Looking down at the 24″ X 36″ piece of paper that said USGS Topographic map in one corner, and a maze of wavy lines that differed in thickness and color, Tom thought it resembled a plate of spaghetti more than a tool used for not getting lost in the woods. The map was on a table in his friends hunting camp. It was marked with all kinds of interesting stuff that made absolutely no sense to him, like multi colored lines that varied in thickness and in places very close together. There was a book that accompanied it titled “Navigation made easy.” If Tom wasn’t already confused, this book and it’s illustrations left him wondering if he could find his way home, never mind plot a course and not perish in the wilderness due to the cold or some wild animal. Words like declination, azimuth, and bearing sent him into a tailspin, but he needed to learn this map and compass technique to keep up with his best friend who had the benefit of a father that was an avid sportsman and scout leader.
When Tom returned home that night he received the typical enthusiasm from his father when he asked him if he knew how to read a map. “Why do you have to know that”? his father asked him. Tom thought for a moment before answering because he wanted to avoid the usual lecture about wasting time in the woods when he should be studying for chemistry tests. “I was just curious. We get extra credit in geology if we no how to navigate” His father put the news paper down and looked out the window and said, “I guess you could get a book from the library and figure it out”. He then went back to reading the financial page and sipping his coffee. Tom wasn’t surprised his father didn’t know how to read a map. He decided to ask his grandmother who had grown up on a local farm and knew everything about living off the land. When he saw her that evening he asked her if she knew how to navigate with a map and compass. “I can show you how to use a compass but there is a-lot more to it than that” she replied. “Okay” Tom said, “where do I start”? “I’m going bee-lining tomorrow afternoon and you can bring a compass with you and practice”. Tom was thrilled to learn about the workings of a compass, but not so crazy about getting stung by a bee. He couldn’t get within 10 feet of a hornet without receiving a dime-sized welt in the process. Nonetheless, he would tough it out for his grandmother and the chance to master this art of navigation.
Many of the locals used to harvest honey from wild bee hives found near farms in the area. The trick was to find a worker bee and follow it back to the hive then harvest the honey comb. When a worker bee finds a food source it returns to the hive in a perfectly straight line hence the term “bee-line”. There were a few old timers who had it down to a science. Rick Eastman was a local contractor and known for never wearing a watch and always being on time, but he also had a knack for finding bee hives. He used a device he made called a bee-line box that had two compartments and a window made of glass. He put a sweet smelling concoction inside it to feed the bee once he caught one. It was quite a trick but he would catch a bee, cover the glass to block the light and pull out the compartment divider so the bee could find the food. Once the bee settled down and ate the sweet mixture he would release it and watch in exactly what direction the bee flew away. He then stuck a stick in the ground, attached the box on top and waited for the bee to return. The time in which it took for the bee to return told him how far away the hive was. This was the part that made him unique because he never wore a watch. Tom’s grandmother was a master bee-liner but she insisted on using a watch.
The following afternoon he met her in the field behind the farm and she was wearing a white long sleeve shirt, buttoned at the sleeves to keep out horse flies and a bright red hat. She claimed that bees are attracted to bright colors and they would find her in a field of goldenrod. Tom brought his compass along and was eager to start using it. They walked to the end of the field and sat down looking towards the treeline on the east side of the property. They found a good patch of goldenrod and sat down in in the middle of it. It was an overcast day in August and she claimed that made it easier to see the bees flying in the sky. It wasn’t long before a bee was feeding close by and she was able to sweep it into the bee box. This amazed Tom because he couldn’t get near a bee without being stung and he just watched his grandmother catch one, bare handed. After the usual commotion the bee settled down and ate the sweet mixture that was inside the bottom compartment and when it seemed it was ready she opened the box to watch it fly straight to the edge of the field.
“Now might be a good time to pull out that compass Tom,” she said. Tom didn’t remember exactly where the bee went but she assured him that it would be back with some friends. She told him to take the compass and “put the red in the shed”. “What Shed”? Tom asked. “The red part of the magnetic needle needs to go inside the orienting arrow, that’s the shed”. Tom looked confused but did as he was told. “Now hold it level and twist the housing until the direction of travel needle is pointing to where the bee went”. Tom was completely lost now, so she took the compass and oriented it to 90 degrees east, that she said is where the bee flew. It wasn’t long before the bee came back and went right into the box. “Now lets check the time when it leaves and pay attention to where it goes,” she said. When the bee flew off Tom watched as hard as he could and noticed it flew straight towards the big white birch tree. After six minutes the bee was back and filling up. When it left Tom was certain it flew in the same direction as it did the last time and pointed his compass, it read 90 degrees east. “Okay Tom, I would say it’s about a half mile or so to the hive”. ” Now you need to take your bearing and make note of a specific point and walk to that exact point to take another bearing”. Tom looked at his compass with that red needle in the shed and the direction arrow was pointing right at the birch tree. ” Okay, so we go to the birch tree and then what”? “Then we mark another point and keep doing that until we find the hive”. ” Okay” Tom said and set off towards the edge of the field.
When They reached the edge of the field it was muddy from rain and hard to walk in, but Tom was confident the bee had flown this way, right towards the big birch tree, but what now? “Okay now point that compass in the same direction using the needle, and where does it point to?” Tom kept the red part where it was supposed to be and the direction needle pointed at a big rock with green moss on one side. “That big rock up there is where it says to go” Tom said. Right at the same time a bee flew by them heading straight to the mossy rock and Tom realized he was on track. They both walked to the rock and picked another point of reference. After doing this several times Tom realized he was hearing a constant buzzing sound over his head. After they started walking again his grandmother looked up and said “whoa, look at the size of that hive!” Tom looked up, and sure enough there was a massive hole in a rotted out oak tree. The bees had made their home and were flying in and out faster than he could count. “Well I guess that’s the hive, now we have to get Gramp’s out here to cut it down in the morning when its cooler”.
There was no shortage of bees and bee hives because of all the farming. The locals used to harvest a few hives every year, never wasting any of it. They would use the honey all year long and sell some occasionally. “Now Tom, you can figure out your back azimuth and get us back to my bee-box?” Tom remembered the term but had know idea what it meant. “How do I do that,” he asked? “You came in at 90 degrees east, right? So, if we do a 180 degree turn around, and we go out 270 degrees west, it leads us straight back to the spot we started”. Tom spun the dial around and realized that now the black part of the needle is in the same spot as the red was on their walk in. Now feeling confident with this new devise he assured his grandmother he could get them back home. Sure enough, after leap frogging from point to point they ended up right back where they started. Tom started thinking that now he had a better understanding for the compass maybe he could better understand that book he tried reading in the hunting camp.