Where On Earth Is Tamia?
Only Her GPS Knows for Sure
By Tamia Nelson
June 8, 2010
My first navigational aid was a button compass, given to me by my grandfather when he retired from the post office, left the big city, and set up housekeeping in farm country. Though I no longer have it, I'm pretty sure it was just a trinket, maybe even a prize from a box of Cracker Jacks. It certainly wasn't a serious tool. My grandfather probably wouldn't have known the difference. Unlike Grandad, he was no woodsman. But I didn't care if the tiny compass was a tool or a toy. I was only four years old when my grandfather put it in my hands, and I could see there was magic in the way the needle always pointed north, no matter which way I turned. It was powerful magic, indeed. The spell of the needle kept me in its grip from then on. A little later, when I was about 10, I got the real thing: a simple pocket compass with a red and white needle and a brass case that sported a flip‑up cover like an old‑fashioned watch. Grandad showed me how to use it, and he taught me how to read a topographic map, too.
Many other compasses have come my way in subsequent years. These include a couple of Silva orienteering models and a Brunton Pocket Transit, as well as a nifty little bell‑cum‑compass that I mounted on the handlebars of my "amphibious" bicycle. I also have several filing cabinets filled with quads and charts. After all, map‑and‑compass navigation was an integral part of my work as a field geologist, and I didn't put my tools away at the end of a job. I took them with me everywhere I went. A compass guided me on trailless treks through mountain ranges on both sides of the continent, kept me from missing the starts of little‑used portage trails in northern Québec, and helped me stay more or less found in the (almost) featureless expanse of the James Bay Lowlands. And I still carry one, even if I'm only venturing a couple of miles from home. I always have a map in my pack, too, and it's a rare trip when I don't discover something new, usually with the help of these two old friends, even on waters I've paddled dozens of times. Map and compass stand high on the list of Ten Essentials, and for very good reason.
That said, a while back I started to think the unthinkable: I began to wonder if it was…
Time to Buy a GPS
It began when I was trying to find my way back to a porcupine den that I'd first stumbled across in winter. The wood in question isn't remote or extensive — probably no more than a hundred acres or so — and while it's easy enough to become "confused" if you venture off the beaten track, it's mighty hard to stay lost for very long, with The River, a road, and two well‑worn trails defining the borders. You'd think, then, that returning to the porcupine den would have been a snap. And it was. Up to a point, that is. I had no trouble revisiting the den in winter. But in winter the woods were open, and I could spot the small hollow from a distance of 50 yards or more. It was a very different story in late spring, however, with the birch and beech in full leaf, and ferns and wildflowers competing to see which could carpet more of the forest floor. I knew I'd be lucky if I could spot the den at five yards, let alone fifty. And sure enough, even after three tries I still hadn't located it, despite having field notes and a sketch map to guide me.
So I found myself wishing I'd borrowed Farwell's little GPS receiver and pinpointed the site of the den when I had the chance. Then I could have walked right up to it in any season, no matter how luxuriant the new growth. But I hadn't, and I didn't. And I couldn't.
This momentary frustration was an epiphany of sorts, and it triggered a cascade of other, even more heretical thoughts. What if I'd taken a GPS with me when I was on the track of the fishers, foxes, and other wild creatures whose trails crisscrossed the wooded hills along The River? I'd have had a comprehensive record of their wanderings (and mine, for that matter), with a level of accuracy far exceeding my hastily drawn sketch maps.
The die was cast. Only one conclusion was possible: It was high time that I got a GPS of my own. Was this about‑face inevitable? Probably. But I didn't yield without some misgivings. Despite my (sometimes hesitant) embrace of new technology, in my heart of hearts I'm not really a digital girl. That said, I'm writing this article on a computer, working from notes I recorded in the field, and all the photos that accompany it were taken with a digital camera. Nor am I eager to return to the days when I banged out 100‑page reports on a manual typewriter — I could empty a bottle of Wite‑Out in an afternoon — and waited a week or more for my film to come back from the processor, only to discover that half my shots were unusable. Still, I'm not what you'd call an early‑adopter. Sometimes this pays off, of course. Prices drop as new technologies mature, and capabilities grow. This has certainly been true for portable Global Positioning System receivers. A case in point: Farwell, though not exactly a rabid technophile himself, was nevertheless much quicker to jump on the GPS bandwagon than I was. The result? He paid almost twice as much as I did for a less capable receiver. The other side of the coin? He's had his GPS for more than three years already, and he's put it to good use. But now I've closed the gap. I've got a GPS of my own.
And here it is:
It's a Garmin eTrex Legend HCx (aka "Gar") boasting a 1.5‑inch by 2‑inch TFT LCD color display and a 4GB memory card, in a package not much bigger than my SandY 183 lensatic compass. It may not look like much, but…
My GPS is a Many‑Spendoured Thing
To begin with, Gar does more than tell me where in the world I am, in just about every format from Lat‑Long to MGRS (Military Grid Reference System) to UTM. It shows me on a topographic map. And I can wander pretty far afield without traveling off that map. Gar's tiny microSD card will hold many more quads than I could ever cram into a map case: enough to cover a continent, at least in theory. In truth, a ceiling on the number of "tiles" — the basic building blocks of a Garmin mapset — limits coverage to something like half the continental US at any one time. That's not too bad, though, is it? Especially as I can upload a fresh mapset anytime I want.
And that's not all. Gar not only tells me where I am, he also keeps track of where I've been, storing a trail of electronic breadcrumbs that reflects my every detour and doubling back. For someone accustomed to the ambiguities and uncertainties of map‑and‑compass navigation, or the limitations of even the most carefully executed celestial fixes, GPS accuracy is astonishing. Farwell, whose wide‑ranging amphibious reconnaissance sorties sometimes take him a hundred miles or more in a day, was surprised to see that his breadcrumb track recorded the exact location and duration of every pit stop. He could even see where he'd ducked behind a tree to avoid offending the occupants of a passing car. This highlights yet another of Gar's many virtues: With just a couple of clicks, I can create an electronic monument, or "waypoint," at any location I want, its position accurate to within 10 or 20 feet. This would have been the perfect way for me to flag the location of the porcupine den that eluded me for so long earlier in the spring.
The bottom line? If, like me, you're a recent convert to electronic navigation, be sure you use your GPS' many talents to the full. You have the ultimate tool for making maps on the run, for one thing. To be sure, I've done plenty of field surveys with nothing more than my Brunton pocket transit, a steel tape, and a plane table. But while such surveys can be very accurate, they're not exactly speedy. A pace‑and‑compass traverse is much faster, of course, but it's also far less accurate. Good enough for a sketch map in your journal, perhaps, but not for anything more demanding. With a GPS, however, you have the best of both worlds: speed and accuracy. All you have to do is switch your GPS on and then walk or paddle. The GPS will record every bend in the trail — or give you a chart of each twist and turn in the most torturous of channels in the most labyrinthine of river deltas. It will even lead you back out when you find yourself trapped in a cul‑de‑sac. (Think of how much trouble this could have saved Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen!)
Then, once you get home, you can download your new track and make it a permanent addition to your computer's map library. Here's an example from my own trail‑mapping, done earlier in the year and displayed on my laptop:
I was scouting a portage trail near The River, just after ice‑out, and I made a quick dash along a rocky ridge that juts into the channel. The trail doesn't appear on any published quad — not even the 1:24,000 USGS 7.5‑minute series — but it's on the map stored in my computer, thanks to Gar's quiet competence. And now here's a second example. It shows a brief "photo safari" I made along one of the trails at the Paul Smith's Visitor Interpretive Center in the northern Adirondacks, earlier in the year:
This trail, too, appears on no published quad, though the Interpretive Center makes a reasonably good map of the trail system available to visitors. And before you ask, I wasn't walking on water — or wading in the bog. The waist of the lake is spanned by a pontoon bridge, and the extensive bog is crossed by a boardwalk.
There you have it: two examples of mapping on the move. By the way, the tracks are displayed on different base maps. I mapped the River track on the free New York Topo from the GPS File Depot, while the Interpretive Center track was plotted against Garmin's own Topo US 2008. For comparison's sake, here's what a track looks like on Gar's built‑in display (using Garmin's Topo US):
It shows my path on a recent trek through a portion of the Porcupine Wood. The scale is given by the bar in the lower left; it can be increased or decreased at will. The number in the box is the elevation (in feet) at the cursor. As you can see, a GPS makes off‑trail navigation far easier than it was when map and compass were the only tools available, particularly in places where readily identifiable landmarks are few and far between. And that brings me to my final point:
GPS Isn't Just for Making Tracks
It didn't take long for me to discover that Gar could be used for far more than I'd thought. In the months that we've been knocking around the backcountry together, he's helped me…
- Discover "hidden" waterways during amphibious explorations
- Get back on the map after I'd become confused while paddling in a swamp
- Bushwhack a path far from the madding crowd on a busy holiday weekend
I can also mount Gar on the handlebars of my bike. Garmin sells a bracket expressly for this purpose, and while it's somewhat overpriced, it keeps a good grip on the GPS, even in the roughest terrain. Still, it's worthwhile wrapping the lanyard around the 'bars, too. Not only will this provide a backup if the bracket should someday fail, but it keeps the lanyard out of the spokes as you pedal along. (The bicycle bracket can be adapted to fit on a canoe thwart, as well.) All in all, a GPS makes amphibious scouting trips much simpler. In addition to telling me when I'm approaching a stream or pond — even a tiny rill hidden behind a stand of pines and all but invisible from the road — my GPS makes it easy for me to waypoint possible put‑ins and take‑outs. Furthermore, Gar's continuously updated log of times and distances makes planning my return trip with an inflatable or other "bagboat" in tow much more straightforward. I can generate a profile that shows me each climb on the route, for one thing. And when you're hauling your boat and all your gear with a bicycle, that's mighty useful information!
You know, now that I come to think of it, maybe I am a digital girl, after all.
OK. I may be a digital girl, but I'm not exactly what you'd call a technophile. Nor am I a technophobe. I'm a pragmatist. And I have a new and powerful navigational tool. After only a short time with my GPS, I've come to understand why this technology has so much to offer paddlers and other backcounty travelers. Don't get me wrong. Like all GPS receivers, my Gar has his limitations. I'm not likely to sit down with a wee dram of Laphroaig and squint at Gar's tiny backlit display, dreaming about all the places I want to explore. There's just no substitute for a real map here. And I'll never go afield without a compass and a quad (or chart). But with Gar at my side and spare batteries in my pack it won't matter a bit if I'm crawling through the dark heart of a trackless spruce hell or seated in my pack canoe in the middle of some watery labyrinth. I'll always know exactly where I am. And that's a very good feeling, indeed.
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