Your Way in the Canoe Country by
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:
- Your brain -- your most important piece of gear. Don't leave home
- 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.
- Your compass -- almost essential, although you can get by without
it in most places.
- 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:
- 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.
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.
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: http://maps.NRCan.gc.ca/maps101/.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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
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
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
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
--article courtesy of BoundaryWatersMagazine.com