Last Saturday, 15 people from Amargosa Valley, Pahrump, and Las Vegas came to Ash Meadows to put
their backcountry navigational skills to the test. The group was divided into three teams – the Bugsmashers, the Jayhawkers, and the Bennet-Arcan group – the actual names of three bands who traversed Death Valley from 1849-1850. These teams then embarked on an orienteering challenge course, using only compasses and a route log. The goal? To make the journey from Mt. Misery, through Death Valley, across the Sierras and into California alive!
The challenge course simulated the actual historical routes that the 49ers followed, with the distances adjusted from hundreds of miles over the course of four months to a distance that could be hiked in a couple hours. Along the way, the teams read true accounts from the 49ers treacherous journey – stories of hunger, scurvy, miscalculations, exhaustion, fear of the unknown, and in many cases, death. Like the 49ers, navigation proved to be a challenge. “We lost our way a few times, as with all the 49ers,” explained SNAP education specialist Stacy Dahl, “but we were able to get back on course.”
The event, made possible through a USFWS Connecting People with Nature grant, aimed to not only teach people basic orienteering skills, but also help people to imagine a life before modern conveniences and technologies. “People used to be more intertwined with the environment they lived in,” explained SNAP education specialist Karl Krebs, “They could read messages in the landscape – the wind, the soil, the stars. As a society, we have gotten away from this, but these are still very important skills to have.”
By the end of the event, all three teams successfully made it to Rancho San Francisquito. For one young participant, the day had fully captured his imagination. Upon arrival, he immediately started digging a hole in the dirt. “I’m searching for gold!” he declared.
Alyson Mack, Great Basin Institute Environmental Education & Outreach Specialist