4 January 2007: Fairbanks

Maps Arrive

Matthew Sturm

The brown cardboard roll arrived at dinner, delivered by UPS. The package had come amazingly fast, just two days from Calgary. Through dinner and chores, the roll lay near the front door, tantalizing, but unopened.  I knew what it was. $300 in maps of Alaska and northern Canada.

All my life, maps have been a talisman. I cannot remember a time when the contour line, hachure, and blue trace of a river have not excited my imagination. Maps have never been just pieces of paper to me. They are the land itself, encapsulated in ink, flattened, then embedded into the pulp fibers. No student of the Koran, no Talmudic scholar has pored over religious texts with more fervor and attention to detail than I have over maps. Mountain and lake, valley and hill. Staring at maps I have traveled a thousand miles in my mind for every mile I have been able to travel in reality.

It was nearly 11 PM when I finally had the chance to open the package. Using a razor blade, I carefully cut the tape holding the end cap. Tossing it aside, I noted with satisfaction that the precious maps had been carefully, lovingly, rolled in corrugated cardboard, double protection from the vicissitudes of the journey. I expertly twisted the cardboard into a tighter spiral and then drew out of the cardboard and the roll of maps. I spread on these on the carpet. The paper was creaseless, virginal.

First came the aviation sectionals, stacked in a tight pile. These are maps designed for the pilot. Elegantly simple, a marvel of simplicity and usefulness. Fifty years of practical use has sharpened and honed the cartographers skill on these beauties.  Even the way they are folded speaks volumes about their compact usefulness. The accordion pleating is designed to allow a pilot to rapidly flip through the map in a cramped cockpit without ever having to open it fully. One cannot handle these maps without thinking of aerial epics. A darkened cockpit on a stormy night. The glow of red map light, dim so as not to disturb the pilots night vision. The white knuckles on the controls. The rapid look at the horizon followed by the frantic scanning of the map. Where am I? Is that hill on the left point 3152? Then, exquisite release. Ahhh, there’s the sharp bend in the Coppermine River. Kulugtuk is 352 degrees true from here. I will live another day.

Next came the roll of 1:250,000 topographic sheets. Muted pastels: light turquoise for the lakes, pale olive green for the forest, stark white for tundra. The topo sheets are the highest form of the map-makers art. It is the white areas have always drawn my attention. Contour lines show up better against the white, just as hills and pingos show up better when surrounded by miles of flat tundra. These areas always seem more sparsely inhabited, more wild, than the colored areas.

I spread the topo sheets out and begin to scan them. I have studied our route on 1:1,000,000 series maps before, but on those coarse regional sheets the details are sketched in almost impressionistic fashion. They dazzle with the vast breadth of country they encompass, but one views the country through a blurry haze. But the 1:250,000
topo sheets. They are so detailed they are almost surrealistic. Every bend in the river, every kink in a contour conveys whispers that here lies a secret of the land. Taking the Klondike sub-sheets, I scan down the MacKenzie and then up to Deline, across Great Bear Lake and to Dease Inlet.  Suddenly I am no longer in the living room. The harsh wind from the Dismal Lakes cuts my face as I scan the Copper Hills in the distance.

Then my eyes come across the light blue patch that depicts Rouviere Lake, and now I am no longer traveling in space. I am also falling through time as well. The years spin away and it is 1913. I see a black-bearded intense young Jesuit priest, Father Jean-Baptiste Rouviere, building a cabin on the shore of the lake. He is there to proselytize to the Inuit, a new band, one that has had little contact with whites.  Time passes. It gets cold and it snows. I next see his body, bloody, in the snow, killed by two Eskimos, Sinnisiak and Uluksuk. For brief moment, I am not only no longer at home, I am also no longer myself. I am Corporal Denny LaNauze of the RCMP investigating the crime, taking 3 long years to finally bring the murders to justice.

Everywhere my eye wanders across the map I see historic names, and each name is a time machine that whisks me back in time. If maps are portals for the mind travel through space, then the names on maps are portals for travel through time. Each can unlock a vignette in history, an event, that led to its naming, that played out on the landscape in the mists of time.

I carefully roll the topo sheets back up in the corrugated cardboard and lovingly insert the bundle into the map the tube. I stack the aviation sections next the tube, making sure they are in geographic order (never know when I might need one in a hurry). I place the cap back on the roll. I know I will look at these maps again, but for now the journey is over. Just before I turn off the light off and walk upstairs to bed, I look one more time in their direction.





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