage appeared a welcome sight – the familiar summit of Lyon Mountain in the distance. Now I knew which way to go. After descending safely to terra firma, I began using the tree-to-tree guidance method, and after a mile or so, the compass was once again functioning normally. Whew!

A bit put off by so much miserable bushwhacking, I located logging roads and old trails, taking a very circuitous but open route back to Chateaugay Lake. On a good dirt road for the final stretch, I reached the car shortly before 10 pm.

The image from 30 years ago of that needle bouncing, wavering, and a couple of times even doing the comical full circle, remains vivid. Back in 1982, 90-something-year-old George Davies of Standish told me a story about the trapline he maintained there for years, interjecting with, “A compass will do you no good up there.” I’d heard that iron in the ground caused compass issues, but always thought such claims were wildly exaggerated.

magnetic ore pulluing compass bearingsWhile writing this, I did a quick check to confirm the compass phenomenon. Mr. Davies was spot on.

From The Surveying Handbook (1995) by Russell C. Brinker and Roy Minnick: “Deposits of iron ore in parts of the United States seriously affect compasses…. Using a compass near magnetic iron ore deposits requires special study and equipment.” You don’t say! Large deposits of high-grade ore remain in that area, which I can only guess heightened the effect to where the needle actually performed herky-jerky revolutions.

The compass effect I encountered was employed extensively until about 1950 in the form of a dipping compass (or dip needle) used to locate iron ore. The sensitive needle pointed towards magnetic deposits.

Reports are that David Sweat had a compass in his backpack and knew how to use it. Had he and Richard Matt taken a slightly different path and veered east of Mountain View, they might still be circling in the woods today.

Photos: Above, a common hiking compass; middle, a diagram of a 19th-century ship’s binnacle housing a compass with two soft iron spheres (Q) to correct for induced magnetization; and below, compass bearings being affected by iron ore from Black Rock Forest in southern New York.


Lawrence P. Gooley

Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 21 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, has been a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. They have published 75 titles and are now offering web design.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publisher’s Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.





5 Responses

  1. Tim says:

    Same phenomenon on Iron Mt in Elizabethtown.

  2. Bruce says:

    Excellent article. I’m glad Mr. Gooley didn’t lose his head and panic, requiring rescue.

    These types of areas seem like they might be apropos for electronic compasses, such as those found in GPS units, although in general I still prefer the old-fashioned magnetic compass. The advice I give folks is to take along a set of new, spare batteries for any electronic device you might be depending upon in the wilderness.

    I was fly fishing with a friend in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and we deliberately didn’t return to the car until after dark, so he could show off his new GPS back when they were the next big thing, putting in waypoints as we went downriver along a well used trail. Only problem was the turnoff from the trail along the river up to the car was not obvious, and he had forgotten to put the car and that turnoff in as the first two waypoints. Fortunately, being familiar with the lay of the land kept us from doing more than 15 or 20 minutes of bushwhacking to the car.

  3. Joshua says:

    Great article, well written! It did make me chuckle, no harm intended…I’ve been in similar situations in the backcountry of PA, CO and in the ‘Dacks, not so much related to my compass…but bushwacking a route you swore would be “the best route” 😉

    Thanks again!

  4. dave coppock says:

    I am planning a cross-Adirondack bushwhack and would like to rely on map & compass (rather than GPS) as much as possible for navigation.

    Do you know if the effect the speak of is limited only to certain areas of the Adirondacks, or is it more generalized?

    Thank you.

  5. Lawrence P. Gooley Larry says:

    Not much to worry about, Dave. The effect isn’t common (I’m guessing even most hikers haven’t experienced it), and frequent checks of the compass should held indicate if anything is amiss. I still rely on the map-and-compass combination, and if it’s a lengthy trip or I’m in a new area, it’s always a good idea to familiarize myself with the map layout before hitting the woods.