I knew where I was … until suddenly I didn’t.
I’d been on the trail since early morning, and by now the sun was high in the sky. It was time to get back to my car and then home. I had chores and errands to do, and people waiting for me.
I picked up my pace, although I got distracted by a Summer Tanager ticky-tucking from high in a tree and spent a good fifteen minutes trying in vain to get a clear shot through the breeze-tossed leaves. I’d hiked this trail a couple of times before, although not recently, and I expected any time now to come to the spur that led to the parking area.
But the trail just kept going. Presently the terrain started to look wrong. A field, like a big bite taken out of the trailside woods, appeared off to the left where I didn’t remember a field being. The trail curved gently to the left where it should have curved right and then… ended. It petered out in a circular opening, a cul-de-sac, entirely surrounded by trees. I stopped and looked around: Where the hell am I?
The Flat River Waterfowl Impoundment northeast of Durham is one of the more remote and undeveloped tracts I’ve visited in this part of North Carolina: almost 250 acres of forest and field, with no facilities or significant manmade structures of any kind aside from a powerline easement that slices through the middle of it. It’s terrific birding country, with a great variety of habitats: deep woods, wetlands, scrub woods, and open meadows. I’ve never seen another soul out there, and because beyond its borders lie mostly more of the same — it’s part of the extensive Butner Gamelands — it’s about as close you can get around here to wilderness. That’s what I love about it.
Even so, it’s not exactly the Yukon, and the main trail is a straightforward loop; you don’t have to be Lewis & Clark to find your way around it. Last Saturday I got up got up early and made the half-hour drive to Flat River, hoping to find my first Yellow-breasted Chat of the year.
It didn’t take long. After parking in the otherwise empty gravel lot and heading up the spur that leads to the loop, I didn’t get more than fifty feet before a brownish bird flashed across the trail in front of me and dove into small tree to the left. Through the glasses, its bright yellow breast practically glowed in the morning sun. I wish every bird I looked for were that easy.
Flat River was alive with birds. Chats were prominent, skulking in the brush and uttering their weirdly syncopated repertoire of clucks, whistles, honks, and wheezes. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds buzzed from one tippy-top perch to another. Barn Swallows dove and dipped over the fields, and Yellow-billed Cuckoos kowlp-kowlped from the woods, occasionally giving me obstructed glimpses — glimpses of cuckoos seem always to be obstructed — through the foliage. A pair of Prairie Warblers chased each other from branch to branch.
The sun rose, the day heated, and the trail continued on, through a long stretch of chest-high Queen Anne’s Lace. Occasionally a side trail split off — at one of these junctions I spent a long time trying to get a clear look at a Chat that taunted me from the trailside brush — but I stayed on what I took to be the main path.
As I started to think about the time, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo barked from behind me. I love cuckoos, and it’s rare to get anything like a good opportunity to photograph one, so I backtracked — and there it was, in the trees right beside the trail. It swooped across the trail to take up residence in dappled sunlight just above a little trailside stream.
For twenty minutes, I watched as it tracked down caterpillars among the brilliant green leaves. It was the best look I’ve ever had of a cuckoo, and as I tracked it from perch to perch and took shot after shot, I fell into that zone where you forget about the time, the outside world, everything except the bird in front of you.
But eventually it moved deeper into the woods, and the rest of the world seeped back into my consciousness like a sink filling with water. I resolved that it was time to stop birding — within reason — and start hoofing my way back to civilization. I broke stride only twice: once for a trio of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and again for that Summer Tanager.
And then the straight way was lost and, like Dante’s narrator, I found myself alone in the woods.
I was in no danger. I was still on a trail, just not the right trail, and Durham County is hardly the outback; even if I were to bushwhack in the wrongest possible direction, I’d hit a road (or, possibly, the shore of Falls Lake) within an hour or two.
Plus, cell phones exist. The map app on mine didn’t show trails, but it did pinpoint my location: I was way off to the southeast from where I thought I was. Sauntering along, distracted by birds, I must have inadvertently taken a long side trail off the loop. I thought I was circling back toward my car; instead, every step took me further away from it.
I felt foolish, but at least nobody else was here to witness my ineptitude; I didn’t see another human being the entire time I was out there. Now it was just a matter of making the long slog back the way I’d come. When I reached the junction where I’d chased the Chat, I took the left-hand branch, which put me back on the loop and finally heading the right way.
My goof had turned a three-hour walk into a five-hour one. The back of my neck was sunburned the color of rare steak. I was late, hot, hungry, thirsty, and crawling with ticks (which, during the drive home, I kept pulling off, flicking onto the top of the dashboard and dispatching with my pocket knife).
But I’m glad I took the wrong trail. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have encountered that cuckoo that let me watch for a long while at close range as it flitted and fed up in the trees. And, as many people have noted over the years, there’s a certain freedom and a bit of a thrill in being a little lost. Sometimes, not knowing exactly where you are is exactly where you ought to be.