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Wild Side: Maps help us dream

Submitted photo.

We look forward to future expeditions, whether it's over the river and through the woods to Grandma's house, a vacation in the tropics, or a fishing trip into the wilds of Canada. Poring over maps, imagining what the lakes, rivers and terrain look like and what lives there, offers plenty of winter enjoyment.

Maps are models of the world. We read maps and dream of what the world is like in places where we've never been or what once-familiar places look like now. There's a huge amount of information on most maps, whether they be road maps, a round globe, navigation charts, topographic maps, or a sketch map made by your brother-in-law.

There's real art to cartography, the business of making maps. More information on a map isn't necessarily good. Too much information makes maps unreadable or obscures important features.

David Imus won American mapmaking's prestigious "Best of Show" award last year at the annual competition of the Cartography and Geographic Information Society. What makes the Imus 3-foot by 4-foot United States map so outstanding is careful attention to detail with judicious selection and placement of labels for place names, political boundaries, rivers, lakes and highways. Imus worked over 6,000 hours designing the map on a computer. He used subtle shading to indicate forested areas and topography.

One of my favorite maps is the Hydrological Map of the Upper Mississippi River Basin by Joseph Nicolas Nicollet. He was a French geographer, astronomer and mathematician who made several expeditions by canoe and horseback to map the region and its rivers. The map was published by the War Department Corps of Topographical Engineers in 1843 shortly after his death. It's a work of cartographic art, remarkably accurate for its day including Ojibway names for many rivers and hachures to indicate elevation.

Today we can go on the internet and see recent satellite photography of nearly anywhere in the world. There's a big difference between a remotely-sensed image and a map however. The cartographer's art adds valuable information to the land- and seascape that can safely guide travelers.

I greatly appreciate the gee-whiz GPS chart plotter that we use to navigate on Lake Superior. It has digital navigation charts showing shorelines, water depth, islands, harbors and aids to navigation. It has displays linked into radar and a depth sounder that help ensure a safe boating experience.

It is an electronic 'black box' however, and although quite reliable, it can quit working at any moment. That's why we keep paper navigation charts on board and keep a logbook frequently updated with our position.

There are GPS chart plotter instruments for your car that can help you navigate. Some even have pleasant electronic voice commands. I've found that their accuracy falls away on small roads farther away from cities.

Out in the boonies, good hard-copy maps like USGS topographic maps can be lifesavers. There are several brands of 'sportsman's' atlases that provide excellent detail provided you bring a magnifying glass to read them.

Free on-line navigation maps called Chart Booklets are available for the Great Lakes and ocean coasts from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office of Coast Survey. Upper Mississippi River navigation charts are also available free on-line from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Maps of most Wisconsin lakes are available to download from the DNR Lake Maps website.

Anticipation of future activities motivates us to prepare. Careful study of maps can reveal interesting routes and destinations. Enjoyable preparation makes for safe times outdoors with fewer mishaps and aggravation. Anticipation and preparation for good times outdoors keeps us active and healthy in many ways. I'm convinced that it's better than living vicariously watching others on television.

Please send any comments and suggestions for this column to me at Dan.