In These Woods, They Don't Speak GPS

A GPS device can come in handy when you're exploring Maine's sprawling countryside and forestlands. But the state's most beloved navigational tool is decidedly low-tech, and you can get one in pretty much any gas station or country store for US$20.

It's known as the Maine Atlas & Gazetteer, and if you don't have one of these large rectangular map-books in your back-seat pocket door, you're probably "an awayer," as locals put it.

The publications are made by DeLorme, a company based in the coastal Maine town of Yarmouth. DeLorme long ago moved into digital mapping software and GPS devices, where it competes with brands like Garmin and Magellan.

But its series of Atlas & Gazetteers, which are now available for all 50 U.S. states, still have a loyal fanbase among lovers of the outdoors, who prize the obsessive attention to detail about roads less traveled and sights rarely seen.

You really need this level of help to get around Maine, where the back roads are laid out like a tangled lobster net and people start giving directions by saying "you cawn't get theah from heah."

Jane Crosen of the coastal town Penobscot has owned "about 10" editions of the Maine edition over the years. "I always have at least one in the car and one in my house," said Crosen, who worked as an editor at DeLorme in the 1980s and now creates and sells handmade maps of various Maine regions.

"There's nothing I'd rather look at [than paper maps]," she said. "I just resent the idea of being dependent on software."

Both Crosen's and DeLorme's maps are differentiated by their grasp of local details.

For example, a major swath of northern Maine is so underpopulated that many sections are identified with combinations of letters and numbers, instead of traditional town or district names.

The DeLorme maps depict the surprisingly intricate network of backwoods logging trails tattooed into these areas in extreme detail, and add information not necessarily available from a GPS, such as spots where a road could potentially be blocked or washed out, and the location of places like the Five Finger Camp, a remote outpost in "T14 R12 WELS."

It's the sort of stuff that can really help you avoid getting lost, or as they say here, "turned around."

Most any map will point out lakes and rivers. But DeLorme's atlas, which divides the state into about 70 11-by-15-inch maps, rewards the truly curious, labeling tiny tributaries like Dragon Meadow Brook, a two-mile trickle in the Lakes Region town of Denmark.

"Map 15" points out and names each and every land mass in the waters off the midcoast town of Stonington, even virtual pebbles like Potato Island.

The book's pages bristle with a range of icons denoting boat launches, lighthouses, swampy areas, lookout towers, lean-tos and ranger stations. It employs three notations for camping sites: One for commercial campgrounds, another for "maintained forest campsites," and a third marking "primitive campsites" where one must get permission from a local landowner.

A lengthy section at the front of the book provides descriptions and map coordinates for hiking trails, recreational areas and historic sites.

These pages may be the keystone to the Gazetteer's particular allure, as they provide fodder for an endless string of weekend outings or spur-of-the-moment trips to places like the crash site of a B-52 bomber on Elephant Mountain.

This sort of detail doesn't come about overnight. Frustrated by shortcomings and out-of-date information in publicly available government maps, company founder and CEO David DeLorme developed its initial Maine atlas in the mid-1970s at his kitchen table, using resources like public domain maps and aerial photos.

Now the privately held company, which has about 150 employees, keeps the products up to date through a combination of community input and constant outreach, according to Judy Hayes, director of data production.

"Customers send us things all the time, and that's a good starting point," she said.

Beyond that, DeLorme maintains contacts with a wide variety of government agencies at the national and state level. "We target different things depending on what state it is, so it's relevant to the users. No two atlases are the same."

A DeLorme spokesman would not disclose recent revenue figures or sales trends for the atlas series, but said the paper atlas market as a whole "is feeling some of the effect" of newer technologies.

But there seems to be little sign that DeLorme will phase out the Gazetteers anytime soon. The company has been conducting a major visual overhaul of the series and so far completed half the titles, according to Hayes. Which is good news for both Mainers and awayers.

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