This past spring I travelled to Ikaria, a traditional Greek island in the Aegean near the Turkish coast. The island has become famous in recent years for its so-called “blue zone” status—it was one of five places, twenty years ago, deemed to have the most centenarians per capita in the world. Less well-known is that Ikaria is a quintessential nature island among Greek islands. Its north and south coasts are subdivided by a rugged mountain range covered in forests and rent by steep rocky river canyons. Scores of old village walking trails, some that have been used for many centuries, criss-cross the mountains in every direction, creating a veritable web of paths.
Ikaria is a hiker’s paradise. I was drawn to the island largely for that reason. Most of the foreigners I met on my trip were also there to hike. So numerous, varied, and bucolic are Ikaria’s trails, that most of the travellers I met there were back for their double-digit consecutive hiking visit to the island. One couple had returned for their 30th trip that spring.
Because I travelled alone to the island, I was hiking solo. I chose as my first ramble a 3-hour out-and-back trail that begins from the mountain village of Profitis Ilias, and follows the slope of a steep river gorge to the Chalaris Dam, a water reservoir a few kilometres below. In spite of the relative shortness of the hike, I didn’t cover much distance that day.
The trail, like many on Ikaria, was not as straightforward a proposition as many hikes are in other places. Some route-finding skills were required, which I had. But I still became quickly disoriented in sections.
To begin with the path, like many trails on Ikaria, was not well marked. The hiking map of the island, an otherwise informative and comprehensive chart published by Anavasi Maps and Guides, was too general to answer my more specific navigational questions at a smaller scale (I didn’t want to use an app and be glued to a screen). And not only was the trail hard to see along certain stretches owing to the uniformly dry and rocky conditions, but often the path veered up or down at very hard angles suddenly and invisibly. I often missed those hidden turns and I overshot as a result—following, instead, the trail made by others before me who also missed the switchback, until it petered out and I was left scratching my head.
In one instance I backtracked after getting lost, and picked-up what I took to be the trail forward—only to realize, after hiking through what I thought was new scenery, I was back to where I started! That epiphany was a humbling jolt: I was certain that I was in one place, only to realize I was somewhere else completely.
I took that initial experience as a warning to be as careful as possible while on my other hikes in Ikaria.
I do as much wilderness hiking as I can when I am at home in Canada, and consider myself to be a fairly good route finder for an intermediate-advanced level hiker. Given all of the things that can go awry when recreating in the backcountry, this issue of possibly getting lost is usually top of mind for me when I’m in the wilderness.
Because of that I have written posts on this blog, and others, about the psychology of wilderness survival, on getting lost in the backcountry, and on search and rescue (SAR) operations for lost and injured hikers. Which is why when I found myself seriously disoriented for the first time on a subsequent hike in Ikaria, I was completely taken aback.
That hike, the Chalaris Canyon high route, is another out-and-back trail that connects the seaside town of Nas with the community of Raches in the mountains. The hike was beautiful, rugged, and scenic. There were some moments of confusion at the start, similar to the previous hike I had done; but because the trail was more visible and because I was deliberately moving slowly and methodically, I made good progress that day.
The problems began when I was on the return leg of the hike.
As I walked across the high rocky slope of the canyon back towards the trailhead, I found my way suddenly barred by cliffs. The trail had once again vanished. I did what I taught myself long ago to do in those situations: I backtracked until the trail reappeared again, then I resumed my hike forward. But again, I found myself back to where I had gotten lost—by those cliffs. I repeated the backtrack maneuver over and over again just to be sure, but I only achieved the same result. The trail kept leading me to a dead-end. How was that possible?
In retrospect, what had actually happened was I strayed onto a false fork off the main path and that led to the cliff. Every time I kept retracing my route back to pick up the trail to begin again, it was the fork I was finding. I needed to backtrack further to where the false fork branched from the real path—and then continue along the correct trail from there. Not realizing that, I second-guessed myself into thinking I was actually on the right path at the cliffs—and that it was just hidden somewhere beside the bluffs. So, I decided to find it.
I climbed and clambered and scrambled, expending loads of energy and sweat in the process. First upwards, and then further down the slope, and then back up again towards a high crag I recognized and remembered hiking below. But I still couldn’t find the trail. And the general way remained barred by rock. I had exhausted myself looking, sweating profusely, and having to drink too much of my water as a result.
My heart began to race, the first palpitations of panic set in. I saw a chain-link fence above me that seemed to run parallel with where I thought the trail rain. I thought if I climbed up to the fence and followed it back, I could just walk down the slope further back and hit the trail perpendicularly. But when I did that and descended to the pine forest below where I last seemed to be on the trail, I could not find the path. I was now even more lost, more out of fuel, more water depleted. I was just spinning my wheels.
Although I wasn’t ‘hopelessly lost’ and maintained a sense of general direction given that Chalaris Canyon led to Nas where I had started, I still felt sufficiently disoriented, flustered and worried because of it. I sat down on the soft bed of pine needles that covered the slope and considered my options.
The bright side was it wasn’t raining, and there was still several hours of daylight left. So, I wasn’t under pressure in either of those senses. Everything else seemed more iffy. Even though I was on the finite and compact territory of Ikaria, a mere Island, and could technically go down to the river at the bottom of the gorge and try to follow the water out to where I started, the terrain was still incredibly steep, rocky and treacherous to attempt that gambit (search and rescue professionals advise against following waterways out in rugged environments). The spring river ran fast and high and was full of boulders and high waterfalls. Injury, or worse, was a possibility with that option. Climbing straight up was impossible as a crown of rocky cliffs barred the way up for quite some distance in both directions.
When I checked my phone I noticed I was getting a cell tower signal—I wasn’t getting one further back. I flipped on my data roaming and fired up Google Maps to see how I could get to the closest road using its GPS. The map showed a nearby dash-line, indicating another hiking trail (not the one that I had lost), leading to the village of Agios Dimitrios. I used my GPS position to move towards that pathway. Getting there wasn’t as straightforward as it appeared on my screen as I had to go around some very difficult terrain, scrambling along steep drops at points. But I eventually found my way to that pathway, and then the village, walking past numerous hidden homes in the hills, where I encountered many of these elder local residents, working in their palatial vegetable gardens. It was an indescribable relief to know I was back on some manner of grid.
In Agios Dimitrios I took a gravel backroad down to Nas, my point of embarkation.
Though the experience of getting lost in Ikaria was far from the potentially lethal situation others have found themselves in in bigger and more expansive backcountry, I got a valuable taste of how easy it is to lose your way (and your mental equilibrium), under such circumstances. It’s made me doubly careful in the outdoors as a result.