North Fork Outdoors: Finding your way the old-fashioned way

08/12/2012 4:00 AM |

We were going to a restaurant the other night with old friends who trialed field dogs with us over the years and asked for directions. One of them pulled out pen and paper and said, “Here, I’ll draw you a map!” It was a fine document and got us there without difficulty.

Here was an “aha” moment; this sequence is now quite unusual because mapmaking is a lost art for many outdoors persons. In a world of Google Earth, GPS, On Star and computerized voices like Siri, it’s no wonder that the need to sketch or read a detailed map appears old-fashioned, even irrelevant. This observation applies, I suppose, as long as technology works for you. However, if you have no laptop, if you are in an area where wireless signals are poor or non-existent, e.g., some wilderness areas in the Adirondack Park or roads through the mountains of Pennsylvania, then what?

Also, because computer technology from the very beginning was only as good as the early programmers, (i.e., “garbage in equals garbage out”) and because much of today’s software is written by wonks who haven’t a clue about local details, some really crazy situations arise when technology goes awry or androids make decisions for you. Several seasons back, a couple of friends from northern New England with no knowledge of Long Island wanted to get to a trial in Calverton with their horses and set out confidently, using their GPS. Somehow they tracked all the way west to the New York Thruway and the Major Deegan Expressway, then wound up on the Cross Bronx Expressway just in time for Friday evening rush hour — a nightmare!

Our north country home up against the Canadian border lies on a road, Jones Road, which ends next to our house, but there is a track through the woods going north, an old military trail once intended for border protection and later used by bootleggers and locals to get to Canada. It emerges a couple of miles north onto an east-west country road, but the track is really for ATVs or hikers. Still, every so often, we’ll see someone come crashing out of the woods in a 4×4 pickup, looking somewhat dazed. Inevitably, this is a pilgrim following a GPS or a Google Map that clearly shows “Jones Road Extension.”

Live and learn.

The best maps give an overall picture, showing not only roads and landmarks, but accurate distances, too. Looking for a field trial, a hunting camp, or a restaurant — it’s all the same; you’ve got to be precise about how far you’ve come and where you turn. The same holds true for sailors and anglers reading nautical charts. It’s well and good for a skipper to punch in numbers and get precisely onto some patch of bottom or some little wreck where the fish were yesterday. But, we’re spoiled to the point where we have a hard time figuring out new waters for which there is only scant information.

If you rented a livery skiff from the Lorias 40 years back, Captain Marty’s would supply you with a simple map showing shorelines, islands, reefs and buoys. Given the layout and some numbers (like distances from points or time of travel at cruising speed) you could pretty well get to the desirable areas, even if there were no other boats fishing there. If you had a depth recorder, great; otherwise, you dropped a sinker overboard on a fixed line and checked both depth and, by bumping the sinker, the type of bottom. Often you could pick out features on shorelines directly fore and aft as well as off both stern and bow. The intersection of the two lines gave you a triangulated position that you could note. If you needed to drift a bit, you carried a couple of marker buoys — empty plastic milk jugs and heavy sinkers on lines wrapped around the jugs. Toss one overboard and you had the spot marked perfectly (at least until the tide ran so fast that the jug submerged). This also served nicely to mark where a body of bottom hugging flounder might be feeding so you could drift over the hot spot repeatedly. No GPS or Loran numbers required.

This “lost art” itself, like mapmaking, can still come in handy when you find yourself in some little embayment in a borrowed skiff a thousand miles away from home and you want to catch your supper as we did on Cape Breton Island some 20 years back. The winter flounder there were extraordinary, too! Similarly, locating a deep spring in a mountain pond you’ve never fished before usually requires a tip or two, a homemade map, and the skills of triangulation.

If you can make and read simple maps and find your way around new areas, you shouldn’t need to ask yourself, “Where am I?” Or answer, “I dunno!”

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