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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

On the Map

First Steps

By Tamia Nelson

February 12, 2008

Where would we be without maps? Lost, that's where. After all, maps and charts — a chart is just a map that's gone to sea — have been part of the human tool kit for quite a while, though no one really knows how long. Polynesian voyagers wove representations of ocean swells and island chains from sticks, and circumpolar peoples carved the profiles of Arctic headlands on small bits of driftwood. These early maps don't look like much to today's paddlers, perhaps, but appearances can deceive. In fact, such "primitive" maps had a number of advantages over modern navigational aides. Both "stick charts" and carvings are waterproof, and that's a real plus in an open boat. Neither of them needs batteries, either. Still, the world has moved on since the time when skin kayaks and great oceangoing canoes were the state of the maritime art. Nowadays, paddlers use the Global Positioning System (GPS) for everything from groping their way along unknown shores to finding the single dirt track among a maze of logging roads that leads to the put-in. But even with all the wonderful things that modern technology has to offer, we still turn to maps when our blinking boxes let us down.

Of course, modern maps are printed on paper and not woven from sticks, but that hasn't altered their fundamental nature. So just what is it that sets maps apart? What exactly are maps good for? Well, they're invaluable aids in trip planning, for one thing, and they're a useful adjunct to scouting, as well. They're also all but essential for navigation, whether you're on land or under way. And there's another use, too, and a very important one, into the bargain. We'll get to this a little later. In any event, if you're new to paddling — or even if you're an old hand, leaving your home waters for the first time — you're probably wondering which maps you'll need. As is so often the case, the answer is "That depends." So let's begin by taking a closer look at five representative maps, starting with the simplest map of all:

The Sketch Map

Sketching in the WayAll maps — including the maps driving the electronic display on your GPS — began as sketch maps. And sometimes, especially if you make a habit of traveling off the beaten track, sketch maps are still the best maps you can get. Occasionally they're the only maps. More often, however, sketch maps supplement, rather than replace, their more sophisticated offspring. You'll sometimes find them in guidebooks and government leaflets. These sketch maps are the gold standard of their kind. They're usually carefully drafted and drawn to scale, and they have both a key and a North arrow. Often, in fact, they're based on published quads, so the cartographic wheel has turned full circle.

But not every sketch map has such impeccable credentials. At the other end of the spectrum are hasty scrawls on the back of a napkin, scribbled down during a refueling stop on the way to some rural put-in. Still, even the crudest maps have their uses, provided that you approach them with a healthy skepticism. The so-called "copper's ABC" is a useful guide here: Assume nothing. Believe no one. Check everything. If you follow these guidelines, it's hard to go wrong. And then there's that other thing that maps do for us, the thing I hinted at earlier. Maps and dreams are closely intertwined, and sketch maps make the best dream fodder of all. It was a crude (and inaccurate) sketch map in a book that got R. M. Patterson thinking about the Nahanni. Great journeys can have small beginnings.

Then again, sketch maps aren't the only maps to engender paddlers' dreams. Another surefire way to kindle a burning desire to hit the road in search of new horizons (and new waterways to explore) is to pick up a couple of …

Road Maps

Road Trip!Are you old enough to remember the days when sunburned men in greasy overalls pumped your gas, often with smoldering cigarettes clinging precariously to their lower lips? I am. And do you remember the stacks of accordion-pleated road maps displayed on the wire rack next to the cash register where you waited for change from your five-dollar bill? Road maps were free for the asking then, and I never could resist the temptation. I still can't, even though free road maps are mighty hard to find these days. In their place we now have pricey road atlases. (But you don't often find gas for 30 cents a gallon nowadays, either.) These aren't as easy to stow as the old pleated-paper maps, but there are a few compensations. Some of the modern atlases — the DeLorme line is perhaps the best-known, at least in the US — show many of the little-traveled town and county roads that the old gas-station maps ignored, and this is very good news for paddlers trying to find an out-of-the way put-in. The Delorme maps also reproduce waterways accurately, and they include rudimentary topographic information as well. All in all, it's a fair exchange. You do get what you pay for.

And what else do you get for your money? A great aid to trip planning and exploration, that's what. Take a drafting compass and draw a circle with your home at the center. Make the radius of the circle equal to the distance you can cover easily in one hour's travel: 30 miles by car, say — roads wander a bit, after all — or 10 by bike. Then draw another circle at double the radius, and a third at three times the original distance. Now inspect the area contained within your circles. Jot down the names of any lakes, rivers, or stretches of coastline that catch your eye. When you've finished, you're ready to do a little research. Check out the descriptions in guidebooks, paying special attention to any accompanying sketch maps. Talk to local paddlers, anglers, and landowners. Do some roadside (or streamside) scouting. Find out if public access is allowed.

By now, you'll probably be well on your way to discovering paddling destinations on your doorstep that you didn't even know existed. And when you've narrowed your list down to a manageable number, it's time to focus in. Begin by hunting up all the relevant …

Topographic Maps

These are the unabridged dictionaries among maps. The only way to learn more about the lie of the land and the run of the waters is to go and see for yourself. (And unless you can fly, the map will still teach you something.) Topographic maps are the product of generations of on-the-ground surveys, supplemented by state-of-the-art satellite mapping. They permit you to get up close and personal with a landscape you've never visited. Terrain, vegetation, cultural features (aka roads, bridges, radio towers, and prominent buildings) … it's all there. If you know how to look, that is. To get the most out of a quad — that's short for quadrangle, another name for topographic map — you need to (literally) read between the lines. And there's an art to this. But that's a subject for another day. For now, please forget the copper's ABC for a minute and trust me. Even in the age of the GPS, a good compass and a quad are among a paddler's best friends.

Are you tired of paying taxes? Me, too. But whenever I get too exercised over the latest examples of government waste, fraud, or abuse, I think of my library of quads, each of them the end product of many decades of taxpayer-funded efforts. Some old quads still carry the names of the men who surveyed and drafted them. Modern quads don't, but I wish they did. The byline served to remind everyone who used a map that it didn't just happen, that it was the product of hundreds, even thousands, of hours of patient, expert labor. Our tax dollars at work, in other words.

Maps and DreamsBut enough of that. Good as they are — and modern quads are very good indeed — the land and the water still hold surprises for the unwary. A landscape is an ongoing, never-ending story. It's a movie, if you will. And a map is just one frame in the film. If you come in late (and you will, because any published map is already old news by the time you get your hands on it), the story will have moved on. Moreover, there's the question of scale. Quads can tell you relatively little about a big slice of the landscape, or they can tell you a lot about a relatively small corner. You can't have it both ways, at least with paper maps. So you'll have to choose. Perhaps the most useful quads for canoeists and kayakers — at least for route-finding and general navigation — are the ones with scales of 1:50,000 or 1:62,500 (this odd fraction means that one inch on the map equals approximately one mile on the water). These offer a pretty good balance between detail and scope, though expedition paddlers who expect to cover hundreds of miles may find 1:250,000 quads (one inch on the map equals about four miles on the ground) a lot more manageable. On the other hand, if your route leads you through a tangle of minor streams or a complicated delta, you'll probably want to choose a larger scale, 1:24,000 or 1:25,000, say, at least for the tricky bits. The upshot? Most padders, on most trips longer than a weekend, will find that they can use maps of every scale.

OK. Are quads the only choice for paddlers' on-water navigation? No. There are two alternatives. And while neither can replace the quad, each one shines under different circumstances. The first of these is probably the most familiar, at least to inland boaters. It's …

The Annotated Waterway Map

Paddling a Straight CourseThese aren't always easy to find, but when you do locate one, you're in luck. Some of them are simply sketch maps, only useful if you have the corresponding quad. But the best of the breed collect almost everything a paddler needs to know in one handy package: topography, the boundaries of public lands, portage trails, the locations of put-ins and camping areas, even details of drops (but here you'll want to remember the copper's ABC — check everything) and tips for anglers. A few also include fascinating summaries of regional history, both human and natural. Two outstanding examples spring to mind immediately. One is the excellent (and inexpensive) map-brochure Canoe Routes of Algonquin Provincial Park. The other, the equally valuable (if somewhat more expensive, though it's printed on "waterproof and tear-resistant" paper) Adirondack Paddler's Map for Canoe and Kayak Travel.

Perfection? Almost. But it's never wise to rely entirely on a single map, however good. Even the best waterway maps can't tell you everything you need to know, particularly if your plans include a climbing or backpacking interlude. Then you'll need one or more quads, as well. It horses for courses, in other words. And when you head down to the sea (or plan to explore the margins of a very large lake), you'll need to change mounts. You're leaving the terrestrial sphere behind, and entering Neptune's realm. On rivers and streams, the water moves and the waves stand still. Once you're on the sea, however, the water stays put (more or less — but there are tidal currents to reckon with) and the waves move. This is where you'll want a …

Nautical Chart

CoastingLike I said earlier, a chart is a map that's gone to sea. But charts have a language all their own. It's too big a subject for this article. So a few generalities will have to suffice for now. (Can't wait to begin? Then you'll want to explore the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Chart No. 1: Nautical Chart Symbols, Abbreviations, and Terms. It's the Rosetta Stone that unlocks many of the secrets of the nautical chart.) Although older charts frequently reproduced the profiles of key headlands, their modern counterparts give short shrift to topography. Instead, charts concentrate on the things that matter most to watermen: soundings, the extent of the foreshore, and the locations and characteristics of aids to navigation (navaids, for short; buoys and lights are two examples), in addition to rocks, shoals, and wrecks. And though all of this is intended for the skippers of commercial vessels, there's plenty to interest kayakers as well, particularly when the kayaker in question doesn't relish watching her tent float away with the tide.

Of course, few kayakers are bold enough to attempt long open-water crossings. Most of us are "brown-water" mariners, at best, clinging close to the land. As such, we often find that quads are almost as useful as charts. In truth, however, both are necessary, even at the sea's edge, and neither can be expected to substitute for the other. One more thing. No map, and no chart, will do you any good if a wave reduces it to a sodden pulp. Canoes and kayaks are tender craft, and they don't have dry bilges. Whatever maps and charts you take with you on the water. they all need protection. So use good-quality photocopies as your working maps, if possible, and bury the originals deep in a waterproof pack. Then be sure your map-case is also waterproof.

Without maps, we'd all be lost. But once we have a map in hand, we can find our way safely from one port of call to another, even when our ultimate destination is a place we've never visited before. Maps come to our aid long before we dip our blades in the water, too. They tell us stories of unknown shores and distant mountain kingdoms, stories that are every bit as gripping as the latest techno-thriller. Maps and dreams go hand in hand, in other words. And dreams are the starting-point for journeys. Our journey is just beginning.

Copyright 2008 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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