Thursday, August 20, 2009


It’s identified as “Banff National Park” on my old, 1998 Alberta highway map. But on my new, two dollar (Alberta is the only province that charges for its highway map), 2009 Alberta highway map it is clearly labelled "Banff National Park of Canada."

Jasper National Park has likewise been changed to the arguably redundant "Jasper National Park of Canada." What can this mean? Were tourists overheard thinking they were in the United States? Were people confused about whether a "National Park" was provincial or federal? Is Alberta making a statement about Quebec, the province that aspires to be its own country and calls each of its provincial parks a "Parc National?” Who controls the names on the Alberta highway map? Unfortunately the marginalia on the map itself offers us no clues to the answers.

But this is just the beginning.

We drove into Banff park on the Trans-Canada highway from Calgary, which is probably the way that the vast majority of the park’s visitors arrive. You will assume, dear reader, as I did, that an information centre will be easy to find near this entrance: there will be a place to stop and get a map, and find out where you can camp, where the trailheads are, and so on. It’s probably going to be a big building, with a big question mark sign, just inside the park. Within the building will be all sorts of displays and friendly staff. Unless you enter the park at, say, midnight, you can count on this sort of thing. Come on: it’s Canada ‘s oldest and most famous National Park.

Now, what does the traveller want from a map? He wants to be able to locate himself on the road, and see what’s ahead. He wants to know where trails go, and where they are in relation to campgrounds. He wants to be able to recognize the landmarks that he’s going to pass: campgrounds, road junctions, information centres, trailheads, viewpoints, hostels, and so on. He wants contour lines on the map, so he can see peaks and ridges and understand what kind of terrain he might go through. But at the park gate, the man who collected our fee had only a newspaper-like brochure for us. On one page, between the stuff about bears and the history of the park, with a small map of the park. It had a table explaining the facilities at each campground, which was good. But it was basically just a small road map.

We were sure the ideal map must exist; after all this was Banff. There must be this big, lovely map we could buy with everything on it. The One Map, the holy grail of Banff travellers. Where was that big visitor’s centre, anyway?

Banff National Park has the odd situation of having a town actually inside the park, a situation that, I think, we can argue has gotten out of Parks Canada’s control. The visitor’s centre turns out to be located within the town of Banff, in the heart of downtown, where the traffic and holidaymakers are thickest and the parking the most scarce. Parks Canada has apparently never removed the visitor centre to a more accessible place. This was the story I told myself, anyway, as we stalled in bumper-to-bumper traffic, looking for a parking place, goggling at the myriads of holidaymakers shopping both sides of Banff Avenue.

Sadly, we did not emerge from the visitor centre with the One Map. We came out with the Three. The One Map, a series of Gem Trek maps with all the details, was out of stock. But the Three, between them, in theory, would provide us with all the information we needed. Here is the odd trio:

  • The Gem Trek Banff and Jasper map, 1:400,000. It’s essentially a road map. Terrain appears flat. Campgrounds, roads and hostels are all well marked, but no contours, viewpoints, or trails. On the plus side, it does have selected “points of interest,” which are numbered, with little summary text descriptions. Most of these are viewpoints, but sometimes trails are mentioned. We called this one the “Big Map.”
  • Parks Canada’s The Icefields Parkway brochure. It’s a little linear map, meant to guide you along the Icefields Parksway. Handily, it shows every campground, hostel, trailhead and viewpoint; but it shows neither trails nor contours. It’s like a diagram of the roadside signage you’ll pass. There’s no sense of the terrain on either side of the road; peaks are roughly shown with triangle icons, which is really just a cartoon of what’s there. And, to make things a little more interesting, none of the campground, trailhead, etc. icons on the map is labelled; you have to look at the “Points of Interest” table that spills down the left side of the brochure, with the kilometre mark and name of each, and figure out the order, and thereby which is which. Also, this map is only for the Icefields Parkway, which means that until you’re north of Lake Louise, you can just leave it in the glove compartment.
  • Parks Canada’s Day Hikes In Banff National Park brochure. It shows roads, and the trailheads, with trails branching off alongside. It looks like a good way to assess the trails: there’s a nice profile and description for each trail. But, perversely, it lacks campgrounds, viewpoints, hostels and contours! So it’s very difficult to relate it to the other maps. Also (wouldn’t you know?), it has its own numbering scheme for the trails, unrelated to the other two maps. As well, the map is broken into four sub-maps to fit it on the paper, so every time you unfold it, you have to re-orient yourself to whether you’re on map A, B, C or D.

So, a typical front-seat conversation between me and my navigator went like this:

What’s between here and Waterfowl Lakes campground?

[Rustling of maps to get Icefields Parkway on top] It looks like we pass a trailhead and a bunch of viewpoints. They’re called [lots of looking back and forth between the map and the Points of Interest” table] Helen and Katherine Lakes trailhead, Crowfoot Glacier viewpoint, Bow Lake viewpoint…

Where does that ‘Helen and Katherine Lakes’ trail go?

Well, hang on. [rustle over to Day Hikes] Where the hell are we? It must be this trail number 50, but here it’s only called “Helen Lake.” It says 6 km, 455 metres, 4-5 hours round trip.

What does the big map say?

Uh, [rustle, rustle] nothing here about a trailhead in this part of the highway. The next one they show is at Bow Summit, a ‘0.6km asphalt interpretive trail’ to Peyto Lake. But, [rustle back to Icefields Parkway] on this map there’s no ‘Bow Summit,’ just ‘Bow Pass’ and the trailhead is called ‘Peyto Lake.’ [Rustle over to Day Hikes] On this one that trail’s not even mentioned.

But this is not yet the complete picture of the “broken” nature of Banff park. There’s also a mysterious signage problem. As we were driving along we would pass signs with the trailhead icon on them and no name. Were we just supposed to pull off in good faith that it would be an interesting trail?

The next morning, at Waterfowl Lakes campground, we read in Day Hikes that, to find the Chephren Lakes trailhead, one should “Enter the campground and stay right, skirting around the northern edge of the facility to the trail kiosk.” We’d been in the campground all night, so we had a fair idea of its layout. We went down to the north end, and indeed there was a trailhead sign and small gravely trail along the river.

But this trail was supposed to cross the river; at least that’s what Day Hikes showed. If we had been in the backcountry I’d have assumed we were to wade it; but there, at a campground on the highway I’d assumed there’d be a bridge. But where’s the bridge? No bridge.

On the off chance that our directions were wrong, we walked along the path upstream, and five minutes later, in the middle of the west side of the campground, we found another trailhead, and a bridge!

It’s like the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.

Banff Park: great place to visit. Just remember, you’ll have to think for yourself.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Finding A Map

I’m intrigued by this problem: you find a book about someone travelling in Nepal, or about a certain forest in Poland, or about the highlands of Costa Rica, and you want a good map of the area.

You want, it turns out, a topographic map, usually at 1:50,000 or 1:100,000, a map you could use to follow a route. It has all the landmarks local people and travellers use: the rivers are labelled, the peaks are labelled, and towns and hamlets are labelled.

So where do you turn? Specifically, I’m interested in where you turn on-line, and this is for two reasons which more or less define this particular game I’m playing. First, it should be free. Second, it should be automatically generated.

In a sense, I’m posing a challenge here: who can make an automatic map-generator that works at any scale and is map-based, rather than imagery-based.

Within certain countries, excellent local solutions exist. For example, if your area of interest in in the US, WorldWind and the USGS topo-map server give you an awesome abilty to pan around on topo maps of various scales draped over a digital elevation model. In Canada you can use toporama, or EarthDetails, or you can download the CanMatrix images of scanned topo maps. In Norway you can visit a lovely site whose name I forget where you are panning over topo maps at many scales.

Note that I’m not looking for free data; images of maps is fine.

To the extent that the solutions are going to be provided on a country-by-country basis, what’s missing is a central clearinghouse of links to topo maps for various countries.