Early adventurers did not count on “modern” navigation tools.

Before you decided where you were going to go for your next travel adventure, you probably researched different locales online, picked up brochures from several travel agencies, read books on the areas from the library and carefully sorted through various itineraries from a few tour companies. You may even have talked to friends who have already been “there.”

Often, by the time you embark on a tour, you not only have settled on exactly where you’re going, but you know what things you definitely must see and have planned down to the minute what you’ll be doing each day and the precise spot where you’ll be doing it. And you can gain all of this certainty starting from a knowledge base of zero about the vicinity, without ever venturing beyond a 10-mile radius of your house.

It wasn’t always that way. In the days when maps were illustrated with three-headed monsters over expanses of painted blue waters labeled with the words “Here Be Dragons,” no one could tell when he or she left the comfort of home what a journey to a new land would entail. It took a leap of faith—and sometimes a flask of courage—to go in quest of adventure. It also took finding a travel companion who could read natural phenomena. In some cultures, that person was called a “wayfinder.”

Every paddling adventure should include the services of a wayfinder. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

I’m sorry, but your job has been eliminated

The ancient Polynesians, whose sailing skills were impressive even by today’s standards, did not count on what we term “modern navigation tools,” such as sextants, depth gauges or transponders. They depended on “wayfinders,” people who stored knowledge of the natural world.

Wayfinders navigated by the stars, winds, waves, clouds, birds, fish and the moods of the water itself. To do so required a raw and keen sense for observing nature. A wayfinder’s way of looking at travel was significantly different from ours, as well: you didn’t really “go to” a place so much as allow the place to reveal itself to you. By knowing the movements of at least 200 stars in the night sky and by tracking the constellations, for instance, a wayfinder could keep a boat—in theory—in one place and wait for the islands to rise out of the sea to greet it. Sometimes a known island was first imagined in the mind, and then the wayfinder would follow nature’s signs to its shores.

Today, almost anyone with a GPS and unobstructed airspace to an overhead satellite is able find his or her way through the world. It doesn’t take years of apprenticeship and developing sensitivity to the subtleties of wildlife and the wind to find the way. That can be a good thing. Long ago, journeys far from home took months to complete. Now, when you only have a week of vacation time to see a country such as Greenland, you don’t want to spend six days of it lost or trying to get there.

A wayfinder reads the color of clouds, the flights of birds and the moods of waves. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Natural leaders apply here

I’m all for the do-it-yourself abilities that modern technology gives us. I think the fact that we have online banking, online booking and books-on-demand is self-empowering. It’s freeing not to have to depend on someone else to make your flight reservations or transfer your money from one account to another.

However, when it comes to exploring the natural world, I’m not so sure I want to do that … well … “unnaturally.” I’d prefer to read that world’s signposts—such as the color of the clouds or the direction of a dolphin—than depend on the electronic voice of another world’s device. And since I don’t have the years to spend in any one location learning all of that place’s natural rhythms, I’d prefer to travel in the company of a wayfinder.

If every paddling and hiking adventure included the services of a wayfinder, we might learn just a little bit more about following the paths of the stars or the flights of eagles when we’re fortunate enough to be visiting those wilder worlds, and yet still be home in time to pay the bills—electronically.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,