Misleading maps: For travelers who get around afoot, not all miles are equal

By JAYSON JACOBY Baker City Herald November 13, 2009 10:36 am

The place where we hunt elk lacks certain amenities, including, rather unfortunately, elk.

I don’t really mind, though.

A rifle is no great burden, slung over a shoulder, and I enjoy getting out in the clean air and having a look around the country on the cusp of winter.

Besides which, elk could enter the picture at any time. In theory, if not always in reality. Every hunter will tell you the elk are out there; it’s just that “there” is never where I happen to be. At least not when I have a hunting tag in my wallet.

And even if, say, a six-point bull does wander into view, it’s apt to vacate the premises before I can bring my scope to bear. Which is just as well, since I’m a lousy shot.

I don’t care what the wildlife biologists say — elk can disappear. And I mean literally disappear, not merely step behind the camouflage of a Douglas-fir. I’m talking about different dimensions, or astral planes, or whatever.

I’m pretty sure elk can levitate, too. Science can’t, at any rate, yet explain how a 500-pound animal runs at 20 mph through a thicket of alders without making a sound.

Wind can’t even pull off that trick, and it hardly weighs anything. No antlers to hang up on the brush, either.

Elk aside, the real deficiency in our hunting area is flat land.

I suppose you could describe the topography above Brownlee Reservoir as “rolling,” the adjective that often precedes “hills.”

Except another word — “gently” — sometimes insinuates itself into such descriptions.

And gently is a singularly poor choice in this case, akin to commenting on the tranquility of a school of piranha during a feeding frenzy.

The mountains that rise out of the reservoir are hard mountains, deeply incised by streams. Their slopes are almost invariably steep, and they are far better suited to quadripeds than to two-footed hunters whose boot laces are too long.

I got to thinking about the nature of these mountains while I was hunting earlier this week (an elk hunter who never sees elk has ample time for this sort of reflection).

In particular it occurred to me that the precipitous aspect of this region renders regular maps irrelevant, rather like putting turn signals on the space shuttle.

By “regular” I mean maps that show places but not the lay of the land.

These maps can mislead a foot traveler in a manner that ought to be criminal, so significant is the difference between reality and what the map implies.

For instance, if you spread out a map and took in hand a ruler and with it plotted a route from Hibbard Creek to Connor Creek you’d likely conclude that it is the journey of an afternoon.

The distance, after all, is just four miles or so.

But all miles are not equal, as anyone knows who has ever walked many of them.

To get from Hibbard Creek to Connor Creek you first have to climb 2,000 feet, then descend 2,000 feet to Fox Creek, then climb another 2,000 feet, then drop 2,000 more feet to Connor Creek.

Which is a lot of steps, none of them easy.

The only sort of map that hints at the unrelenting verticality of the land between Lookout Mountain and Brownlee is a topographic one.

These maps show the elevation by means of contour lines. Each line follows a specific elevation around the whole of the map. Typically there is a separate line for every 40 to 80 feet of elevation.

The ability to glance at a topo map and instantly conjure a mental image of the landscape is a learned skill.

But you needn’t be an expert to understand that the closer together the contour lines are, the steeper the slope.

And for parts of the Lookout Mountain country you need something more powerful than a handheld magnifying glass to discern the blank space between contour lines.

An electron microscope, maybe.

I don’t mean to imply here that I’d rather hunt someplace that’s more, well, gentle.

Although my hamstrings might.

In fact I sort of enjoy the challenge.

Even when I don’t see any elk I take solace in knowing that my legs and lungs got in some healthful exercise while I was crossing all those contour lines.

Also it helps when your father-in-law owns several four-wheelers and he lets you ride one.


Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.