Sense of Place

Good maps: as clear as prose in great novels.

by Scott Sadil

It usually starts with maps. Somebody mentions a piece of water, a drainage, an obscure mountain range, a part of the state you’ve never visited before. Where a younger enthusiast will reach for a phone, I’m digging through my stack of DeLorme Gazetteers, one for each state touching the Columbia Basin – or, for greater scope, my very shaggy fifty-year-old Rand McNally, which includes all of Canada and could get you from the Arctic Circle to the Panama Canal were you so inspired.

That’s just a start.  If prospects seem promising, and my source reputable enough, I’ll soon be searching retailers online, homing in on that missing gazetteer, a regional recreation map, or something to do with a specific national forest.  Given a genuine buzz, a faint vibration through the sternum that indicates creative juices starting to flow, I piece together a cluster of classic USGS 7.5’ Topo Quad maps, those spirited pages with blue water, green forests, and the magic of sinuous contour lines – an abstract two-dimensional representation of reality that reads, to me, as clearly as the prose in great or at least memorable novels.

Fiftten years younger than I, my buddy, Joe Kelly, likes to get on computer or phone and pull up Google Earth, instead.  He shows me an actual photo of river or lake, the surrounding land.  I try to indulge him.  But in all honesty, I can’t see squat.

As far as I’m concerned, an aerial photo fails miserably in comparison to what’s revealed by the clarity of contour lines, how closely they’re spaced, how many there are – especially in relation to river, lake, or stream.  Does the shading in a photo have to do with contour, changes in vegetaion – or the angle of the sun?

I’m well aware, of course, that you learn to read whatever “text” you’re used to.  And we should all recognize by now that old guys love their paper objects — things you can open, handle, and spread out on a table – not just colors and images locked inside a screen.  I know you can insert waypoints on your digital map and then somewhere add the appropriate note about your camp, the fishing, the bugs. But I don’t think there’s any feeling that compares to the one you get unrolling a scruffy map and seeing a hand-written scribble that reads, “Mother Dog Hole: right here!” 

I don’t care much to look at digitalized nautical charts, or boat plans, either.

Someone will argue, no doubt, that all of these maps take up a lot of room, a contention with which I can only agree.  And so do books, the stuff of fly tying, your rods and reels and waders, those study plans, and on and on.  My question, in response to maps taking up space, spilling out of cabinets, leaning in corners, cluttering floors, is straightforward, too:  What are you saving the space for? 


Gray’s angling editor Scott Sadil claims he has recurring dreams of fishing spots he’s never seen before.