On the Map
The Paper Chase Gets Real
Part 1: Testing Time for Paddlers
By Tamia Nelson
April 1, 2014
Where am I? That's a loaded question, with implications that range far beyond the obvious. But I'm neither philosopher, nor theologian, nor motivational therapist, and this is no treatise. So the answer to my question can be found by looking at a map. Or — and this is much more likely nowadays — by glancing at the diminutive display on your GPS, tablet, or cell phone. Therein lies the crux of the problem. As electronic navigation tools displace the map and compass, fewer and fewer paddlers remember how to read a map. In fact, more and more of us have never learned. Which is too bad, because, even if the National Security Agency always has you in its eye, it's not taking calls. And anyway, your cell phone and GPS batteries may fail without warning at any time, leaving you no choice but to wander without direction, a stranger in a strange land.
The upshot? Having become slavishly dependent on our electronic servants, we now find ourselves in an uncomfortable position: Our roles have been reversed. The world has turned upside down. In effect, our erstwhile servants have become our masters. And when they retreat into a cybercellular sulk, as they all do from time to time, we are immediately and irretrievably lost — lost in a very literal sense, groping our way unguided across a "darkling plain," with "neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain."
Perhaps I exaggerate. I've certainly gone beyond my stated intention to stick to the obvious. Which is why what follows is that most obvious of quasi‑literary devices: a quiz. In the hopes of stimulating long‑dormant skills in those whose practice has grown stale — and inducing any paddler now completely ignorant of the art of map‑reading to go to school on the elements of navigation, however belatedly — I'm going to put a series of questions to you. And the answers to my questions can all be found on a map.
If you know how to read it, that is.
Ready? Then let's get started. But first, a cautionary note: Although the questions that follow are elementary, this is not a quiz for the faint of heart. You will find no helpful lists of possible responses for you to pick and choose from. Real navigation problems are not multiple‑choice exams, after all. You have to find the answers within yourself. Or be condemned to wander aimlessly.
Enough. It's time to …
Put Your Map‑Reading Skills to the Test
Don't worry, though. No one else — with the exception of the NSA — will know how you do. You get to grade your own exam. And that's as it should be, since the object of the exercise is not to embarrass, but to encourage. If you finish the quiz knowing what you don't know, it's served its purpose.
A few words about the maps are in order at this point:
- All are reproduced from USGS topographic quadrangles.
- Except as noted, all elevations and distances are in English measure.
- North is up in every instance. Which means that south is down, east is right, and west is left. Got it?
- If no scale is shown, you won't need it.
What about the answers? Well, if your skills are up to speed, you'll know when you are right. And if you haven't a clue, you'll probably know that, too. But if you want to compare your answers with mine, you'll have to wait till next week. All will then be revealed. Who knows? You may spot a place where I've gone wrong. It's happened many times.
Now here goes. We'll start the day hanging …
- In which general direction does the South Branch of the Moose River flow? How do you know? (A reminder: North is up on every map in the quiz. I won't say this again.)
- What is the map's contour interval? (English measure, remember?) How do you know? And no, you don't need the map legend to answer this.
- You're standing alongside the Moose River at the point marked X. You look east. Which bank of the river rises most steeply: the north bank, or the south? How do you know?
We're finished with the Moose River. What's that I hear you saying?
Not by a Dam Site! (Map B) Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you, but we have to move on. And details matter here, so unless your near vision is very good, you'll want to right‑click on the map to embiggen it. Then, when you're ready, answer the questions.
- What's the drop in the falls below the second (downstream) dam, and how do you know? (I'm going to stop repeating the "How do you know?" coda from here on out, but you should be able to answer it for any navigational problem. After all, if you don't know how you know something to be true, you're just guessing. And guessing isn't good enough.)
- There are several draws — most likely dry streambeds — on the slope west of the HILL road. Identify them. How many are there?
Next, let's take a closer look at another drop. And the big question this time is …
By the way, you can use a calculator if you want, but since you probably won't have one with you in the field, I'd suggest pencil and paper. Or a pocket slide rule. (Farwell has a cheapie that doubles as a map rule. But I don't fancy your chances of finding its like today. And he still misses his old K+E Log‑Log Duplex Decitrig.)
- Assuming that the intermittent stream shown on the map flows all the way to the gaging station during some seasons of the year, what's the total drop in feet between the road and the gauge?
- And what's the intermittent stream's average gradient (drop in feet per mile) along the same stretch? (Hint: You'll probably find it easier to answer this question if you print the map.)
OK. Put your calculator away. We have a field problem next, and you'd best be ready to sweat a bit. We're going …
Up, Up, and Over. (Map D) I'll set the scene: You're heading downriver on the Indian. (You should be able to tell which way that is, just by glancing at the map.) But there's a dam (red arrow) in your way. And for the sake of the exercise, assume that there are no marked portages or established take‑outs. What do you do now? (NB: Answer the questions based on what you can see on the map, not on your local knowledge.)
- Which side of the dam do you think offers the best way around, and why? (In this exercise — unlike in real life — you can trespass at will.)
- Sketch a rough topographic profile (cross‑section) of the river valley along the W – E line. (Here again, you'll find that things are much easier if you print the map.)
Tired of doing battle with moving water? Me, too. Which is why I suggest we now spend a little time in lake country, where we can tackle a …
- The red arrows identify two stylized anchors, one enclosed in a circle and one not. What do those symbols mean, and why would paddlers want to know?
- I've marked four faint dashed lines with blue arrows. What are these, and do you think you'd want to drive your car down any of them?
You know what? I'm really enjoying myself. So let's stay on the lakes a little while longer. And I can't think of a prettier‑sounding place than …
- There are three largish islands on the lake. Which one would be the best place to spend the night?
- Next, let's suppose you left your car at a put‑in on the eastern end of the lake, then paddled west, heading around the islands mentioned in the first question. You had the wind behind you for once, and you made good time, but now your partner is starting to feel distinctly unwell. (It's probably the cold pepperoni pizza you shared on the drive up.) To make matters worse, the easterly breeze has stiffened into a near gale, turning Evergreen Lake into something resembling the North Atlantic in winter. (That's what it looks like from your seat in the canoe, anyway.)
This is the last straw for your partner. He doesn't want to continue. He wants to go home, and the sooner, the better. The problem? He doesn't think he's up to paddling back against the wind‑driven rollers. So you decide to beach your canoe at the western end of the lake and hike out along the road to your car. (You see the road on the map, don't you?) Then you'll drive to the take‑out to pick up your buddy and your gear.
That's your plan. But what's the best place to take out? And is your plan a good one? NB: For the sake of this question, imagine that you have no more of the map than the bit I've reproduced. The rest of the quad was torn from your hands by a gust of wind. (Bet you'll use a map case and lanyard the next time!)
The wind on Evergreen Lake was brutal, wasn't it? Let's leave the lake country and let the water do some of the work again. What do you say to a trip on a …
- What does the brown stipple scattered along the riverbanks indicate, and what does it tell you about the character of the river?
- What else can you infer about the river and its valley by looking at the map?
That was nice and relaxing, wasn't it? But I'm itching to get to grips with fast‑moving water again. I think it's time for …
- Find OK Slip Brook and the unnamed stream draining Carter Pond. Which stream is steeper overall? (You'll probably want to print out the map before tackling this one. And no, you don't need the map's scale to answer the question.)
- Look closely: "X" marks the spot where OK Slip Brook enters the Hudson, and there's a "BM" some distance off to the west. What do these signify, and what can you determine from them?
There, now. That's the last question. It wasn't too much of an ordeal, was it?
News Flash! If you think that the Age of Paper is dead and gone forever, try finding your way home from a backcountry camp with only a busted GPS to help you. You'll soon realize that the topographic map still has a place in paddlers' packs. Of course, it won't do you any good if you don't know what it's telling you. And that's the idea behind this little quiz. If you're a seasoned gyrovague, you'll have breezed through the questions without breaking a sweat, but if you're used to navigating by satellite and getting your clues about what's coming up next on the river from the pages of a guidebook, you may have found yourself floundering. Don't worry, though. It's never too late to learn to read a map.
You say you had no problems? Good. Want to compare your answers with mine? That's easily done. You'll find my answers by clicking here.
All of the maps in this article were excerpted from digitized quadrangles produced by the United States Geological Survey. And this bounty is made freely available to paddlers — not to mention hikers, climbers, and cyclists — for the price of a click. So why not use the contact link at the USGS Map Locator website to say thanks?
Related Articles From In the Same Boat
- "On the Map: First Steps"
- "On the Map: Traditional Navigation in a Digital World"
- "On the Map: Topos to Go!"
- "Planning a Big Trip: Maps and Dreams"
- "Planning a Big Trip: Troubleshooting a River"
- "Planning a Big Trip: Staying Found"
And Interesting Stuff from Elsewhere on the Web
- "The lost era of the A‑Z map?"
A thought‑provoking article from the BBC.
- USGS Topographic Map Symbols
- USGS Map Locator and Downloader
Aladdin's Cave of Wonders. Free PDF copies of USGS quads. Get 'em while they last!
Plus Three Books That Are Well Worth Reading
- Maps & Compasses, 2nd Edition, by Percy W. Blandford (Tab Books, 1992)
Out of print, but used copies aren't hard to find.
- Be Expert With Map & Compass, 3rd Edition, by Bjorn Kjellström and Carina Kjellström Elgin (Wiley, 2009)
The latest edition of a classic orienteering text.
- Mapping, by David Greenhood (University of Chicago Press, 1964)
First published in 1964, it's still in print half a century later. Amazing!
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