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Showing the Way:
The Adirondack Paddler's Map

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net

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…

First Impressions

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…

Second Look

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 campgrounds, my 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 a "float plan." And start packing. But what's…

The Verdict?

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?

Maps are 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 I?

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 reserved.
















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