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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

Finding Your Way in the Canoe Country by Ed Stiles

On my first trip to the Boundary Waters I was surprised at how difficult it was to find portages and routes among the maze of islands and bays. Part of the problem was trying to identify landmarks while sitting near water level. It wasn't like the hiking I've done in the Southwest, where I live, and where a single glance often spans miles and prominent high points anchor the country. In the Boundary Waters I found a beautiful, forested wilderness that gave real physical meaning to ''not seeing the forest for the trees.''

On the first day trip I took in the Boundary Waters some years ago, I missed the channel east of Triangle Lake's big island and spent the afternoon hunting for portages between Ojibway Lake and Lake One. My wife and I weren't lost, but we often didn't know exactly where we were either. Actually, getting seriously lost in the Boundary Waters, or Quetico Provincial Park, is fairly difficult, unless you decide to leave your canoe and hike off-trail into the dense brush. Then, it's easy.

If you were to stay on the well-traveled canoe routes at the height of the season you could survive without navigational skills by simply paddling up to campsites or asking passing canoeists, ''what lake is this?'' or ''where is the portage to such and such a lake?''

While this might work, it would waste a lot of your time and spoil your image as a savvy 'voyageur'. Besides, the better your ability with map and compass, the less time you spend finding your way, which leaves more time for fishing, photography, or just lazing around camp. Knowing how to navigate also gives you the confidence to travel faster and deeper into the backcountry.

And we're not talking rocket science here. With a little practice, anyone can learn to navigate rather easily through the canoe country. And here's what you need:

  1. Your brain -- your most important piece of gear. Don't leave home without it.
  2. Your proper canoeing map -- essential. Make sure you've got a good one. Park maps, and free tourism maps, are not meant to navigate by.
  3. Your compass -- almost essential, although you can get by without it in most places.
  4. Your GPS unit -- optional. Unless, of course, you plan to hike off into the 'bush'. Then it can be invaluable.


You can buy maps from:

  1. W.A. Fisher Company. These waterproof maps show campsites (supposedly updated annually), portage routes and their lengths. Fisher maps are drawn at a smaller scale (1-1/2 inch = 1 mile) than the McKenzie Products or USGS maps discussed below. This means you may need to carry fewer maps to cover your route. But shore lines, small islands and other features are not quite as detailed.
  2. McKenzie Products. McKenzie maps show campsites, as well as portages and their lengths. They're waterproof (Tyvek paper), nearly indestructible, and larger scale than the Fisher Maps (2 inches = 1 mile) but smaller scale than the USGS 7.5-minute maps.
  3. USGS 7.5-minute maps. These are the most detailed maps and excellent for navigation (2-5/8 inches = 1 mile). You will usually need to carry more of them for a trip than you would Fisher or McKenzie maps. Unlike Fisher and McKenzie maps, they don't show campsites, portages are not marked, and they're not waterproof. You can remedy these flaws, however, with a couple of pencils or markers and some waterproofing sealer. The result is an extremely useful, custom-made map. (More about how to do this later.)

The big deal about USGS maps for GPS users is that the edges have UTM gridmarks (more about UTM later). Fisher and McKenzie maps have longitude and latitude marks, but that system is more difficult to use than the UTM grid. With some extra work, however, you could draw a fairly accurate grid on the Fisher or McKenzie maps by copying the UTM information from a USGS map.

All this goes for Boundary Waters in Minnesota. For trips into Canada, the Fisher and McKenzie maps are larger scale than the topographic maps produced by the Centre for Topographic Information of Natural Resources Canada, which are approximately 1-1/4 inch = 1 mile. But the Canadian maps are marked with a UTM grid, making them easier to use with a GPS unit.

Using the Map Alone

Before modifying your maps for your compass and/or GPS unit, let's talk about using the map by itself. I'm assuming you can read a topographic map. If not, you might want to look at ''Be Expert with Map & Compass: The Complete Orienteering Handbook'' by Bjorn Kjellstrom. It's available at many libraries and bookstores. The following web site also has topographic map tutorials: Also check with your local orienteering club. Many clubs offer map-and-compass classes, and most orienteering events include a route for beginners. It's a good place to learn and practice your skills.

IMAGE: Marked map]OK. Let's assume we're on the first day of a week-long trip to the Boundary Waters. We've just portaged 30-rods from Lower George Lake to Karl Lake and now we want to paddle into Long Island Lake. As always, we will strap the map onto the top of a pack or keep it in some other handy location so we can refer to it constantly as we paddle along. Don't shove it into the bottom of your pack to be taken out only when you're completely disoriented.

As we stand at the portage ready to shove off in our canoe, we want to do two things: 1) anticipate what we will see along the way, rather than waiting to react to the terrain and 2) estimate approximately how long it will take to reach various points along our route. If we think it will take 15 minutes to paddle to an island and we have gone half an hour without seeing it, something's probably wrong.

So we look at the map and see that we're in a tiny bay on Karl Lake. We're going to paddle out of the bay and the map tells us we should see a campsite on the far shore, tucked into a small bay just off to the right. From there we want to turn left, down the long arm of Karl Lake and paddle along the southwestern shoreline. We see that by hugging that shoreline, we will naturally paddle into the shortest channel to take us to Long Island Lake.

As we push off on Karl Lake, keep the map in front of you and mentally check off each of these points as we pass them. By constantly checking the terrain with the map you should be able to answer the question ''Where are we?'' from the moment we push off until we reach our destination.

Using the map is a lot easier if you orient it so that north on the map points north. That way, when you look up from the map, you'll see features on the ground in the same orientation as on the map. Orienting the map makes visualizing your position much easier. You can approximately align your map without a compass by lining up the features on your map with corresponding features on the ground. But a compass makes orienting the map faster and less prone to error.

The Compass

A simple orienteering compass is all you need for navigating in the Boundary Waters. Brunton, Silva, and Suunto make orienteering compasses that cost less than $20. The compass should have a see-through base, a rotating housing and a needle with a jewel bearing.

You will use the compass to: 1) Orient the map so that north on the map points north and 2) take a bearing so you can paddle directly to portages, channels, islands, etc. instead of finding them by hunt-and-peck. A bearing is simply the direction to your destination from your present location.

First, some good news about using a compass in Boundary Waters. You don't have to worry about declination. In most areas of the country, the compass does not point to true north. Instead, it points to magnetic north. Magnetic north and true north can be separated by more than 20 degrees in some places. In the Boundary Waters, magnetic north is within a couple of degrees of true north. The small errors from ignoring the declination will not be significant. Just be sure to keep your compass well clear of iron and steel objects, otherwise it will disregard magnetic north and point to them.**

Before you use the compass, however, you need to mark some north-south lines on your map. When you orient the map or transfer a bearing from the map to the ground, you'll align the lines scribed in the rotating compass housing with the lines you have drawn on your map.

Marking the Map

Let's take a moment to customize the map. If you want to be absolutely accurate, draw a series of parallel lines at the same angle as the magnetic declination shown on the map (you'll see a key for the declination somewhere on the map's edge). Otherwise, just draw a series of lines that run north-to-south. Draw the lines about 1 to 1 1/4 inches apart across the entire face of the map. You can use a protractor to get this angle right. (In other parts of the country, where magnetic declination is significant, drawing a series of parallel lines that run from magnetic north to magnetic south will allow you to use your compass without having to compensate for magnetic declination.)

If you are using a GPS unit, you'll want to draw your UTM grid by connecting the UTM marks that are found along the edge of the USGS map. Along the right edge of the map, you might see a number such as 5324. The ''53'' will be printed in small type and the ''24'' will be larger. Draw a line from this number to the matching number on the left-hand side of the map. On the bottom, you may see a number like 653, with the ''6'' small and the ''53'' large. Connect this mark with the matching one at the top of the map. Don't connect the numbers such as 48 o 2'30'' or 91 o 57'30''. These are latitude and longitude lines.

Don't worry that the UTM grid does not align with north and south on the map. UTM grid north is different from both true north and magnetic north. To avoid confusion, I usually draw the magnetic north lines with a red pencil and the UTM grid with a black pencil. Waterproof markers might work better on maps that are already waterproof. If you're not using a GPS unit, leave off the UTM grid, and the map won't be so cluttered with pencil lines.

Orienting the Map

Before you start trying to match features on the map with features on the ground, you need to orient the map. To do this set the compass housing at 360 degrees. The north arrow (not the magnetic needle) inside the housing should be in line with and pointing in the same direction as the direction-of-travel arrow on the compass base. Then place the compass on the map and align the lines inside the housing with the magnetic north or north-south lines you drew on your map. Be sure the direction of travel arrow is parallel to your pencil lines and pointing north. Then turn the map and compass as a unit (don't turn the housing) until the north-pointing side of the compass needle points to 360 degrees.

Your objective is to have north on the map pointing north. If you enlarged the map to life-size, the features on the map would perfectly overlay the features on the ground. You should orient your map every time you try to identify features on the ground.

Taking a bearing

Now, let's take a bearing. Knowing how to transfer a bearing from the map to the ground can save time and frustration. For instance, when we were on Owl Lake last summer, we sat in the canoe off the point of an island facing a long stretch of shoreline. The portage to Tuscarora Lake was somewhere along that shore. Sure, we could have searched for ten or 15 minutes to find the landing, but by taking a bearing, we paddled directly to it.

When you transfer a bearing from the map to the ground, you're basically asking the direction-of-travel arrow printed on the compass base to point toward your objective. Let's return to Owl Lake and try it. We're sitting off the point of the island and looking toward the shoreline.

  1. Place one of the long sides of the compass base on the map so that you could draw a straight line along its edge from the island to the portage landing. This is the side of the compass that is parallel to the direction-of-travel arrow. The direction-of-travel arrow should be pointing in the direction you want to go.
  2. Now rotate the compass housing until the lines inside the housing are parallel to the pencil lines you drew on the map and the north arrow in the compass housing (not the magnetic needle) is pointing to north on the map. At this point, you don't care where the magnetic needle is pointing.
  3. You'll now use the compass alone. Lift it off the map. Don't rotate the housing. Turn the entire compass until the north end of the magnetic needle is pointing to 360 degrees and is hovering above the north arrow in the housing.
  4. The direction of travel arrow now is pointing toward the portage. Be sure to keep your brain fully engaged when you do this. And if the results don't seem right, check again. The biggest error usually results from turning the compass housing so that the north arrow points south (this really happens, believe me) and you end up paddling off in exactly the opposite direction. First, orient your map and make a good guess at the approximate location of your destination. Then take the bearing. If your estimate and the compass bearing aren't fairly close, check again.

You also can take a series of bearings to chart your way through a maze of islands on a large lake. Just take a bearing from one island to another you can see, take another bearing when you get to the second island, and continue the process as you work your way through the channels in a series of short, straight-line hops.

Using a GPS Unit

GPS units do many wonderful things. But we're only going to talk about one of them here. And that is how to pinpoint your location. Once you know where you are, you can use your map and compass to travel wherever you want to go.

Because there are no large hills, mountains, mesas or other prominent vertical features in the Boundary Waters, it's often not possible to use your map and compass to find your location if you become seriously disoriented. This is the time when you look at your map and nothing around you seems to match anything on the map.

Most of the time, a GPS unit isn't vital, but it can be handy at times. We have used it to fix our position after losing track of the twists, turns and small portages on the Frost River, for instance. And we used it on Tuscarora Lake to be certain we were in the bay with the portage to Missing Link Lake, not the one to Hubbard Lake.

Since each GPS unit is different, you'll have to consult your instruction manual to determine how to physically accomplish the tasks we're going to talk about. Here's what you need to do:

First, you have to set up the GPS unit to match your map: 1) Set the GPS datum to match the map datum and 2) set the GPS grid format to match your map's coordinate system. We'll assume that you are using a UTM grid.

There are different datum systems (based on mathematical models of the Earth's shape). If your GPS is set to one and your map is drawn on another, the GPS-reported position can be off by a couple hundred meters from your real position. Many USGS 7.5-minute maps are drawn on the 1927 North American Datum (NAD 27).

The UTM marks on a USGS 7.5-minute map produce a grid with squares that are 1,000 meters long on each side. It's a decimal system as opposed to longitude and latitude, in which you have to deal with messy-to-calculate minutes and seconds. The UTM grid is much easier for most people.

So you're sitting in your canoe with the paddle across the gunwales wondering where you are. You dig out your GPS unit, turn it on and wait for it to track the satellites. It gives you a UTM position of Zone 15 - 654251 - 5330750.

Since you're in the Boundary Waters, you know that you're in Zone 15. You can ignore that. The other numbers represent a single point on the grid. Remember how you read the X-Y coordinates in high school math class? The UTM coordinates work the same way.

Look at the margin of your map. You'll read the first set of numbers (654251) off the bottom or top margin of the map -- you can think of either of these edges as the ''X'' axis. You read the second UTM coordinate (5330750) off the vertical margins. Think of them as the ''Y'' axis.

Looking at the bottom of the map, you see one of the UTM grid marks is 654 and the next one is 655. (The ''6'' in both cases is printed smaller than the other numbers). So the point 654251 lies between these two points. You can think of it as being 654.251. (There is no decimal point in the coordinate given by you GPS unit, but it may help you to better understand this explanation if we insert an imaginary decimal point just for this discussion.) Specifically, the coordinate it is 251 meters to the right (east) of 654 or just about 1/4 of the way to 655. Remember that 654 and 655 are separated by 1,000 meters.

Now we go up the ''Y'' axis. We find the marks 5330 and 5331. The coordinate lies between these two. 5330750 is 750 meters north of 5330. Again, you can think of it as 5330.753. Our position is where lines drawn perpendicular to the edge of the map at 654251 and 5330735 intersect.

So now we have our location pinpointed to a square meter. If the GPS unit has reported the margin of error in the reading to be 32 feet, for instance, we know we're somewhere in a circle with a 32-foot radius centered on this 1-meter square.

Final Marks on the Map

Earlier we talked about customizing 7.5-minute USGS topographical maps. We've already done part of that by drawing our UTM grid and magnetic north lines, which have given us a great map for navigating. But the map still doesn't show campsites or portages.

To solve that problem, buy two sets of maps. Get the USGS maps and eitherthe Fisher or McKenzie maps that will cover the area where you will be canoeing. Then copy the locations of the campsites and portages onto your USGS maps and use the Fisher or McKenzie maps as your backups. I always take an extra set of maps anyway. If you're travelling more than a couple of portages away from your entry point, and especially if you're on a loop trip, losing your maps could leave you with some big problems. This can easily happen while portaging gear from lake to lake.

After you have your USGS maps marked with the magnetic declination lines, UTM grid (if you're using a GPS unit), campsites and portages, the last thing is to waterproof them. You can buy products made for waterproofing maps at outdoor and map stores.

Now Go Out and Practice

You now have some basic theory, but you certainly don't want to wait until you're standing at your entry point to unwrap that brand new compass and GPS unit. A canoe trip is not the place to learn to navigate. So practice before you go. Get a USGS map that covers your neighborhood or local park and go out and orient your map. Take some bearings and find your location at several points with your GPS.

And always remember that your best navigational tool is between your ears. This is a lesson I learned again on my last trip to Boundary Waters. On Whipped Lake I took a quick look at the map without orienting it and noted the island and a bay to its right. A quick compass check confirmed the channel to the left of the island. But when we paddled down the ''channel,'' we discovered we were in a large bay. I hadn't noticed that there are two islands. We missed the larger one because it blended in with the shoreline behind. We paddled completely around the big island before I figured out where I had gone wrong.

Once you get disoriented, it can be difficult to get the terrain straight with the map, even in the simplest places. That's why it's important to engage your brain before you start to paddle.

*Editor's Notes: As an outfitter I had many paddlers pull their brand new GPS units out of their car and ask me how to use them. Luckily, since I never have used one I could easily plead ignorance. Ed makes a great point in that you need to understand the basics of the map first, then the compass, and then the GPS as a last resort.

I personally favor the Fisher maps as I can discern the land from the water easier and I've been using them all of my life. I use a Sharpie permanent marker or a soft (#1) pencil to write on them. I keep my map, folded, in my back pocket when portaging and unfold it in front of me while paddling. I also have a small pin-on compass on the front of my life jacket so I can always give it a quick look while traveling and not lose a stroke. As Ed points out it's imperative to have the map out all of the time and to be looking at it constantly. I also make sure that my paddling partner has their own maps so they don't feel left out and can assist me if I get off track.

An extra compass and set of maps are always safely tucked inside my ditty bag ... along with matches and a disposable lighter for emergencies. I have found that nine times out of ten if I simply orient my map to the ground (or water, as the case may be) I can then sit calmly and figure out what I'm looking at and where I need to go. But if you don't get yourself square with the world, first, then it can be nearly impossible to figure out where you are at.

I also like to mark high points on my map with as asterisk, before I set out, so that I can use them as general reference points as I travel. These high points are certainly more subtle in the Boundary Waters but have helped me out from time to time.

Many thanks to Ed for making all of this easier to understand. Perhaps I'd better put a GPS unit on my Christmas list for next year? --Ed.

**Declination changes over the years and the magnetic declination printed on your map may no longer be correct. To determine the exact declination for your map, see the declination calculators at these locations:, or

--article courtesy of

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