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Ashfield: Dead Reckoning

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By Sam Talbot

Sam Talbot is the AmeriCorps Land Steward at Franklin Land Trust for 2011-2012.

Compass: check. GPS: check. Camera: check. Maps: check. Hunter orange: check. I run through my mental checklist of essential field work items. My destination on this particular morning is a property in Ashfield, a quaint town nestled in central Franklin County. I look out to the grey clouds above, which had been producing a lovely “wintry mix” of snow, rain, and everyone’s favorite: freezing rain. However, a break in the weather allows me some time and I seize the moment to get out in the woods.

It’s a relatively short ride (relative to northwestern MA distances) over to Ashfield. I glance to my right as I pass the local deer checking station along Route 2. No deer on the pallet at Gould’s Sugar House, which is an accurate reflection of my own luck during this year’s bow season. I’ll pass several trucks parked along the roads of Shelburne and Ashfield. Any other time of the year these vehicles could be considered broken down, but during deer season they are a harbor for the hunters that are in pursuit of the ever abundant (however seemingly elusive) white-tail buck of Massachusetts. After turning onto Route 116, I make a short stop at Elmer’s, the local place for breakfast, to recaffeinate and catch-up with some good friends from my previous AmeriCorps program. I continue my drive from there and park at the entrance to Bird Hill Rd. I figure the extra hike up the road beats the risk of testing the Camry’s 4-cylinders and bald tires in the 4 inches of slush.

talbot baseline 1My fresh boot prints and hunter orange in contrast with my surroundings seem foreign on the recently fallen snow along the road. I enter the building exclusion with a welcoming sign that reads: “NO hunting till Dec. 1—no exceptions”. I continue along an abandoned logging road to the northwest corner boundary, which will be my staring destination. While traveling along this interesting, albeit weathered, “corridor of sacrifice”, I realize there’s no place I would rather be than exploring the forests of central New England. Also, around this time of day, there is a 1-2 hour talbot baseline 2window of welcomed sunshine that radiates through the stripped hardwood branches. As I succumb to autumn’s fleeting warmth, my path brings me to the transect of my boundary in question.

The only documentation that I have available is two unreliable sources: an assessor’s map and a hand drawn forestry map. Also, years of forest decomposition has degraded the barbed wire fence, which once marked the property line. My best bet from this point is to utilize a technique known as dead reckoning. It requires only a compass, a keen eye, knowledge of land navigation, and a certain degree of luck. I was first introduced to the concept of dead reckoning while reading In the Heart of the Sea, in which the shipwrecked crew of the whaleboat the Essex utilized the technique to navigate their way across the unrelenting Pacific Ocean. I had also witnessed the technique in practice by the FLT land steward Will Anderson, while conducting field work on other conservation restrictions.

So, with my compass dialed into the proposed azimuth of 220?, I begin at the maple tree with flagged barbed wire, indicative of the boundary corner. I peer through the sights of my compass and make slight adjustments in my stance until the fixed red arrow of the compass coincides with magnetic north. I then pace along this azimuth, stopping every ~200 ft. to check my bearings. Only a few degrees of error in either direction can lead me off my 1/4 mile path, which, due to my inexperience, is exactly what happens. After several attempts and a few adjustments, I am finally able to locate a series of linear points in space that will prove to be the true boundary. After having reached my goal for the day I retreat to my car to return to the office. As I reflect on the day’s events I notice that dead reckoning seems to be an appropriate metaphor for the paths we take in our own lives. Sometimes you’ll be turned astray, but as long as you have the right tools, knowledge, a keen eye, and a certain degree of luck you’ll be able to find your way.