Navigating in the Boundary Waters by the Seat of your Pants

When visibility drops navigation becomes more fun.

By Rob Kesselring

Wait! Whenever I see an article on navigation, I skip it. Boring, confusing, read it all already. This article is different. This is an article by a Boundary Waters paddler that doesn’t know an azimuth from an orangutan and has no interest in learning or relearning all the terms and procedures usually covered under the heading of navigation. So how am I qualified to teach you about navigation in the Boundary Waters?

In my 103 Boundary Waters trips, I have never been lost, at least not for long. I have a lousy sense of direction. I don’t carry a GPS, and I seldom even use my compass. I will share my secrets with you. If you adopt them, I guarantee your trips will be safer and more fun.

One quick caveat. My advice is for paddlers, not Boundary Waters hikers. I quit back-packing decades ago. In those days and maybe still today, trails in the BWCAW were poorly maintained, not marked, and difficult to discern from animal paths. If I were to hike in the BWCAW today, I would carry a GPS. Paddling is different.

I have a university degree in Geography, so at one time, I knew all the jargon, all the procedures, all the grids, and all the theory. Almost none of which I ever used when I bought my floatplane and spent five years flying and navigating the bush of the Northwest Territories of Canada.

Unlike modern planes, my Piper had very few navaids, but it did have a windshield, and I always carried maps. I looked out the window and then looked at my map, window-map, window-map. The first key to navigation? Know where you are. If you don’t know where you are, it’s hard to know where you are going.

In the airplane, I pressed my finger to the map as if my finger was my airplane and com-pared the landscape beneath me with the features on the map. It’s called pilotage, and it is the same technique I use paddling. You might say that it is a lot easier when you are 3,000 feet high and looking down. True, but sometimes in weather or smoke, I was just 200 feet above the ground. In those moments, I had a similar but scarier perspective than a canoeist.

In the canoe, as in an airplane, orient the map to your travel direction directly corresponding to the landscape. This is easier if you do not use a map case. I cannot speak for all map brands, and I won’t recommend one over the other. I got my start with Fisher maps, and I have a complete set. There may be more accurate maps, but I doubt any are more durable. I abuse and write notes on my maps.

To avoid confusion, I usually use the terms right and left with my bowman, not cardinal directions (NSEW). For example: “Okay, let’s follow that shoreline on the right, and in about a half-hour, we will pass a creek; just past the creek will be the portage.” Very simple.

In advance, know your average speed with your partner and a loaded canoe in calm air. If it’s two mph and the portage is about 1 mile away, it will take you about 30 minutes. Note the time on your watch. Knowing the estimated time of arrival (ETA) at portage will help, especially on a foggy morning.

Another big help, in the BWCAW, are campgrounds. Red dots are marked on your map. If you note there are two campgrounds before the portage and you pass three, you may have passed your portage, and you might need to backtrack.

Finding portages can sometimes be challenging. If your maps are old like mine, you can-not absolutely trust them. Occasionally, the Forest Service will modify or change portages. Don’t be bullheaded; if you find the portage marked on your map but it appears unused and has sticks and logs that look like they have been deliberately placed across the trail, likely you are not in the exact right place, but you will be close. Either on foot or in the canoe, scout around until you find the new portage, and then note it on your map.

In the summer, portages are particularly easy to find because you may well see other canoeists departing the portage coming from the other direction. But even on a quiet day or in the shoulder seasons, portages almost always are an anomaly. There will be an opening in the bush, or rocks worn clean of vegetation, or saw cuts, or the trail itself inland a bit. Just don’t jump the gun and assume a portage you see from across the lake is the one you want from your map. There may be more than one portage departing from a lake.

Land forms can also help you find a portage. Portages are often along rivers and creeks. Find the moving water, sometimes even by listening for it, and it will be easy to find the portage. Most portages, but not always, follow dips in the hills. The contour lines on the map will help with that. Even a gap in the trees can indicate a portage. In time you will develop a sense of where the portage is going to be almost without looking.

If you are crossing a big, but not a huge lake, you might want to aim off. For example, your portage is two miles directly across the lake. There is a big dome-shaped island halfway across the lake, almost in the direction of the portage but a little to the left. Aim for that island and continue on the same heading. You can use a compass for this or just as easily a distinctive tree as a heading. When you get to the far shore, you can be confident the portage is to your right. So you turn right (keeping the shoreline close and on your left side) until you discover the portage trail. If you did not aim off, unless you hit the portage dead on, you won’t know in which direction to search.

On huge lakes or even mid-sized lakes studded with islands or on windy days that distort your path of travel, you may want to follow a heading on your compass. I rarely need to do this, but there is one stretch on Lac La Croix, which has buffaloed me twice, and now I always whip out the compass on that route. Check your time. Trust the compass, or your heading based on a land form, and go for it. You need not identify every passing island, reef, or campsite.

On a windy day, to keep a straight course, you may want to adjust your heading accounting for drift. Hitting a few way points, maybe distinctive points, or islands will help keep you on course. In weather, bite-sized chunks, monitoring progress on your watch, and keeping focused, are the marks of a skilled navigator. In an upcoming article, I will go into more depth on efficient lake paddling and include some dynamic suggestions to help you move faster and straighter.

If you ever need to line up your map and compass, you need not be concerned with magnetic declination in the Boundary Waters. The magnetic and true north are close enough in alignment at this longitude so as not to throw you off. Buy a quality fluid-dampened compass. It will point north. Trust it.

A little tip from a guide: if you are leading a group and goof up by paddling up a false bay, short of the route you want, no worries. When you fail to realize your mistake until you are to the end of the mistaken bay, you will need to retrace your route. You might get some push back from your group, “My arms are tired. Why did we go way up and down that bay? We were at this exact spot thirty minutes ago?” Your response, “There was a wolf den up there last year. I thought you might enjoy seeing some wolf pups, but darned, it looks like it wasn’t active this year, onward!”

It can be difficult to ascertain where you are on a small river precisely. You may be deal-ing with many twists and turns, beaver dams, and other distractions. Eventually, a portage will identify where you are on the map, and it is easy to discover it as you will hear the rushing water, and the portage trail is always quite visible (or you will just come out onto the lake). You can avoid dead ends on small rivers by keeping note of the current. Even in seemingly slack water, submerged blades of grass will point downstream.

Whatever brand of map you choose, stick with the same brand, with the same scale. You will develop a sense of perspective that will help dramatically with your navigation. I always en-dure a difficult period of adjustment when I return from an Arctic trip where I have been studying smaller scale maps.

Why not a GPS? No reason. More and more Boundary Water travelers use a GPS all the time. I have even seen them mounted on thwarts. Full disclosure, I always use a GPS these days on my Arctic trips. They make navigation a snap, and the technology, speed, and screen brightness on the units keep improving.

Using a GPS in the Boundary Waters is similar to cooking over a stove versus a fire. A stove is simpler, but there are simple joys of building a fire. It is also handy to know how to make a fire if your stove goes on the fritz. Even if you always use a GPS, it is a good idea to carry a map and learn how to use it in case your GPS goes on the fritz.

There are collateral benefits of navigating by the seat of your pants instead of the GPS. You notice more, and you become aware of the landscape’s subtle features, which will imprint memories on your brain. I think I have mentioned in Collective Wisdom articles that much of my early canoeing and winter travel was with the indigenous people of the far north. They seldom carried a map and never a compass. Still, they found their way through the trackless wilderness using the techniques I have shared here and many more navigational nuances that only come with years of experience.

I carry a cellphone with maps downloaded. I do so for three reasons. I once brought a duplicate set of paper maps; now, my iPhone maps are my back-up. Also, it is easy to mark my campsites on my iPhone for my trip notes. And, of course, if I become totally befuddled, the GPS on my phone will allow me to reset my location. One warning, if you rely on your cell phone for navigation, you should bring a back-up charger. The GPS functions on cellphones are energy hogs.

A moonlit night paddle is always fun. Loons and owls can make it a real adventure, and fishing at night can be productive. Make sure you extinguish your campfire before leaving it unattended, and that will darken your campsite. You can get turned around paddling at night, and it might be wise to hang your headlamp from a camp tree on blink setting. I have never done that, but I have had some sweaty moments trying to find my way back to camp in the dark.

Another good idea with a big group is to have a second navigator with a map in the tails-up-charlie boat. I was the trailing canoe co-guiding a Hunter’s Island loop with a big group and master navigator Stu Osthoff leading. My finger was on the map. He never needed my help with the navigation, but I was ready.

It is never a waste of time to study your maps. Even months before a trip, a careful look at your planned route will imprint a mental map. I always pull out my maps during a trip after breakfast, but before I load up the canoes. A few minutes of study helps familiarize me with my route. I know of some travelers who use a highlighter pen to mark their route. I like the concept, but for varied reasons, I don’t do it. I often change the course of my journey, and anyway, by now, my maps would look like a spider’s web.

Know where you are this summer and know where you are going. These are the basics, and the best way to build on these skills and to become a proficient navigator is to get out there and paddle some long, complicated trips with your GPS buried deep in your pack.

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