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Boundary Waters named by USA Today as one of the Top Ten Places to Extend the Summer

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Boundary Waters

GPS: Global Positioning Systems by Chuck Holton

One of the great joys of a trip to the Boundary Waters is the ability to lose oneself in the limitless expanse of clear water and blue sky. Few people, however, do so with the intention of staying lost. The labyrinth of waterways that make up the canoe country can sometimes confuse even the best of navigators since, after awhile, every shoreline seems to look the same. Many people have experienced the anxious feeling of looking for a portage that just isn't there, taking a wrong turn and ending up in a different lake than they had planned, or having to backtrack to find where they got off course. Some would philosophically assert that this is all part of the boundary waters experience, and it is, but as we discovered on a recent six day outing, knowing exactly where you are isn't necessarily a bad thing. It can mean less time paddling and more time for fishing, relaxing, or exploring.

The newest generation of Global Positioning Systems offers canoeists the ability to increase the enjoyment and safety of a backcountry trip, as well as allowing increased flexibility on which route to take. In addition, a GPS can provide an exact record of the route taken and other pertinent data after the trip that will do far more than answer the age old question: ''Where am I?''

If you're not familiar with the Global Positioning System, it consists of a constellation of satellites that the U.S. Military began putting into orbit around 1990. There are now more than 24 satellites active. The system continues to be funded and controlled by the U.S. Department of Defense, and the Russian Federation is working on a system of their own that will also be made available for civilian use. Put simply, each satellite continuously broadcasts its position back to earth with a coded signal that can be processed by a GPS Receiver on the ground.

GPS receivers have a variety of applications. Models are available for boats, aircraft and automobiles, as well as for scientific and surveying purposes, but this article will deal exclusively with the handheld models best suited for backcountry travel.

A handheld GPS receiver picks up signals from at least four navigation satellites and uses those signals to compute it's own position, speed, altitude, and the exact time. From this data most units can calculate sunrise and sunset data, save waypoints and tracks, and give estimated time of arrival, among other things.

Until recently, using a GPS took an exceptional understanding of arcane navigational terms such as cross track error and velocity made good. The user had to have a working knowledge of map datums such as the Universal Transverse Mercator Projection, as well as a strong back for all of the batteries that a GPS unit would consume on a weeklong outing. Fortunately, the newest generation of handheld GPS receivers is small enough to fit in a jeans pocket and intuitive enough for my mother to use and understand.

It's important to point out that a GPS is only a navigational aid! Owning a GPS does not mean you can throw away all of your paper maps. Also, if you have no clue how to read a map, a GPS won't do you much good either, unless someone else sets it up for you. As GPS systems get better and more user friendly, however, it's not difficult to imagine a day when outfitters will rent you a handheld receiver as a "virtual guide." With topographic maps of the area and your trip route already programmed in, all you would have to do is follow the directions on the unit to get to your campsite, or a good place to catch trophy walleye, or to find that overgrown portage that from the water looks more like a beaver run than a trail. Because of the nature of electronic gadgets, of course, it would never be prudent to enter the wilderness without map and compass as backup.

Although there are at least ten different companies putting their names on nearly fifty handheld GPS units these days, all GPS receivers on the market can be divided into two categories: Those that show a map on the unit's display, called ''Mapping receivers'', and those that don't (someone stayed up all night thinking of this) called ''Non-mapping receivers''. At the low end of the GPS price range are the non-mapping units that show your location as a grid coordinate. One of these will suffice as a navigational aid (emphasis on the word ''aid'') in the canoe country only if you are proficient enough to correlate a grid coordinate to a position on a paper map. These units are best at telling you where you've BEEN, and how to get BACK, it's more difficult to get them to tell you where you are going and when you'll get there. One of these units would do you very little good if a moose ate your map. Some of them have extras like altimeters and digital compasses built into them. If this sounds like too much trouble, you probably want to opt for a unit that shows you a map of where you are, and allows you to zoom in and out to find where you want to be.

Keep in mind that all handheld GPS units on the market today will only show you how to get to your destination in a STRAIGHT LINE. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, because it can help you determine the shortest distance across a large lake. It can be misleading, however, if you are following a circuitous route. This is another point in favor of mapping receivers. If you plot a course to your intended campsite and there's a large landmass with a 300-rod portage between you and your destination, a mapping receiver will make it more immediately apparent, and make it easier to find an alternate route.

Another feature common to virtually all handheld GPS units is the non-color screen. While there are a few with color screens, they tend to be units that you'd more likely carry in a car than a canoe. I'm sure that someday all GPS units will have color screens, but for now you'll most likely have to make do with a monochrome one. I'm not sure the advantage of color would justify the additional cost anyway.

[PHOTO: The Garmin eTrex Vista handheld GPS unitAn important note from the DUH! department: if you were buying a GPS for the purpose of navigating around the Boundary ''Waters'', it would be a good idea to get one that floats and is watertight. Not all are. Weight and battery life are also key features: I once owned a nifty GPS unit that would send and receive email from anywhere in the world. The problem was that it was about the size of a World War II field telephone and it had a proprietary rechargeable battery. It would last for a couple of days in the woods and then the battery would die, and I'd be stuck until we got back to civilization to recharge it. Most handheld units these days last from 8 to 24 hours on a set of either two or four AA batteries.

In my opinion, the Garmin eTrex Vista is probably the best all around handheld unit on the market today for the wilderness enthusiast. The eTrex Vista combines a basemap of North and South America, with a barometric altimeter and electronic compass. The Vista also boasts an internal memory capacity of 24 megabytes, which allows it to accept downloaded mapping data from GARMIN's MapSourceR CD-ROMs. Its only drawback for canoeists is that while the unit is waterproof (to 1 meter), it does not float, so if you drop one into the lake be prepared to dive in after it. The eTrex Vista goes for about $350 in a store, and around $285 on auction sites such as Ebay. Detailed downloadable topographic maps must be purchased separately.

The first handheld GPS receiver that I owned was a Magellan 2000xl. At the time, it was one of the best units available. It would store waypoints and take me right to any grid coordinate I programmed into it, providing I used the right map datum and could accurately read the latitude and longitude off of a paper map. It ate four AA batteries in about 8 hours. I loved it, and took it everywhere. After two years, though, I came to the realization that the newer generation units had much more to offer. Being the sentimental guy that I am, however, I quickly sold it and acquired a Garmin eMap GPS receiver on E-bay. I also invested in topographic software from Garmin's MapsourceR division. The eMap's big advantage is that I can upload maps from my computer onto the unit and it will display my position in real time right on the unit's display screen, not as a coordinate, but as a point on the virtual map. The unit only weighs six ounces, and my one year old son can't figure out if it's a mobile phone or a TV Remote, which gives you an idea on its size. It will also go for more than twelve hours on a good set of AA's. When driving on the freeway, the eMap tells me what exit is coming up, and which services are available at that exit. I can keep track of mileage and the real time speed is more accurate than the speedometer in my Suburban.

Some friends and I recently spent a glorious six days in the Boundary Waters, starting from Saganaga Lake and making a loop around through South Knife Lake and back through Seagull Lake. I got designated ''trip navigator'' because, besides having an unnatural love of maps, I was doing the designating.

Several months before the trip, we made reservations with our outfitters, and ordered some maps from them. The manager there recommended the route mentioned above as a ''moderate''trip for eight first timers. We mapped out our expected route, then I plotted it on theMapsource 1:100,000 topographic maps on my computer. From there I downloaded our planned course to the GPS receiver, complete with the topo maps of that area.

When it came time for the trip, we met in Minneapolis, the eight of us converging from five different states. We piled into the Suburban with Bongo, my Jack Russell Terrier, and headed north toward Grand Marais.

On the way there, the E-map helped us find our way out of the Minneapolis airport, then find I-35 North. It even told us what restaurants we'd find at upcoming exits. When we arrived in Grand Marais, it helped us find the right turnoff for the Gunflint Trail.

The next morning, we drew our canoes and other equipment, and then headed north for the end of the Gunflint trail, where a pre-arranged boat was waiting to give us a ride to American point. The topographic maps on the eMap made the ride more interesting by allowing me to keep track of exactly where we were during the ride, even giving me the names of the islands that we passed. According to the unit, we averaged 14.1 miles per hour for the 7.5-mile one-way trip to American Point.

From there we put our canoes in the water and headed southwest toward Monument portage. As we neared the portage it was interesting to know exactly how close we were to the border of Canada, which runs down the middle of the lake. When one of the canoes in our group strayed north a bit, the GPS showed that they had crossed the border. ''Hey, get out of Canada you two!'' I yelled to them, ''Before the Mounties come for you!''

[PHOTO: The EMap unit display screen, showing an electronic mapSitting in the rear of the canoe, I placed the eMap on my pack in front of me where I could see it. I tied it to my person with a length of parachute cord in case we hit a wave or something and it fell out of the boat. I was a little worried about the fact that the eMap is NOT waterproof, and had to be extra careful not to let it get wet. As it turned out, we had smooth sailing for the entire trip, so it wasn't much of a problem.

Throughout the six days we spent paddling, the GPS continued to prove its worth. It helped me mark a spot where a favorite lure got snagged while fishing so that I could go back diving for it after pitching camp and changing into swim trunks. It helped us track into the wind and maintain course on a long paddle across South Knife Lake, helping us reach our campsite faster, which gave us more time to relax after a long day of paddling. I figured out that 60 strokes of my paddle equal roughly 1/10th of a mile on a calm day. The sunrise/sunset information provided by the eMap made sure I knew when to get up in time to catch a beautiful sunrise on film. The bathymetric (underwater topography) data it provided helped us find submerged rock piles to fish on. We always knew how far we were from the next portage, though it didn't make executing them any easier. It even enabled us to help another group of paddlers find an overgrown portage that they had been unable to find. It kept a track in memory everywhere we went, which made plotting our exact course when we got back as easy as downloading that track to my laptop. We traveled exactly 45.1 miles. Our average speed on the water was 3.5 miles per hour, with a top speed of 17 mph as we naively shot through a rapids that we probably should have portaged around.

We were mentioning all of this to our outfitters when we finished the trip. They wondered if it wouldn't be profitable to have a few GPS units for rent in the shop, and everyone in our group agreed that the eMap was definitely worth having along with us. Some folks that I've talked to since have expressed reservations about the units, wondering if they're really worth the extra weight. I'd assert that while a GPS is not necessarily essential equipment, it did make the trip more interesting and enjoyable, and for less than a pound of extra weight, including batteries, it was definitely worth it.


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