Editor’s note: Harold Gatty was born in Campbelltown, Tasmania in 1903. He went to school at the Royal Australian Naval College, and became one of the world’s great navigators. In 1931 he was placed in charge of Air Navigation Research and Training for the United States Army Air Corps. During World War II he served in the Royal Australian Air Force and his survival manual The Raft Book was standard equipment on U.S. Army Air Force life rafts and saved hundreds of lives. Subtitled How to Find Your Way on Land and Sea and originally published in 1958, Nature is Your Guide is a comprehensive expansion of the information in that manual, covering pathfinding in the wilderness, the desert, and in snow-covered areas as well as marine environments. Through years of research all over the world, Harold Gatty collected and tested the pathfinding techniques in this book.
“Even in these days of highly advanced technical aids, situations can arise when it is vital for us to be able to find our way by observing the signs of nature.” – Lieutenant General J. H. Doolittle, Nature is Your Guide, Forward, p.8.
When Gatty wrote this book he had 35 years of experience as an air and marine navigator. He even had his own Navigation School in Los Angeles for many years. He emphasized the importance of what he called “natural navigation” to show students they needed to use their eyes as well as their instruments. More, he showed how natural navigators, like people from ancient cultures, can use all 5 senses and even their inherent sense of time passing to find their way.
This is a great book, unusual, practical, and fascinating. One of the stories I find most powerful is that of Enos Mills, a mountain guide, who became snow blind and lost in the Rocky Mountains yet was able to find his way to safety by using nature as his guide. Enos was able to find the blaze marks he had made on the trees on his forward journey by feeling the tree bark with his fingers, as well as feeling where the moss grew on the trunks. Before he lost his sight he also had observed which type of tree grew on which side of the canyons in that area, and thus he was able to use trees as compass points in three different ways. He even used a form of echo location. Stories like this show how much information there is in nature. If we have eyes to see or even just ears to hear and hands to feel we need never be lost.
But Nature is Your Guide is more than stories. The book contains Sun Tables for telling directions by using the sun at all times of year and in most latitudes. There are also tables showing how to find indications of land by observing sea birds, and plates of the different birds encountered at sea. There’s an emphasis on staying relaxed and not being in a hurry. Needless to say, it’s hard to observe your environment whether walking, driving, or kayaking when you’re speeding along. “Everything becomes more meaningful to him who watches and listens without too much thought to the value of his time,” says Gatty (p. 17).
Nature is Your Guide shows how we can find our way in the natural world even in roadless areas by observing birds, animals, weather, plants, sand and snow, as well as sun, moon, and stars. The book is a natural for kayakers and anyone who spends time in the wilderness. Technology is great but it’s fragile and can be unreliable. Gatty uses years of travel, study, and observation as well as the methods used by early explorers and ancient cultures to give the reader invaluable information on how to use nature to guide us home.
Nature is Your Guide contains lots of practical advice anyone can use, for example, looking behind you on the outward journey to note landmarks along the way so the way can be followed in reverse. This is huge for hikers and kayakers. Last summer I had an experience on Mt. McLoughlin, a local volcano. Mt. McLoughlin tops out at 9,495 feet. My friends had gone on ahead because the altitude was causing my knees to ache and my lungs to catch fire. About half an hour from the summit the going gets really rough. The sketchy trail disappears and you only have two options: one which goes straight up the lava and one which goes straight up the ash. I sat down to rest. As soon as I did I felt fine. After thinking about it I decided I’d had enough and started back down. I’d been told how easy it was to lose the trail on the way back. There are “trails” all over the mountainside but all you have to do is follow the ridge down to get back safely. Still, after about 20 minutes I looked up and realized I couldn’t see the lakes that should have been off my left shoulder down below. Sure enough, I had got off the main trail and was wandering down into the big coulis which was most definitely not the place to go. I cut straight back to my left, traversing the steep slope and regaining the narrow ridge which was the correct path. I have a lot of experience hiking in the wilderness but because I didn’t look up and take my bearings often enough I got off track.
Another great thing about Nature is Your Guide is that there’s a whole chapter on how early people found their way through the world. Of special interest to sea kayakers is the wealth of information on the Polynesians. For example the Polynesians had no word for distance. They thought of travel in terms of canoe days, canoe hours, even canoe minutes. Gatty also talks about the innate time sense common to most animals: birds, fish, ants, bees, even sea anemones, and how even though it has become dulled in modern humans as a result of our reliance on time pieces, with practice we can develop this time sense so valuable to early people. Eric and I used to play a game where we’d bet on who could guess the time more correctly. That little game honed our ability to judge time based on the position of the sun, the light, and our innate sense of time passed.
Also of interest are the wave and swell charts developed by the Micronesians of the Caroline and Marshall Islands. Other Polynesian navigators developed incredibly accurate mental charts that encompassed islands over 2,500 miles apart. The North Pacific Eskimos were able to create relief maps with sticks, sand and stones long before Europeans arrived in their lands. Memory of course plays a huge role in ancient peoples’ ability to navigate. I have read that the first Europeans to encounter island peoples couldn’t believe they could recite their ancestors going back multiple generations but in fact, geneaology was just one of the uses of memorization in these cultures. Practicing natural navigation can help us improve our minds as well as find our way.
Gatty offers the reader great examples of ways in which early people were able to avoid getting lost. Simple, logical, and obvious once you read about them, these techniques don’t occur to modern people because of our reliance on technology. All are based on highly developed powers of observation. Again and again while reading this book I was reminded of my own experiences on land and water. For example, the reliance on observation reminds me of the time I was paddling with Eric during one of his classes at Sniveler’s Row. Suddenly, as it is wont to do, the fog rolled in. We weren’t far out but we couldn’t see the coastline, so Eric chose to use the opportunity to teach natural navigation. First we paddled north back the way we’d come. We could tell north by the swell pattern and the sound of waves on the beach. Then Eric asked one of the students to figure out where we should start paddling in to shore at the Marine Reserve. The student underestimated the time we had to paddle north, possibly because you have to paddle past the take out and then turn back in through a break in the rocks to land safely. Because I’d been out there quite a few times and could tell by the sound of the waves, the lifting of the swell, and the white foam traces on the backs of the swells I knew we needed to go farther north and then turn in. Luckily the student figured it out before he wiped out on the rocks and we all managed to get back to the beach without incident.
Another interesting thing about Nature is Your Guide is that the book answers some curious questions like why do lost people walk in circles? I know this is true but now I know why and what to do about it. Gatty also tells the reader how to read clouds and make use of their reflective qualities, and how to use wind to keep a straight line. There are also some fun experiments to help determine your dominant eye (this is related to why we walk in circles when lost). Gatty also talks about how to steer or sight on companions, whether human or canine as in the case of dog sleds. This too is related to deviation and keeping a straight line.
Also of special interest to kayakers are the chapters on finding your direction from waves and swells, the color of the sea, and the habits of sea birds. Gatty includes practical techniques like that used by the natives of British Columbia on fishing trips: dropping cedar chips from the boat to mark the route in fog. Another point of interest to kayakers is this: “Winds may suddenly change but the direction of the swells will not” (p. 162) because the momentum caused by prevailing winds is so strong that changes in weather will not affect them. Even when the wave action as influenced by weather acts in a different direction to that of the swell, Gatty says, “we can begin to detect the peculiar effect of wave motion working at an angle to the long fundamental chronic swell” (p. 162). He also talks about the usefulness of distance echo sounding because sound carries a long way over water. If you’re close to a high rocky coast in fog or at night you can judge offshore distance by firing a pistol, shouting, or blowing a whistle. The time between the initial sound and the echo is about 360 feet per second from the reflecting coastline. One last tidbit: Fiji Islanders can identify the sound of a shark swimming some distance away. Nice.
Other things included in this book: an interesting bibliography, photos of wind swept trees, snow, and sand dunes to indicate the direction of prevailing winds, the migratory bird routes of the Pacific Ocean, and lots of cool drawings to illustrate the text. The Sun Tables mentioned above cover all times of the year from Latitude 60 degrees north of the equator to Latitude 50 degrees south. They are accurate to within 5 degrees and were developed by Gatty himself as being superior to azimuth tables used by navigators and surveyors in that Gatty’s tables are less bulky and complicated and much easier to use for the non-professional. Gatty includes a practical example to show how to use his tables. The star charts are of particular interest as well.
I highly recommend this book, especially if you are an expedition kayaker. However, even if you’re not a kayaker at all this book will help you find your bearings anywhere in almost all conditions, and the discussion of ancient human travelers and how they found their way with only their senses is worth the read alone.
“After all, the art of natural navigation often consists in receiving pieces of information from a number of sources, each of which by itself may well be unreliable, but the sum of which when taken together becomes a certain guide” (pp. 175 – 176).
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