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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Things We Carry

Putting North in Our Pockets

By Tamia Nelson

October 15, 2002

The map of the world's a finished work, right? Everything's already discovered. There are no secret places left, and no empty spaces on the globe to set a would-be adventurer's pulse racing.

Well, not quite.

As the nineteenth-century English Poet Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson observed,

…all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world,
    whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.

Everyplace is terra incognita until you've discovered it for yourself. Still, voyages of exploration needn't take you far from home. Our lives are maps whose outlines we fill in for ourselves, and most of us spend our days rediscovering new things in familiar corners of the world. So far, so good. But there comes a time in every paddler's life when she pushes forward into one of the blank spaces on her map. That's when she needs to worry about getting lost.

It's much easier to "stay found" today than it once was, of course. We can call on unseen satellites to fix our position to within a few yards. (And hope that the map we're relying on was surveyed to the same degree of accuracy!) It's as simple as pressing a button. Until the batteries go dead, that is—or until a chance wave plucks our electronic marvel from our hands and takes it for a swim. Then we're back in the age of Columbus.

Which isn't really such a bad thing. Admittedly, navigating by compass is a bit more work than reading the backlit screen of a GPS. It forces you to look at the landscape and demands that you pay close attention to such things as course, speed, and distance. In short, it compels you to put yourself in the picture. But there's nothing wrong with that, is there? Isn't it why you go paddling rather than staying at home and watching TV? Putting yourself in the picture is what canoeing and kayaking are all about.

You need the right tools, though. At least you usually do. To be sure, if you know a little bit about the geography of the heavens you can orient yourself by looking at your shadow or finding the North Star (paddlers in the southern hemisphere substitute the Southern Cross and Pointers). But this isn't necessarily easy, and it doesn't always work. The sun's a moving target. It keeps its own time, too. And cloudy days happen even to good people.

A compass makes everything much easier. That's why I never leave home without one. In fact, I usually take two. Farwell and I each have a favorite. As might be expected, they're very different. They both do the same job, however.

And what is that job, exactly? A compass won't fix your position, after all. It will only point the way north. Truth to tell, even that simple statement is a bit off course. A compass doesn't really "point" to the north magnetic pole. Instead, it aligns itself with the earth's local magnetic field. In so doing, it usually points north. (But watch out for high-tension lines and steel belt-buckles.) In many places on the surface of the earth, the needle is tugged down, too, but compasses are usually balanced to offset this force, otherwise known as "dip." That's one reason why a compass manufactured for North America may act up in Australia or New Zealand.

Of course, there's more to pointing north than meets the eye. Most paddlers realize that magnetic north isn't "true" north. The earth's geographic north pole—the North of maps and globes—isn't the same as the earth's magnetic pole. This isn't always a problem. In fact, Columbus made it across the Atlantic and into the history books without taking the difference into account. He had a bit of luck, though. If he'd been sailing along the west coast of Greenland, where the difference between true north and magnetic north can be as much as 60 degrees, he might still be searching for Cathay.

But that's a subject for another time. Today, we're looking at the compasses we carry.

First, let's examine Farwell's "Old Soldier." He's a commonplace military-issue lensatic compass. The legend stamped into the olive green aluminum case


leaves no room for doubt about his mission. He—the compass, that is, not Farwell—isn't much to look at, perhaps, but handsome is as handsome does. He's handy, sturdy, and dependable. Where navigation tools (and husbands) are concerned, those are the primary virtues. Everything else is superfluous.

Fittingly, the Old Soldier is at his best on the march. He's a sighting compass, with a locking card. There's no need to twist a housing round to take a bearing. Just aim the compass where you want and read the azimuth in degrees (or mils) under the stationary index. You can't adjust the compass to compensate exactly for declination—the land navigator's term for the difference between true and magnetic north—but that's a small matter. You either work solely in magnetic or convert bearings as you go, prompting your memory with one of many mnemonic rubrics. (Farwell's favorite? "CADET," for "To Compass Bearing ADd East Declination to Yield True Bearing." Everything else follows from that.)

Fancy a night walk? No problem. The Old Soldier has radioactive tritium highlights on each of the cardinal points except South, and an illuminated window under the index, too. In his prime, these were bright enough for easy nighttime navigation, particularly when combined with the supplementary index on the moveable bezel. Each click of the bezel equals three degrees, permitting fairly precise flashlight-free navigation. (The moveable index can also be used for rough and ready declination corrections.) Unfortunately, time and decay have damped the tritium's radioactive fire, and the Old Soldier's cardinal points no longer blaze out quite so brightly in the night. Farwell doesn't mind. He doesn't blaze quite as brightly as he used to either.

One more thing. Many compasses are twitchy creatures, always aquiver. It's hard to get them to settle on a bearing. Not the Old Soldier, however. He has the phlegmatic, even-tempered response of a veteran campaigner. Whichever way he's pointed, he gets right down to the job. His card is damped by induction, not liquid. No bubble-trouble for him, even when the temperature heads south of minus forty.

Has he no vices then? You bet he does! What Old Soldier doesn't? For one thing, he's more at home on the march than he is at the map-table. True, he has a straightedge for map work, but his heart clearly isn't in it. So Farwell carries a simple protractor to help him out. The Old Soldier's also hopelessly at sea whenever he's pressed into service as a binnacle compass for a kayak. But that needn't trouble anyone. There are excellent purpose-built compasses for sea duty. Everywhere else, both afloat in a canoe and ashore, the Old Soldier is Farwell's tried and true companion. A better compass would be hard to find.

My own pocket lodestar is a very different sort, however—a Silva Ranger. Though she's an experienced campaigner in her own right, my "Prospector" is more comfortable in geologist's overalls than military marching kit. No induction-damped moveable card for her. Her sensitive needle is slowed by a viscous liquid, and you read your bearing on a rotating "orienteering-style" housing. The Prospector's a stickler for detail, too. She has a declination adjustment that you set with a tiny screw, and she even boasts a clinometer. (If you habitually run rapids that require a clinometer to take their measure, though, you're a lot braver than I am!)

Best of all, my Prospector's great with maps. With her transparent plastic base and scribed meridian lines, she's compass and protractor in one. Whether laying out a course or working a three-point fix, whenever Farwell fumbles, I fly. There's no need to orient the map or chart, and no need for a separate plotting tool. The Prospector does it all.

Then again, no compass is perfect, and mine is certainly no exception. Her reflecting sight is so fussy that I usually shoot from the hip, instead. (The mirror's great for locating any flecks of grit that blow into your eye, however.) And the damping liquid is a potential source of bubble-trouble. All in all, I'm afraid my Prospector's less robust than Farwell's Old Soldier.

No matter. If we don't count a couple of trinkets better suited to POW escape kits than practical navigation, Farwell and I now own seven compasses. Yet the Prospector and Old Soldier have been traveling with us for more than thirty years. Between the two of them, they'll do everything we're ever likely to ask a compass to do, while requiring no more attention than an occasional cleaning. And they'll keep on doing it until the earth's magnetic field reverses polarity again, sometime in the next 10,000 years. I'm not losing any sleep over the prospect.

Nor am I standing in line to buy the latest in satellite navigation systems. Yes, GPS receivers are wonderful things, particularly in fog. No coastal kayaker should be without one. But our favorite tools for navigation are still these two simple magnetic compasses. They're perpetual direction finders that we can carry in our pockets, and we'll never have to buy a battery for either one. Pretty amazing, isn't it? What'll they think of next!

Copyright 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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