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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Art of Planning a Big Trip

Part 2: Maps and Dreams

by Tamia Nelson

A Big Trip is born in a dream. More often than not that dream begins with a map. Maps are wonderful things. Unfortunately, they don't yield their secrets up to everyone. Map-reading is like paddling or sailing: it's not an instinctive skill. It's an art which must be learned. I'm not even going to try to explain that art here and now. I'd need far more than 750 words, and a whole portfolio of illustrations, to boot. Something for another day, perhaps.

Instead, I'll begin by assuming that you can already make sense of maps. If you can't, get a friend to teach you, or check out a good book from the public library. I can recommend Percy Blandford's Maps & Compasses. It's clearly-written, reasonably well-illustrated and comprehensive. There are other equally good choices, I'm sure.

Now get a good atlas. If you're looking to take your Big Trip in the United States, pick up a state atlas. Here, you can't do better than one of the DeLorme series. If your eyes turn "north of the border," go to the library and hunt up the Canada Atlas and Gazetteer. It's a big book, and you'll find it in the reference section. While you're there, pull the Times Atlas of the World off the shelf and get acquainted. Sooner or later, you'll get curious about waterways outside North America. (You may already live there, of course!) With the Times Atlas, you hold the whole world in your hands. Marvelous feeling, isn't it?

For the moment, however, let's say that you're planning a Big Trip close to home, and that your home is somewhere in the United States. I suppose that this, too, may require some explanation. A Big Trip can take you anywhere. You don't even have to leave your backyard. It's not the number of miles you travel, or even the number of days you spend away, that makes a trip into a Big Trip. Any trip which requires advance planning and broadens your understanding of the world is a Big Trip, even if you only walk around the block.

Most of us want something more, however. We think we know everything there is to know about our home waters; that we've seen everything there is to see. We want something exotic—something entirely new. If that's what you want, too, then go for it. Go as far as you can for as long as you can stay away, and make the most of the experience. Just don't overlook the opportunities you can find on your doorstep. You may discover that you don't know the neighborhood as well as you thought.

Once you have your atlas, leaf through the pages and wait for something to catch your eye. It may be a curiously-shaped lake, a little-advertised park located in a place you've always wanted to visit, or just a familiar name. Whatever it is that gets your attention, begin checking it out. Look closer at the map. Look for access roads, possible launching sites, nearby public lands and wildlife areas. Get the feel of the place, in short. If you have a DeLorme atlas, and if you've mastered the rudiments of reading maps, you'll soon know a great deal more. The extent of forest cover. The location of bogs, swamps and marshes. The height and profile of surrounding hills and mountains. It's all there for anyone who can read the map-maker's alphabet. Fifteen minutes and you can know more about a place you've never been to than many of the people who've lived there all of their lives.

Happy accidents play a role in all this, to be sure. It's what the literary types call serendipity. If you've ever read R. M. Patterson's classic tale, The Dangerous River, you may remember how it begins. If you haven't read it, do so now. Patterson has few equals as a writer. Here he is, for example, telling how he became interested in the South Nahanni, the "dangerous river" of the book's title. (I've taken the liberty of editing his account to save space.)

I came back from the City by way of Harrod's and picked out a book from the library there; then I took myself home to a blazing fire and a deep armchair. The book was Michael H. Mason's The Arctic Forests. There were a couple of maps in the back of it, and on one of them the Yukon-Mackenzie divide was shown as a dotted line, named (inaccurately) "Rocky Mountains." Reaching up into the southern portion of these so-called Rockies, and rising near the heads of the Pelly, there was a river. The river led into the country I had always wanted to see, and its name was the South Nahanni.

In Patterson's case, it was a map in a book that got him started, and not an atlas, but it makes no difference. Six month's after he opened Mason's Arctic Forests, Patterson was poling up the Liard, headed for the mouth of the Nahanni. That's the seductive power of maps.

© Verloren Hoop Productions 1999

That's it for now. Tamia will be here next week. In the meantime, we'd like to hear from you. Send your comments and questions to us at (No attachments, audio clips or family snaps, please!) I won't promise that we'll answer each letter, but I can promise that we'll read every one—and we will. 'Nuff said.

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