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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Things We Carry

The Case for Maps

By Tamia Nelson

February 28, 2006

Not too long ago, maps — maps printed on paper, that is — could be found in almost every paddler's kit. (And the paddlers who didn't carry maps didn't stay found for very long.) Then came the microchip revolution. Now you can carry detailed quads for a whole continent in a plastic box that's smaller than an airport paperback, and the very same box will put you on the map at any time of day or night, even if you can't see a single landmark. To someone like me, who grew up when television was still in its infancy, all this is little short of magical, and it's no surprise that a growing number of paddlers are succumbing to the spell, abandoning paper for plastic altogether. But not me. The magic in the plastic box will depart pretty quickly when the batteries weaken. Or when (that's when, mind you, not if) salt water gets past the seals. So I still carry paper maps and charts in my pack, along with an orienteering compass. They've got magic in them, too. The difference? Their magic doesn't depend on batteries and microcircuits.

Put it down to creeping old-fossilhood if you like. You won't be far wrong. I've been fascinated by maps ever since my grandparents gave me a wooden puzzle made up of blocks in the shape of each of the 48 United States. (No, that's not a typo. Alaska and Hawaii were still Territories.) When assembled, the blocks formed a map of the country, with each state capital printed on its block. I memorized all of the capitals, and my grandfather — who'd prospered as a traveling salesman during the worst years of the Great Depression, staying at the best hotels while many of his generation were standing in breadlines — had a story to tell about most of them. Before long I, too, had caught the traveling bug.

That was my first map, and despite its crudity it left a lasting impression. Soon I was collecting every map I could get my hands on. The hundreds of National Geographic magazines in my grandfather's library were a particularly rich source, though friends and relatives also gave me the oil company road maps they'd picked up in their travels. (This was in the days when many gas station attendants still wore uniforms, road maps were free for the asking, and you could "fill 'er up" for not much more than the cost of a single gallon of post-Peak gasoline.) As my collection grew, I spent countless hours poring over each of my maps, tracing roads, rivers, and coastlines with my fingers, and trying to imagine what I'd see if I were there. On family trips, I'd follow the route on a road map while my father drove, watching as each kink in the thin red or blue line opened up new vistas of farm fields, woodlands, mountain peaks, or rushing rivers. Tiny dots were revealed as bustling hamlets, with bakeries and diners, general stores and barber shops, full-service garages and schools. It was, literally, an eye-opening experience. Up until then, I'd been lamenting the fact that I didn't have a single treasure map in my entire collection. No more. These road trips made me realize that every map was a treasure map, pointing the way to hidden riches.

Later I began to explore the Adirondack backcountry. And that's when I discovered topographic maps. My other grandfather had all the quads for "his" Adirondacks tacked to the wall of his cabin. Here was treasure, indeed. Every beaver pond, trout stream, and swamp was mapped, and most were named. The quads even showed me the way to lost towns, their once-lively streets now rapidly reverting to forest. They also led me to overgrown cemeteries, forgotten battlefields, and hidden caves, where an occasional knapped flint projectile point or rusting oil lantern reminded me that I was only the latest of many explorers. Noticing my interest in his maps, Grandad gave me a compass and a set of quads all my own. Then he showed me how to get along without them. Grandad knew the wooded hills around his home like he knew the furrows and creases in his own face. So he marked my maps and sent me out on treasure hunts of another sort, telling me to follow tiny streams to their sources and walk sinuous ridges till they subsided into secret valleys. And he made me a promise: When I'd walked, waded, and paddled enough miles, and gotten to know "every goddam' windfall, boulder, and beaver dam" in his Adirondacks, I could tuck my maps safely away in my rucksack and never need to pull them out again, except maybe once in a great while, if I unaccountably found myself "a little confused." That was how Grandad operated, at any rate, removing his maps from his pack only when a sport wanted to see where they were — and then only when the weather smiled, or when Grandad could shield the precious quad from whatever was falling from the sky that day with just the wide brim of his hat. The rest of the time his quads were kept safe, wrapped in an oilcloth roll.

It worked for him. But as my travels took me further and further from Grandad's hills, it didn't always work for me. Finally, in the perpetual drizzle of an alpine valley in the North Cascades, I learned the benefits of a waterproof map case. It was…

Nothing Fancy

But it did the job. Taking my lead from some of the old hands in my climbing party, I folded my quad into a rough square, traced the day's route in soft pencil directly on the paper, and slipped the annotated map into a Ziploc® bag. Then I reinforced the ends of the narrow strip beyond the bag's tongue-and-groove closure with duct tape, punched two holes in the tape, and threaded a lanyard through the holes. On the trail, the lanyard went over my head, while the quad rested on my chest, ready to be consulted at the first hint of "confusion." And wonder of wonders, my maps stayed clean, dry, and safe, despite a month spent traversing high-altitude snowfields, where sweltering, sunny days were followed almost immediately by freezing nights, gale-force winds, and lashing rain.

Simple, cheap, effective.… Who could ask for more? Well, me, for one. Freezer bags don't really inspire confidence, do they? And they're not exactly elegant. There came a time when I wanted…

Something Better

The first improved map case I came across started life as a liner for a dry bag. I still have it. It looks like a freezer bag on steroids: a heavy poly envelope about the size of a pillowcase, closed with a giant plastic slide clamp. And it's big enough to hold several dozen full-size quads or charts. Of course, unless you're Paul Bunyan, you won't want to wear it around your neck, but it's easily tucked under the crisscross lashings that keep your waterproof packs in your canoe, or under the deck lashings on your kayak, where it can double as a chart table underway. You can also roll the case around the clamp and store it below decks. It could even be left to slosh back and forth in the bilge of a swamped canoe. I'm not tempted by this, however. It could just as easily slosh out, never to be seen again.

Bombproof? Pretty much. But a little too big for use on the trail — and not too handy in a small boat, either. I decided I needed something else for my working quads, and I thought I'd found the answer on the shelves of a local surplus outlet: a pilot's kneeboard, a sort of clipboard that straps to your thigh just above the knee. After all, pilots, like paddlers, seldom have a hand free for their maps. So I figured that a kneeboard would be just the ticket for canoeing. But I'd overlooked one very important point. Pilots don't often have to worry about breaking waves when they're in the cockpit. Paddlers do. And the kneeboard just wasn't up to the job. It also required that I fold my maps till they weren't much bigger than a notecard. Plenty good enough if you're working with a 1:500,000 sectional aeronautical chart, I suppose. Not so good if you're trying to do a fast triangulation on three distant peaks using a 1:50,000 quad. Soon I was back to using a freezer bag.

Then a geologist friend gave me a few quads he'd coated with a brush-on waterproofing compound. It seemed like a good idea at first, but the compound made the maps stiff and hard to fold. Worse yet, it started to peel away almost immediately, tearing the paper in the process. Not good. Not good at all. Next, I tried laminating. Even worse. So I looked for maps printed on plastic or waterproof paper, and I found a few. They were pretty good maps, too. In fact, one was among the best I've seen. But many of the places I wanted to go were off the map, so to speak. It was plain paper or nothing. Back to freezer bags again. And that was that. Until recently, anyway, when the catalogs suddenly blossomed forth with…

Better Ideas

Most of these are just variations on familiar themes, of course. My big plastic pillowcase has morphed into a variety of heavy-duty cases with resealable waterproof closures, made in a wide range of sizes, from full chart to playing card. Some are guaranteed waterproof down to 200 feet. (I've never paddled at this depth, I admit, but if I ever do, it's good to know my maps will stay dry.) Some have straps, hooks, or grommets in the corners — a great idea for keeping your maps attached to your boat in a gale. Others are designed to hang from thwarts (or from the handlebar of a bike, if that's how you plan to get to the put-in). Still others fold up like a wallet, with pockets for a palette of colored pens, a notebook, and even a compass. And if all this weren't enough, waterproof deck bags are now made with built-in chart windows, another idea that may have been borrowed from touring cyclists, whose 'bar bags have had them for half a century or more.

Then there are the rigid waterproof boxes, beginning with the heavy (and now rare) steel ammo can, and culminating in an entire armory of color-coordinated plastic dry boxes, complete with hasps for padlocks, purge valves, and foam liners. These are great for storing the maps you don't need today, particularly on Big Trips, but they're not much use underway. Two hints: No matter how robust the manufacturer's guarantee, check the seals on all your waterproof boxes — and your bags, too — before each trip. And make sure every boat carries a complete set of maps and charts for the entire trip. (Solo paddlers would be wise to carry one or more small-scale maps showing their entire route in a PFD pocket at all times.) Costly? Yes. But the price will seem small if you've ever watched your only set of maps disappear in a rapids, two hundred miles and twenty portages from your pick-up point. At times like that, the word "priceless" acquires real meaning.

I've come full circle. When you think about it, a map case only needs to do a few things, but it needs to do them well. I want a case that keeps my maps clean and dry, and I want to be able to look at them without removing them and exposing them to the assaults of dirt and water. If a case does those things, it's giving me all that I need. I like to wear my compass or carry it in a pocket, and my spare pens travel with my field journal in a waterproof box or bag. So guess what? I've found nothing better for my working map than a one-gallon freezer bag. (Press-fit zip-closures only, please. The sliders I've tried can't be trusted away from the kitchen. I always carry plenty of spares, too.) And what do I use as a storage case for the maps I won't want today? My ancient pillowcase-sized heavy plastic envelope with the clumsy slide clamp, that's what. It's the familiar KISS principle in action. These two old warriors certainly aren't elegant, but they do the job — and they're cheap, into the bargain. To my mind, that makes either one the perfect case for my maps.

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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