Searching for the best paddling routes, portages and scenic latrines
by Darren Bush
There are two big Rubbermaid container in my basement. In one of them are long tubes of paper, rolled up and secured with rubber bands. The other contains stacks of folded waterproof paper folded into quarters for fitting into a map case.
I use the maps twice a year. When the water is soft, I take them on trips with me. When the water is hard, I just look at them. I look at them a lot.
Just a few nights ago I gathered up 30 or 40 of the rolled up maps and headed over to Bill and Gail’s house for dinner and dreaming. While dinner was cooking we rolled out the big maps and the fun began.
Some people like maps. I love maps. I’m the guy who once spent a hundred bucks to mount and frame a $12 soils map from the 1915 survey of my beloved Dane County. I then bought the maps for Green, Iowa, Grant, Sauk and Lafayette counties, pretty much the whole driftless area. Only then did I realize that the expense of framing them all would be silly, as, a) I have no wall space left, and b) I want to continue maintaining a positive conjugal status.
Random maps wallpaper my office because they’re pretty and take me back to a place at a glance. It’s better than a photograph.
Kings & cartographers
Maps have been around forever, but some medieval guy called one a Mappa Mundi, which roughly translates to “napkin of the world,” since you wrap a globe in textiles to make a round thing as flat as is possible. As the world was discovered, so followed the cartographers, obsessed with documenting things which could be known, and making it up when they didn’t. “Cartographer” is basically Greek for person who writes on paper. That’s why maritime maps are called “charts.”
Maps were worth their weight in gold, and the cartographers who drew them were held in high esteem. Roger II, King of Sicily, commissioned Moroccan cartographer Muhammed al-Idrisi to create a map of the known world and an encyclopedia of accounts of excursions to back it up. The Tabula Rogeriana (“Roger’s Book,” an excellent public relations move to name it so) was remarkably accurate, depicting the round world in 1138 with amazing accuracy. Roger was delighted. So delighted, in fact, that he had the map engraved on a 300-pound disc of silver. Of the paper copies, a handful of copies still exist. I want one of them. My birthday is in April.
Now you can Google Sicily and see a perfectly shaped triangular island and zoom in so far you can see the dome over the chapel where King Roger II is buried in the Cathedral of Palermo. What was precious has now become practically mundane.
In 30 seconds, I just learned that I can drive to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, in 38 hours. From my driveway, to Yellowknife. That is astounding to me, and it should be to you, if you think about what a cartographer had to go through to get even a rudimentary map of an easily accessible area.
Contour lines & red dots
And now, for the cost of a peppermint latte (with whip) from your favorite barista, you can buy a waterproof map of a 150-square-mile section of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. A map with such exquisite detail and a little imagination will allow you to see a three-dimensional representation of the topography. (“Topographer” is Greek for person who writes about places. Languages are cool.)
The precise lines on the maps represent the contours of the land. The closer the lines, the steeper the cliffs. Other thicker red lines represent portages, listed in rods, an arcane measurement of distance equivalent to 16.5 feet or 1/320 of a mile. Where the red lines intersect a tight cluster of contour lines, you know the portage isn’t going to be a walk in the park. When a small blue line parallels the portage, it means a picturesque though difficult walk.
Rivers run through the Boundary Waters, and many of them are navigable, especially at times of high water. Small streams aren’t necessarily navigable, but the lines are pretty. Around them little tufts of vegetation indicate a marshy area. But the best mark is a red dot.
Red dots mean campsites. Sometimes a larger lake is riddled with dozens of red dots; sometimes a small lake might have just one. It’s the red dots that intrigue me. Each red dot means a campfire circle and a pit toilet. I know of several of the latter that have panoramic view, which is somewhat incongruous when your pants are at your ankles. Nevertheless, some of the latrines provide stunning vistas.
It was red dots we were looking at on Bill and Gail’s dining room table, random objects holding them in place so they wouldn’t roll up. We were planning a trip for next fall, picking a route; one we hadn’t taken before. We sized up portages, investigated what little lakes would be worth the portage, in and out, for the chance at the one campsite which appears to be on a long slab of granite, facing east for the sunrise.
We still haven’t decided on a route, but this is a process that takes time and thoughtful contemplation. Besides, it gives us a reason to light a fire in the fireplace, enjoy a good meal, and fill the tables with a Mappa Aquae.
It’s one of the best ways to spend a January evening.
Darren Bush is owner and chief evangelist of Rutabaga Paddlesports in Madison, Wisconsin.