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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

On the Map

Either-Or? Traditional Navigation in a Digital World

By Tamia Nelson

October 14, 2008

All in all, my year in the sixth grade wasn’t very noteworthy, but I remember geography class very well. While most kids grumbled and fought for the seats furthest from the blackboard, I darted for a desk in the front row. Geography came right after lunch, but even though I’d often been kept up till well past midnight working at my parent’s greasy spoon, I had no trouble staying awake. As the other kids yawned and dozed, I leaned forward to catch every detail on the large, cloth-backed map of the world that was the teacher’s principal prop. As she droned on about the exports of New Zealand, or something equally esoteric, my mind’s eye ranged freely over the map, tracking up numberless meandering rivers, hacking paths through nameless tropical forests, and struggling over endless Himalayan icefalls. This is my world, I thought. And I couldn’t wait to start exploring it.

Mapping Through the Years

Maps, Past and Present

I did more than daydream during geography class, however. I committed the names of the world’s capital cities to memory, for one thing. And—far more valuable, I think—I learned how to place myself on the map. Any map. In short, I learned how to navigate. Why was this important? Well, leaving home is never easy. I knew that much even in sixth grade. But geography class made the inevitable hegira far less traumatic. In a sense, it made me at home wherever I happened to be. I knew that someday I’d travel over the hills and far away from the little town on the New York–Vermont border where I grew up, but however far I traveled, I also knew I’d never wander off the map—and I knew I’d always be able to determine just where I stood. I found that curiously comforting.

I still do, and maps still captivate me. Paper maps, that is. This isn’t surprising. I’m surrounded by them. They adorn my walls. They spill out of the filing cabinets under my desk. They sprawl untidily—half folded, half open—over tables, chairs, and bookshelves, accumulating in ever deeper drifts that totter precariously and sometimes cascade spontaneously to the floor. Imagine my dismay, then, when I heard a recent BBC interview with Mary Spence, the president of the British Cartographic Society, who made the disturbing assertion that GPS receivers and mapping software were literally robbing us of our history, “diluting the quality of the graphic image that we call a map.”

Old River Town

E. A. Dayton Map of Columbia Village, New York, December 1852

My initial reaction was to agree completely. I’ve spent weeks at a time poring over 19th-century county atlases and insurance maps, compiling lists of historic buildings and potential archeological sites. These were maps with the personal touch, drawn and annotated by hand, and often—like early USGS quadrangles—carrying the name of the cartographer responsible. They contain a wealth of information: the names of property owners, the nature of their businesses, even the materials used in the construction of their homes and factories. Spend enough time with one of these maps, and you’ll come away knowing almost as much about the economic and social life of a community as any of the now long-dead residents. And don’t forget topographic maps. What county atlases and insurance maps are to the social landscape, topographic maps are to the physical environment. They distill a huge amount of information about landforms and watercourses, and present it in a way that is at once comprehensive and comprehensible. Paper maps do all this—and more besides. Can it really be true that this legacy will now be lost?

That was what the president of the Royal Geographic Society seemed to be suggesting, at any rate. A world in which the rich, informative tapestry of paper maps was rapidly being degraded to a crude, pixilated caricature—a sexed-up, dumbed-down, just-show-me-where-to-turn black box, good for little but navigating from burger franchise to shopping mall to subdivision (with maybe a quick stop at the bank to withdraw the last of the cash left in the rainy-day account). And at first I feared that she might be right. Soon, however, I began to reconsider. After all, I’m no knee-jerk technophobe. I write on a computer, e-mail articles to my publishers, use a PocketMail® device on trips (with its acoustic coupler, the PocketMail Composer is itself something of retrotech wonder), and carry a cell phone in a pouch on my PFD. I even use a small GPS receiver on the trail, though unlike Farwell, I haven’t given my heart to it completely. Moreover, I’m considering buying an iPod touch®, as much for its capabilities as a “portable media player” as its utility in the role of “wi-fi mobile platform.” No doubt about it, then… North in My Pocket

I’m a Digital Girl

Whether I like it or not. And I’m certainly not alone. There are limits, of course. My compass will stay in my pack, and my collection of paper maps continues to grow. (Even Farwell uses paper maps to get the Big Picture that the little commemorative-stamp-sized screen of his GPS can’t provide.) But there’s no denying that the digital age has given backcountry travelers many new tools, even if this gift is a conditional one. Did you forget to charge your batteries before your trip? Bad news! Neglect to bring any spares? Worse luck yet. I hope you didn’t leave your (paper) map and compass at home. You didn’t, did you? After all, they’re called Essentials for a reason.

So far, so good. But our ambivalent attitudes toward electronic navigation aids—and I’m certainly not alone in my love-hate relationship with the GPS, either—have a broader significance, one that lies close to the heart of paddlesport. Paddling is an exercise in creative anachronism. Canoeists and kayakers have an enduring fondness for something called “tradition.” Our boats may be made of the latest plastics, but their appearance evokes the lines of aboriginal bark and skin craft that were already old news back when Columbus was playing with globes and thinking about finding a shortcut to the Indies. (This resemblance may not be immediately obvious if the boat in question is stubby squirt boat, I admit, but it’s there all the same.) We celebrate tradition with every stroke of the paddle, too, whether that paddle is an ash beavertail or the latest foam and carbon confection. Tradition even informs our choice of packs, with the canvas and leather Duluth sack enjoying a well-deserved renaissance. Still, paddlers have an uneasy relationship with the past. Tradition is fine, we think, but… A comparatively small number of enthusiasts aside, there aren’t many takers for wood-and-canvas canoes, and there’s even less interest in bark and skin craft. We paddlers embrace tradition, to be sure, but we like it best when it comes in modern dress.

All of which serves to remind us that…

Shooting the StarsTraditional Navigation Was Once State-of-the-Art

The practical (“dry card”) magnetic compass came to Europe sometime in the early 14th century. The double-reflecting octant—the immediate precursor to the sextant, this was the tool that made modern surveying possible—didn’t make its debut until 1730, and the first topographic maps didn’t appear until more than half a century later. In other words, traditional methods of navigation have comparatively recent origins. Yet that didn’t stop earlier explorers. Polynesian seafarers were crossing thousands of miles of open ocean without compasses, charts, or sextants at a time when Mediterranean ship captains were seldom daring to venture out of sight of land. And northern peoples had crisscrossed the arctic and subarctic fastnesses of Asia and North America long before the pioneering work of surveyors like Peter Pond and Alexander Mackenzie put them on the map. Nonetheless, modern methods prevailed. Much was gained, of course. In less than two centuries, we mapped our world to a hitherto impossible standard of precision and completeness. But much local knowledge was lost, too: systems of navigation based on prevailing winds and currents, on the flights of migratory birds, and on the movements of the sun and stars. One tradition supplanted another, and the new nearly extinguished the old.

Today, we’re in the midst of a revolution as profound as that which accompanied the introduction of “traditional” map-and-compass navigation. Geography has all but disappeared from school curricula, at least as a separate subject. The gas-station road map is a thing of the past. And more and more cars come fitted with GPS-based navigation systems straight from the factory. The result is an unprecedented combination of accuracy and convenience. No one need ever be lost again—at least while their batteries hold a charge. But no revolution is truly bloodless, and this one is no exception. The old skills of map-reading and compass navigation are being lost, along with much of the information embodied in earlier generations of paper maps—and that means just about anything that won’t fit on the small screen of a GPS display.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Here’s the deal: Traditional navigation—that is, the older tradition of map and compass—has served generations of paddlers well. Yet electronic navigation offers much of value, including the option of generating real-time records of all your trips, complete with elevation profiles and notes on local conditions. That being the case, why force a choice? Why not keep both tools in the box? Here are some of…

The Pros and Cons

The obvious first: GPS receivers need power. On day trips it’s enough to bring a spare set of batteries. Longer trips require either more spares or a solar-cell recharger—or better yet, both. It’s a small price to pay. On the other hand, paper maps can be snatched out of your hands by a gust of wind, something that’s not likely to happen to a GPS. The remedy? Invest in a good map case, one with an attached lanyard. Come to think of it, you’d better put a lanyard on your compass and your GPS, too. I’ve managed to drop each of mine in the drink. Luckily, both are waterproof, and the lanyards I’d fitted to each made retrieval a snap.

A few more points to weigh: When properly stored and cared for…

Paper Maps Are Forever  That’s overstating the facts, but not by too much. I’ve worked with paper maps that were almost 200 years old, and I was still able to read both the maps and the (slightly faded) inked annotations. I have quads in my files that were printed when Warren G. Harding was president of the United States. They’re still useful. On the other hand, I have mapping software that was nearly worthless before it celebrated its third birthday, and my two-year-old GPS is already showing early signs of senile decay. Moreover, digital data is fickle. A few inadvertent presses of a button can eliminate a waypoint—or an entire track. It’s happened to me more than once. The motto of most electronic aids to navigation is summarized best by a familiar phrase: easy come, easy go. Remember that.

And then there’s the Surprise-Party Factor. Or, to put it another way, what about…

The Not-So-Friendly Skies?  The wonders of GPS navigation are wholly dependent on the continuing benevolence of the US Department of Defense. If the satellites stop transmitting for any reason, you’ll still have your stored maps, but you’ll have no easy way of knowing where you are on them. Of course, ever since the decision was made to shut off Selective Availability and make the full capabilities of the Global Positioning System available to civilian users, the reliability of the system has been guaranteed. It’s as safe as money in the bank. Well, um, OK. I guess that says it all, doesn’t it? Things can change very fast in the current climate. What was impossible two weeks ago is all too probable today. This much is certain, however—the paper maps and compass in your pack can’t be switched off at source.


Now let’s look at the other side of the coin:

The Eyes Have It  It will come as no surprise to most paddlers that the critical places on any route always fall on the edge of the map—or worse yet, on a corner—requiring that you juggle two or more sheets to see whatever you need to see. This is bad enough when it’s calm. It’s a nightmare in a blow. With electronic maps and charts, however, you can always keep your subject right in the center of things. Furthermore, you can zoom in to pick up small details you might otherwise miss, then zoom out to get the Bigger Picture. (Though the tiny screens of most hand-held GPS receivers put limits on this.) Paper doesn’t permit zooming.

More? Sure. Take the…

Space Case  Digital maps are mighty compact. My GPS is no bigger than a bar of soap, but it holds topos for all of the eastern US. By contrast, my paper copies of the large-scale topos for New York state alone fill two drawers of a filing cabinet. If you’ll be traveling far, you’ll appreciate the smaller digital footprint. (You’ll still need small-scale paper quads of your route, though. Belt and suspenders, right?)

Then there are…

Magnetic Anomalies  Ore bodies can confuse compasses. Alexander Mackenzie noticed this, and he wasn’t the last canoeist to be led astray by a trembling needle. High-tension lines can also cause trouble—not a problem for Mackenzie!—but at least they’re easier to spot than ore bodies. In any case, GPS is immune from all such influences.

And don’t forget the other…

Eyes in the Sky  Satellite imagery is another useful tool, and at least one GPS can access it already. Others are sure to follow. So there may soon be an even newer tradition elbowing the others aside. Stay tuned.


What’s the bottom line? Well, if I were forced to choose between paper and plastic—sorry, between the old tradition of map and compass navigation and the new tradition of GPS and software mapping—I’d still go with the old. But I’d rather not make the choice. And so long as the skills of map-reading and compass navigation—what we’ve called “Navigating Without Batteries” elsewhere—are kept alive, you won’t have to either. This is a Very Good Thing. It’s called eating your cake and having it, too.

Which is it to be? The old tradition of paper maps and magnetic compasses? Or the new tradition of GPS receivers and digitized maps? But do we really have to choose between them? Why not use BOTH? Each tradition has its strengths. Each has its weaknesses. In fact, paper maps and electronic navigational aids are natural complements. Toss some local knowledge into the mix, and you have a powerful tool kit at your disposal. Then, even if one tool lets you down, you’ll always have what you need to stay on the map. And that’s a good place for any paddler to be.

Copyright © 2008 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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