Lost in the woods.

If that phrase puts a chill in the bottom of your belly, welcome to the club.

Luther Carter decided last week that I had reached an age and a station in life where I should be able to find my own way home.

"An outdoors writer ought to be able to catch a fish, and you seem to be able to do that. He ought to be able to paddle a canoe: you've learned to do that. Well, I believe he ought to be able to find his way around the mountains with just a map and a compass, too."

He delved into a pocket and produced a small compass in a chromed flip-top case. Then he rustled around on a shelf in the rustic cabin he keeps in West Virginia and came back with a photocopy of a topographical map.

The map showed the cabin at the end of Wolf Hollow and a section of the Cacapon River where it bends on its way to Largent. Those things I could identify. The spot that represented the cabin was circled in red and the river had "Cacapon River" written on it.

The remainder looked like one of those pictures my daughter used to draw on her spirograph.

"Luther, I can't read this thing." I said.

"Well you'd better learn," he said, and went off to bed.

We had spent that day in the ridges and hollows within a few miles of the cabin. We were hunting wild turkeys, which is a euphemism for walking around in the woods at an exhausting rate of speed.

It had been an exciting day. At one point we had two turkeys gobbling frantically within 100 yards or so, just beyond range of our shotguns. But the noisy birds finally elected to stroll off.

Spring turkey hunting is permitted in the mornings only. After lunch Carter led a scouting trip in a section of mountains he hadn't tried yet.

As he walked he startled a hen turkey feeding near the river bottom and watched as she stole off up a rocky hillside. He climbed after her and discovered patches of freshly turned oak leaves at the top where a flock of turkeys had been scratching about, turning up grubs, acorns and hickory nuts to eat.

That convinced him.

"We'll split up," he said, "That way we'll double our chances."

I was up with the alarm at 3:30 a.m., because turkeys are best deceived in the first blush of daylight. I fixed breakfast of steak and eggs. Then in the pitch dark Carter took the canoe across the slick black river to hunt the far side. I began scrambling up the cliff behind the cabin, scattering rocks and twigs as I clambered along. Clouds obscured the starlight, there was no moon at all.

At first light I was high atop the ridge, staring down at where the cabin presumably was. I took out the turkey call Carter had loaned me and scratched out a most primitive excuse for a hen turkey's yelp.

To my utter shock a gobbler answered almost instantly. He was far off, perhaps two ridges away.

I set off in the gloaming. The baffling map indicated a west, south, then east route to get out on the far ridge.

I walked and walked, stopping to scratch the little box call from time to time, following the gobbler's responses. I climbed up hills and down into the hollows, across ridge and little streams. It grew light, and with the sun came heat and humidity. I was sweating, as the fine turkey hunter Charlie Elliott once said, like a politician on Judgment Day.

Then the gobbler suddenly quit. I took a seat and waited, but he never gobbled again.

I looked around.

"Great gumballs." I thought. "I don't know where I am."

As if on cue, thick fog swept in.

Panic is a complicated thing. It seems that at times the human body is programed to do exactly the wrong thing in circumstances of stress.

I felt a prickling sensation in the pit of my stomach that worked its way up to the back of my neck. Then I took off, trying to retrace steps I couldn't identify, smashing through brush, making arbitrary turns and thoroughly wiping out any semblance of memory.

At last, confused and exhausted, I took stock.

I looked at my watch. Seven o'clock. That left exactly 12 hours to walk a distance that could not exceed two miles, if I went the right way.

I had not crossed the river, I reasoned, which meant that according to the map I had to be somewhere west of the cabin.

Lights went on in my brain.

"I will walk east."

Then, in absolute calm, I pulled out the compass, pointed east and began to walk.

It wasn't right, but it was close.

In 25 minutes I found a creek, and it too was headed east. I checked the map and discovered a deep draw that would have a creek at its bottom, though no stream marked.

"I'll follow this creek to the river," I decided.

Creek bottoms are lousy places to walk, but when you're lost you make do. I did, and it did, and before long I was standing on familiar ground by the river in wet boots.

I sat down, breathed a sign and took a brief nap, which ended when two pileated woodpeckers began tapping away at an oak tree 25 yards away.

Then I want out to hunt some more, confident of my ability to find home.

A map and a compass and the ability to use them are wonderful things. We all can drive cars and ride planes, covering unnatural distances in the course of a few hours.

But knowing how to get the two miles from Point A to Point B in wild country can be far more satisfying.

To our great good fortune, Washingtonians have access to the maps that tame the wilderness.

The Interior Department's map sales division in the GSA building at 19th and F streets NW has topographical maps for any section of any county in all 50 states.

"We map the United States," Beatrice Beander, who works there, proudly said.

The quadrangle topo maps cost $1.25 apiece. Larger scaled, less detailed maps are available for $2 apiece.

Carter, a map freak, started out buying these maps to plan canoeing trips. Then he got so wrapped up in the wealth of information available in them that he built up an inventory of hundreds of maps, many for places he never figures to see.

The map sales office is open from 8:15 to 3:45 on weekdays. Many secrets unfold there.