The section of Bear Pen Trail as you approach Watoga Lake has a huge downed pine that brought up its large root ball and much of the trail with it. No cutting will be required here, but it will take some shovel and mattock work to fill in the tree throw and make the trail level again. Westies make great hiking companions and are ever-ready to investigate downed trees on and along the trails.

With visitors returning in increasing numbers to Watoga State Park, and as warmer weather returns, the canine crew and I set out on the Bear Pen Loop this week to check the conditions on this popular trail.

Starting at the Bear Pen trailhead on the main entrance road, you can follow Bear Pen Trail clockwise up to the North Boundary Trail, continuing on to Buck and Doe Trail and descend back to Bear Pen Trail – which will take you back to your vehicle where you will have completed approximately five miles of very enjoyable and moderate hiking.

Buck and Doe, as well as the North Boundary Trail, are both clear, but Bear Pen Trail has several trees down between the trailhead and the junction with North Boundary. The section of Bear Pen Trail as you approach Wato-ga Lake has a huge downed pine that brought up its large root ball and much of the trail with it. No cutting will be required here, but it will take some shovel and mattock work to fill in the tree throw and make the trail level again.

I am not a Luddite, but –

Recently my fellow trail worker and friend David Elliott generously gave me an Android Tablet on which we installed topo maps. I can now keep track of trails needing attention by indicating the precise locations of things like downed trees, washouts and other damage. This will enable other trail workers to find these locations without the vagueness of verbal directions, as has been my practice in the past. I see great value in this as it saves time and effort.

And though I will use this technology, I must admit that there is a little resistance on my part to carrying a small computer or a cell phone into the woods with me. Perhaps it is because of the reverence I feel when I walk a few yards down a trail and the forest closes in around me.

For me, it is somewhat like walking into a cathedral. As a child, the woods was always a place to escape the “rest” of the world, and, at 70 years of age, it still is. Carrying these devices that keep us in constant contact with others, somehow seems at odds with the solitude I seek when in the midst of nature. 

At times I wonder if overuse of technology may eventually rob us of the ability to navigate as our forefathers did. They were intimately aware of the position of the sun and stars, rivers and streams, and of their surroundings. These abilities could become vestigial when we no longer use them and simply follow the directions as dictated by the voice that emanates from our GPS.

Broad Street in Columbus, Ohio, runs due east and west right through the very center of downtown. One sunny, summer morning, I was walking westbound on a sidewalk along Broad Street on my way to a meeting when I encountered a man approaching me from the opposite direction with a city map in his hands. He asked me if he was going east or west on Broad Street. As he spoke he was squinting and holding one hand above his eyes to block the sun. The answer seemed obvious to me, but I replied, “You are going east, sir.”

Mark Mengele engages in frequent “walkabouts” into the far reaches of Watoga State Park and the Mon Forest, and he carries no GPS. He happens to be a man skilled at keeping track of landmarks, and he possesses an uncanny ability to read the terrain. I would venture to say that if you blindfolded Mark and placed him somewhere in the backcountry of Watoga, then removed the blindfold, there would be no hesitation nor delay in his finding his way back out. If you are hiking in the backcountry and your GPS loses it charge, Mark is a man you would do well to run into. And it would be a safe bet to say that Mike Smith up on Droop Mountain has the very same skills.

I place a high value on conversation and storytelling. These stories are a time-honored tradition of many cultures throughout the ages. Long before the advent of the written word, stories were passed down by succeeding generations of a people who maintained their common culture, values and history. Songs and oral traditions were used for thousands of years by ancient Polynesians as a means of navigating the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean – without the assistance of a compass or sextant. 

Is it possible these abilities are at risk of being lost to technology?

Is the art of conversation giving way to texting and tweeting as the mainstay of communication?

Will the art and joy of great conversations be lost?

A few years ago I visited a couple in Indiana whom I have known most of my life. It had been at least a decade since we last met, and I was anxious to sit down and discuss all that had happened over the intervening years. When I arrived, we made our way into their living room where the large screen TV was tuned in to a popular cable news channel, and after an hour or so I wondered if they just no longer noticed that the TV was still on, or that maybe it was just left on as background noise and was not as disconcerting to them as it was for me.  

My friends also had their own individual smartphones and throughout this very difficult attempt at conversing, they divided their attention between me and their phones; constantly sweeping their fingers across the face of the devices which were beeping out text tones on a regular basis. I felt that I was in direct competition with the television and the cell phones – resulting in a fragmented and somewhat disappointing conversation.

I may be a bit of a dinosaur but I am not a Luddite. In fact, I have a smartphone, laptop and iPod, and I stream the TV programs I watch – but I do put limitations on the use of these devices.

I love maps, always have and always will. One of the pleasures of road trips for me is pouring over the highway maps prior to each day’s travel, often deciding upon a route based upon the names of the towns.

I stumbled upon Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, with this practice and found some of the best Tex-Mex food I have ever set fork to. Once I went a little out of my way to see what Thermopolis, Wyoming, was all about; what followed was a wonderful afternoon in which I sampled a relaxing dip in several of the many hot springs, and afterwards attended the local rodeo. I owe these experiences to the magic of maps and my imagination.

Once I learn how to use the features on my new tablet I will be sweeping and way-pointing my way along the trails of Watoga State Park. But you can be sure that I will also be keeping track of landmarks, checking on the position of the sun, and maybe even assembling a cairn or two where needed. And somewhere down in the depths of my pack will be a topographic map and a compass, just in case the battery goes dead on the device, which I predict may happen from time to time.

“Every day people decide to grant their smartphones more control over their lives or try a new or more effective anti-depressant drug. In pursuit of health, happiness and power, humans will first change one of their features and then another, and another, until they will no longer be human.”

Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

Happy Hiking,
Ken Springer