Jun 11 2015

The Language of Maps: A Primer

Mappa Mundi

Not so very long ago, no paddler or hillwalker would head out the door without tucking a topographic map into his (or her) pack. But that was then. Today, even supposedly expert trekkers attempt winter ascents above treeline with no other navigational aid than a cell phone. And — no coincidence, this — I’ve lost count of the number of hikers I’ve met on nearby trails who were staring in obvious perplexity at a diminutive screen and wondering where the Google map went. They’ve learned, a little too late, that network coverage is a sometimes thing in much of northern New York.

“Do you know where The River is?” these would‑be aquarians almost invariably ask when they see me approach. I’m always at a loss how to answer. In truth, I’m reluctant to give directions to hapless pilgrims, even though I could easily show them the way to the water’s edge. (If they’d just unplug their ear‑buds, they’d likely hear the roar of the falls.) But I’m by no means sure that, having found The River, they could then find their way back to the trailhead. Which is why I started carrying a sheaf of photocopied topographic maps to give to anyone in need of direction. I figured this would solve the problem.

But it didn’t. Many in the Legion of the Lost looked at the photocopied maps with bemused bewilderment. I might as well have handed them a page from Newton’s Principia, in the original Latin, no less. That’s when it dawned on me that the art of map‑reading — at least the art of reading topographic maps — is very nearly a lost art. Like the Latin language, the language of maps must now be numbered among the dead, a relic of an extinct civilization. This is depressingly easy to understand. A lot of backcountry newcomers (not all of them young, by any means) have never seen a topographic map, let alone used one to navigate, and even some old hands have gone all‑electronic, convinced that the Age of Paper has ended forever. Still, newcomer or old hand, it makes no difference in the end. Any language grows stale for want of daily use, and the language of maps is no exception.

I’m going to try to do something about this. In short, I’m going to try to bring the art of map‑reading back from the dead. This won’t interest everyone, I know. Map language holds no mysteries for the dwindling number of paddlers who learned the art when they were young, and who have never ceased to practice it. They will find little or nothing here that is new. But others, less practiced or less adept, may indeed learn something to their advantage. It’s not as if Farwell and I haven’t written about maps and map language before, of course. We have. There’s a list of our earlier articles at the end of this column. Yet we’ve never attempted a primer on the subject. Until today.

So here goes. And I’ll start with the amo, amas, amat of cartography: The unveiling of the map… Read more…


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Jun 05 2015

Road Work Ahead at TN Outside

Remember the Information Superhighway? Well, TN Outside has never been more than a byway on that great thoroughfare. But even byways need regular maintenance, and as work crews attend to long-deferred chores, signs like the one in the photo below are popping up all over northern North America.

TN Outside is no exception. For the next few months, we’ll be trimming our overgrown verges, regrading our base course, and laying a new reading surface. We’ll also be surveying rights of way for a couple of new routes. This will keep us pretty busy — too busy to maintain our regular schedule of articles. So don’t look for much that’s new until later in the year. We’ll keep posting links to current Paddling.net columns on Thursdays, however, and most of what’s now on the site will remain, though it will likely end up in a different place.

The bottom line? If you’re looking for something you saw here in the past, and you can’t find it, just let us know. We’ll do our best to point you in the right direction. And in the meantime, check “below the fold” for any breaking news.

Work Ahead


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Jun 04 2015

The Little Things That Mean So Much: Get a Grip!

Get a Grip

When my climbing buddy Kyle, his fingers protected only by a sodden ragg wool mitt, lifted the steaming pot of oatmeal from the roaring 111B, his reaction wouldn’t have seemed out of place in a Three Stooges comedy. But it was no laughing matter, especially when he flung the pot from his grasp and sent scalding oatmeal spraying around our campsite.

Our group had spent the night high up in a mountain valley in Washington state, almost within strolling distance of the Canadian border. The day before had been a long one. We’d made our way cautiously across a glacier, climbed a peak, and then descending by glissading down a snowfield. The snow had been firm when we set out in the chill morning air, but the afternoon sun softened it and made it sloppy, and those of us who’d failed to cover their ragg mittens with waterproof shells soon found that the thick wool had soaked through. And it was still wet when the sun woke us the following day.

But Kyle had no spare mittens in his pack, and wet wool was better than bare fingers in the frosty alpine air. It was his turn to make breakfast. And when the time came to lift the pot off the stove, he grabbed it without a second thought. His mittens were thick, weren’t they? He’d grabbed hot pots with them many times. No problem.

This time was different, however. Before, his mittens had been dry. Today they were soaking wet, and the 111B’s blowtorch burner had done its job. The pot was hot — very, very hot. The stage had now been set. Events unfolded with a tragic inevitability. Kyle’s mittened hand closed on the pot’s rolled rim. A plume of steam enfolded it, instantly parboiling his fingers. And his screams — to borrow one of John Steinbeck’s memorable lines — were enough to “make the welkin ring.” Kyle hurled the pot from his hand like a discus. It flew across the meadow, trailing filaments of piping‑hot oatmeal in its wake.

Luckily, no one stood (or squatted) in its path. And though the oatmeal was a lost cause, the pot — a sturdy four‑liter Sigg — suffered only a few minor dents. Still, there were plenty of grumbles under the cook tarp, and Kyle, who had dashed off to thrust his scalded fingers into a nearby drift of dirty snow, received precious little sympathy from any of us on his return. He was painfully reminded of his folly for days afterward, too, every time it was his turn to belay.

The discerning reader may now be wondering why Kyle didn’t use a pot grip. And the answer is simple: We didn’t have one. We did bring one, but it had gone AWOL at an earlier campsite, and none of us was prepared to pack up and go home on account of a missing pot grip. Anyway, we were doing fine with our thick wool mittens. Until it was Kyle’s turn to cook breakfast, that is. Then he got a valuable lesson, one of the first things learned by novice cooks in busy kitchens: “Side towels” make acceptable pot grips — but only when they’re dry. A wet towel (or a sodden mitten) offers no more protection from a hot pot than a square of wet bumwad. It’s not a lesson likely to be forgot.

Nor have I forgotten it. Years have passed since Kyle’s Three Stooges moment, but it came to mind just the other day, when I needed to get a grip… Read more…


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