By Jenny Neyman
As the night wore on, it became increasingly difficult to ignore the mounting evidence that Phil Banycky and his hunting buddy were lost.
There was the time. They’d left their hunting camp on the southern shore of Tustumena Lake around dusk, about 8 p.m. Sept. 20, and hiked for about an hour and a half south before turning around to return to camp. They’d since been walking “back to camp” for two and a half hours.
There was the terrain. Especially in the deepening darkness, it all seemed maddeningly similar, yet not similar enough to indicate they were retracing their route back to camp.
“We’re going up and down through these hills, through these swamps, and I went, ‘We did not go through this stuff, I’m telling you right now,’” Banycky said.
There was the directional discrepancy. Banycky, who had just moved to Kasilof from Michigan with his wife and son, had brought a compass and map of the Tustumena Lake area for his first excursion into “wild country,” he said. In Michigan, he lived about 35 miles north of Detroit.
“Our ‘big woods’ is 80 acres around there,” he said.
He was tagging along on a moose-hunting trip with Mike Zwack, another Michigan resident who previously moved to Kasilof and convinced the Banycky family to come up, as well. Zwack was navigating with a GPS unit. Banycky, being new to Alaska, much less the Tustumena Lake area, wasn’t going to gainsay Zwack’s directions. But something seemed amiss.
“I believe in my compass. A friend in Michigan, he’s a military man, and he always relied on his compass,” Banycky said. “I was sitting on a hill and it was plain as day on the map. I knew what direction we came from. You could definitely see the contour of the land with the map. I lay my compass down, it’s got a little glow-in-the-dark thing, where if I kept them things lined up, I’d be going in the right direction. But he keeps dragging me that a-way, dragging me that a-way.”
The final straw was when Zwack started shaking the GPS unit and gave it a few smacks with his hand.
“He goes, ‘Man, I don’t know about this thing.’ And I’m saying, ‘Well, you picked a hell of a time to say something, after a couple hours of walking,’” Banycky said.
When they had decided to turn around, Zwack set the GPS to navigate them to the home point he’d set. Problem was, he didn’t choose the home point designated for their campsite. He chose home as in his house.
His house in Michigan.
“When he hit the ‘go home,’ it wasn’t the right home. It was the second home. I’m looking at the thing going, ‘Two thousand, seven hundred forty m — is that meters?’ And he’s like, ‘I don’t know.’ And I said, ‘Well, hell. I don’t know either.’ Because I’ve never looked at the thing. Why’s it in meters? I guess we figured, ‘Well, you never know.’ Who the hell thought it’d be miles?”
When they gave in to the realization they were lost it was full dark, they were running out of water, had been walking for hours and Banycky wasn’t feeling great to start with.
“I had walking pneumonia. At the time I just thought I had the flu. So we went by these deadfalls — you know how rough it is out there. We went by this one deadfall that’s kind of mossy and grassy. I’m thinking, ‘I’m just going to crawl up under this tree and go to sleep,’” Banycky said.
They had been heading east — toward Michigan, they later realized. But they knew that Tustumena Lake curved southeast of where they’d set off from, so if they kept walking that way and reoriented themselves to head more to the north, sooner or later they’d hit the lakeshore. Eventually they could hear waves.
“I could hear the water, so I knew we were close. But you know how sound travels out there. It was like another half a mile or so,” Banycky said. “And when we get to the lake it’s like, ‘OK, well, now which way do we go?’”
Not knowing how turned-around they’d gotten in the woods, they weren’t sure if they’d hit the lakeshore to the west or east of their camp.
They got enough cell phone coverage to call the other two guys who had stayed behind in camp.
“Luckily the guys’ phone worked so we called and said, ‘Hey, man, you need to crack off a shot so we know where we’re at.’ But this was like five hours later. They were sleeping. They figured, ‘Well, I guess you guys are sleeping out there tonight,’” Banycky said.
Another half an hour or so of walking finally brought them back to camp, around 1 a.m., no worse for wear. Despite the misguided homing coordinates, the trip didn’t deter Banycky’s interest in the Alaska backcountry.
“I loved it. The lake was so nice. It was quite an adventure for my first time up in the big wilderness, you know,” he said. “There were a million stars out there and there’s a glacier and you look down here and you can see (Mount) Redoubt. It was great.”
The longer-than-expected trek did reinforce the necessity of being prepared, however. GPS units and other electronic devices can be invaluable tools to outdoors enthusiasts, but they can also exacerbate disaster if they malfunction or aren’t used properly.
It’s important to be familiar with the GPS unit to be used and practice operating it before heading off into the woods.
“Go through your manual and understand how to navigate to a point, so if you save a location and you’re out there in the woods and you’re lost and want to get back to your truck, you should know how to use the menus to find a waypoint, so you’re at least familiar with the basic aspects of it,” said Mark Laker, an ecologist, data manager and GIS specialist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
Laker uses a compass and his GPS when out in the field, since some GPS don’t have a compass built in.
“I’ll program my basic desired destination into the GPS and then as I’m hiking I’ll stop and I’ll see how far I have to go and then what direction I need to go, change my compass to point in that direction and look at it while I’m walking. Most GPS units, once you stop moving, unless they have an electronic compass within them, they’re not going to tell you what direction you’re facing, whereas a compass will,” he said,
Another thing to be aware of is the discrepancy between magnetic north and true north. Compasses point to magnetic north, while longitude and latitude coordinates are based off of true north. If a GPS unit is set to function on longitude and latitude, make sure you know the declination change in the area so you can compensate with your compass.
“Usually the GPS, when it gives you a bearing, it’s going to be assuming your compass is set to true north,” Laker said.
It’s also important to be consistent in the coordinate format being used. Pilots, for instance, track coordinates in a different format — degrees decimal minutes — than hikers would — degrees minutes seconds.
“I usually have people, if they’re going to be using a map or something like that, look at the coordinate system on the map and become familiar with that and make sure your GPS matches up with that if you’re going to be using both of them at the same time,” Laker said. “If you get a location, say, off the Internet — here’s this fishing hole and here’s the coordinates — make sure you’re entering the coordinates in the same format.”
On the Kenai Peninsula, satellite coverage can occasionally be spotty, so be prepared if the GPS unit loses its signal.
“One problem we tend to have here is that the satellites are really low in the horizon because we’re so far north. So sometimes you can get out of coverage, or a really heavy canopy of trees can block your signal. If you really want a good fix on something, try to get to a place where the elevation is a little bit higher and clearer,” Laker said.
Beyond that, bring batteries and backup knowledge. Like any electronic device, GPS units can be quite handy, but they shouldn’t be the only means of navigation able to be employed.
“They’re great tools. You’re going to know exactly where you are, for one thing. If you’re lost a map’s not going to tell you where you are,” Laker said. “(But) I always warn people you should still have a map and compass and know your basic orienteering skills.”