Showing the Way:
The Adirondack Paddler's Map
By Tamia Nelson
June 8, 2004
Paddlers explore the unknown every time they
launch their boats. Even familiar lakes and rivers often surprise us. We can
never know all that lies ahead: each day on the water is a new voyage of
discovery. Most of us like it that way. Humans have been explorers
throughout our long history, and our appetite for exploration only grows with
eating, whetted by the stories of those who've gone before. Travelers' tales
are among our oldest entertainments, yet they're as fresh today as they were
when Homer sang of the anger of Achilles and the siege of Troy.
A map is another sort of traveler's tale, both an invitation and a key,
written in a universal language. Long before Europeans ventured into the high
Arctic, Inuit hunters carved driftwood, bone, and horn in imitation of the cliffs,
bays, and headlands on the margins of the Northern Ocean. These carvings
were maps records of discovery, as well as guides for generations of
hunters yet unborn.
Much later, James Cook sailed on his first voyage across the Great Southern
Ocean to Tahiti, in order to view the 1769 transit of Venus. He returned to
England two years later, bringing with him the record of his observations,
along with carefully surveyed charts, many of them embellished with sketches of
the cliffs, bays, and headlands of Polynesia. It was no accident that a ship
named Discovery accompanied Cook's Resolution to Hawai'i on
his third (and final) voyage.
Of course, Cook's coastal profiles and charts were drawn and not carved. So,
too, are the maps and charts we use today. The two-dimensional printed map is
the way we define our world and impose order on it, and at first glance modern
maps leave little scope for the imagination. But you remember what they say
about first impressions, don't you? No map can tell you where you'll see a loon surface
with a fish in its bill, hear the slap of a
beaver's tail, or find a single, perfect Clovis point lying exposed on a sandy
shore. The land holds surprises for us still. Even the best map can only be
a guide. But
What makes a good map good?
That depends on the needs of the user. A long-haul trucker has different
requirements than a canoeist navigating a watery maze on the edge of the 'Bay,
or a sea kayaker exploring the deeply-dissected, mountain coast of British
Columbia. The trucker wants to know the number of the next exit and the
location of the small town that's his final destination. The paddlers need to
find the next river junction or identify the prominent headland just visible to
the south. A detailed road atlas will be as little use to them as a topographic
map is to the driver in the cab of the eighteen-wheeler.
Scale is part of the reason. Our trucker travels at 60-plus miles an
hour. He'd need a box of quads just for a short delivery job. On a
transcontinental run there wouldn't be any place in the cab of his rig for him.
Canoeists and kayakers travel at a more leisurely pace, however. A scale of
1:50,000 (one inch equals 0.8 mile, or one centimeter equals 0.5 kilometer) or
1:62,500 (one inch equals approximately one mile) is about right, although
expedition paddlers who plan to cover many hundreds of miles may be better
served by a scale of 1:150,000 (one inch equals 2.4 miles) or even 1:250,000
(one inch equals about four miles), supplementing these with larger-scale quads
when necessary in tricky deltas, say, or anyplace where finding the
start of a portage trail might be a matter of life and death.
A map's design is shaped by the anticipated needs of users, too. Call
it presentation. Road maps omit most topographic detail, concentrating
instead on the intricacies of highway junctions and interchanges. As a result,
steep climbs often look just like easy ones. (Many cyclists who rely on road maps
discover this too late.) On the other hand, the maps of most use to paddlers give
topography pride of place. They usually have contour lines or relief shading, and
sometimes both. After all, a river's
gradient how fast it drops has a lot to do with how easy it
is to run. That's important.
Whatever a map's scale or presentation, accuracy is everything. Who
wouldn't prefer a USGS topographic quadrangle to a sketch map scribbled on the
back of a brown paper lunch bag, after all? But wait a minute. Suppose the quad
is several decades old, and bulldozers or storms have altered the lay of the
land beyond all recognition. Such a quad may be of interest only to historians.
And what if the sketch map was drawn by a woodsman who knows the area as well
as he knows the contours of the stubbled chin over which he occasionally
scrapes a razor? Then the sketch map will be more useful to a paddler than the
ancient quad. The upshot? There's more to a map than meets the eye. Accuracy
has a shelf-life. A good map is up-to-date, at least in the things that matter
most to the user. You can't judge a map by its colors alone.
Still, there's no denying that bright colors and good draftsmanship are
eye-catching. But is the beauty more than skin deep? That's the real question.
Happily, most popular paddling destinations are well-served by the
cartographers. Canoeists and kayakers headed for the Boundary Waters have long
relied on Fisher and McKenzie maps, and travelers to Algonquin Provincial Park
in Ontario, Canada, can turn to an excellent map-brochure published by the
Friends of Algonquin Park. Paddlers in New York's Adirondacks haven't been so
lucky, however. Until now, that is. Paddlesport Press of Saranac Lake, New
York, has just published the Adirondack Paddler's Map for Canoe and Kayak
Travel. Let's take a closer look and see what it tells us about making a
good map. This brings us back to
And they couldn't be much better. Coated paper. Accordion-pleats. Shaded
relief. 1:50,000 scale. Declination
diagram and key on both sides. Location maps to help you find your way to
the put-in. Lat-lon and UTM grids. Portages, campsites, and administrative
boundaries they're all there. Moreover, it's easy to distinguish
Wilderness areas from other Forest Preserve lands, and both of these from
private holdings. Coverage? Cranberry Lake Wild Forest, Five Ponds Wilderness,
St. Regis Canoe Area, Santa Clara Tract, Saranac Lakes, Raquette River,
Whitney Wilderness. All present and accounted for. In addition, sidebars give
information about local regulations and state campgrounds, along with lashings of
good advice and for those who won't heed this advice, or who simply have a
bad day the location and phone number of the regional medical center.
Caveats? Only a few. The contour interval isn't defined in the key
it's 20 meters, by the way, or about 66 feet, too coarse to troubleshoot an
unfamiliar river and all elevations are in meters. This may confuse some
non-metrified Americans. The USGS is belatedly embracing the metric system,
though, so.we'd better get used to it. What else? The blue ticks that mark the
locations of rapids and falls on narrow streams are sometimes lost in the green
overprint used to identify Forest Preserve lands. Good eyes or a magnifier are
essential if you want to avoid unpleasant surprises. Anything more? Yes. The
photos that accompany the sidebars and a folksy painting in one corner of the
map add little and obscure some interesting bits of country. A good map doesn't
need such embellishment.
Now let's take a
This map makes an excellent first impression. But how good will it prove
when put to the test? One proof of a map is in the planning: can it be used to
plan a trip? I thought I'd give it a try while I mapped out an amphibious
holiday, a sort of no-octane, paddle-and-pedal tour of Adirondack waters.
I'll have some hard work ahead of me in the hills call this sweat
equity, if you like but I won't drop much cash at the pump. And with the
price of gas climbing above US$2 a gallon, that's pretty good.
So I get out my pencil. Beginning in the crossroads hamlet of Cranberry
Lake, I travel east on NY Route 3 to NY Route 30, then north to Meacham Lake.
But that's only the backbone of the trip. Along the way I'll sample Cranberry,
Tupper, and Meacham Lakes; the upper stretches of the Raquette River; and the
many ponds of the St. Regis Canoe Area. I'll also make time for a side trip to
Heron Marsh, the centerpiece of the Adirondack Park Visitor Interpretive Center
at Paul Smiths.
As my pencil traces the route, I search for put-ins, portages, and camping
spots. The key makes it easy. And while I won't be staying at developed
plans don't include trespassing. Fortunately, the map's color scheme makes
it easy to distinguish between Forest Preserve lands and private property. It
also identifies Wilderness areas. Bikes aren't allowed in these, but
paddlecraft are. (NB Paddlers new to the Adirondacks may want to know more
about backcountry regulations than they can learn from the map's sidebars. The
state Department of Environmental Conservation will be happy to dot the I's and
cross the T's.)
Hills. Did I mention hills? They look a lot steeper from the saddle of a
loaded bike than they do from the seat of a car. The contour lines break the
bad news early. It won't make the climbs any easier, but at least I'll be
prepared. I also look for an alternate route around the village of Tupper Lake.
It can be a busy place in summer. Here, too, the map makes it simple.
What about waterways? They're the reason for the trip, after all. And
the reason for this map. I dig out my New York quads, some of them more than
twenty years old, many of them torn at the folds and covered with scribbled
notes. I cross-check and compare. It looks good. The topography is spot on. The
rapids all seem to be in the right places. (I'll still scout, of course. It's
like Heraclitus said, or near enough: However many times you return to a
stream, you never run the same river twice.)
An hour later, I've got my itinerary mapped and my schedule drawn up:
highways, campsites (and alternates), and waterways. It's time for me to draft
plan." And start packing. But what's
The Adirondack Paddler's Map is a keeper. It's going straight into my
pack. (I'm taking some of my quads, as well. They'll come in handy on a couple of
side trips, and anyway I don't like to leave old friends behind.)
Now where did I put my head net?
among life's greatest pleasures. What child hasn't dug for buried treasure?
And how does she know where to dig? With the help of a treasure map, of
course hand-drawn on yellow parchment (or brown paper), with a blood-red
X marking the spot. We adults are too old
for this sort of thing, I suppose. That doesn't mean we can't find treasure
with the help of a map, though. We can. But I don't have to tell you that, do
Adirondack Paddler's Map for Canoe and Kayak Travel.
Paddlesports Press, Saranac Lake, New York; 2003. ISBN 0-9746320-0-7.
Copyright © 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights