Long before there was a Travel Channel, there were maps. It may seem odd to place maps and popular TV programming in the same continuum, but maps are to travel documentaries as books are to movies - the essential foundations of our imagination.
A National Geographic subscription was a luxury my family didn't contemplate during my early school years, when Dad was an idealistic lawyer laboring 70 hours a week to establish a small-town practice. But by fifth grade, our economic climate had thawed a few degrees and NG's bright maps became one of my passions - along with the Hardy Boys mystery series, basketball, Norse myths and the dentist's daughter who lived a block up the hill.
Although its summit was marginally less attainable than my secret "crushee," I whiled away many afternoons studying the shortest routes up Antarctica's Mount Erabus. I searched for the possible real-world inspirations of the fictional valley of Shangri La hidden in the countless folds of the Himalayas. Letting my fingers do the walking, I slogged through the uncharted jungle that crept anaconda-like across upper reaches of the Orinoco.
As a young Army captain, Dad helped build the Alaska Highway across Canada. I still treasure his huge wall map of the Yukon and Northwest Territories. As a boy, I traced the missions he penciled through the wilderness at the time, almost feeling his frostbite steal my toe-tips along the shores of Great Bear Lake, where we obtained the uranium for the first American A-bombs.
Just as faster and faster Internet connection speeds are the compulsion of our time, maps of ever-finer resolution were the ardent goal of generations of explorers and chart-makers. From maps that encompassed continents at scales of 1-to-20 million, I graduated to U.S. Geological Survey quadratic maps. Known as 7.5-minute quad maps, these classic hiking/hunting aids cover a four-sided area of 7.5 minutes of latitude and 7.5 minutes of longitude, a scale of 1-to-24,000. Crisscrossing Wyoming's Wind River Mountains, there is no greater satisfaction than being able to point at a specific gradient at a valley's head and say "This is where we are." (Global positioning satellite receivers have rendered this treasured skill nearly obsolete.)
The nautical equivalent of USGS maps mark their 200th birthday this year, with the anniversary of the founding of the U.S. Coast Survey in 1807. Ferdinand Hassler, a young Swiss immigrant, was chosen by President Thomas Jefferson as a direct consequence of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and Jefferson's goal of a nation that would stretch from sea to shining sea. Facilitating this dream eventually led to the publication of an annual series of reports to Congress, each brimming with dozens of amazing nautical charts.
As sketched in the current issue of the Columbia River Maritime Museum's publication The Quarterdeck, the men who literally charted our Pacific Northwest coastline starting in 1849 were anything but desk-bound draftsmen. The report for 1852 speaks of an imminent danger of Indian attacks, for example. But even the ordinary routine of surveying this wild coast was an arduous adventure, requiring triangulation - physically battling through the underbrush to set up fixed stations that build one upon another in a series of huge adjoining triangles.
Another of the many things I collect, one of the original 1851 charts of the Mouth of the Columbia hangs above my desk. It demonstrates another aspect of this back-breaking endeavor, showing hundreds of soundings in the dozen or so miles of river east to Tongue Point. Each sounding represents a crew of men rowing or sailing to a spot, casting a lead line in time after time, and recording the results. The labor and care involved are astounding.
You can see an example of this chart for yourself at the Maritime Museum, along with the impressive traveling exhibit, "Mapping the Pacific Coast: Coronado to Lewis and Clark, the Quivira Collection."
Digital images of all U.S. government nautical charts, including historical ones, are available in an easily searchable database at (http://historicals.ncd.noaa.gov/historicals/histmap.asp)
The annual reports of the heroic U.S. Coast Survey are available online at the NOAA Central Library: (http://docs.lib.noaa.gov/rescue/cgs/data_rescue_cgs_annual_reports.html)