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Boundary Waters breakthrough: Wisconsin men release wearable, functional maps

Jan 25, 2019 07:29AM ● By Editor
True North canoe maps are designed to be viewed dynamically and have buttonholes allowing them to be clipped onto different surfaces. True North Map Co. / Special to Forum News Service

By Michael Longaecker from the Superior Telegram on January 22, 2019

Anyone who’s explored the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness knows the value of a good map.

Maps depicting waterways, portage routes and campsites help visitors navigate the massive northern Minnesota wilderness, where charging stations are nonexistent and manmade landmarks are intentionally sparse.

“This,” Hudson resident Joe Spadino, clutching a map, said, “is the lifeline up there.”

But the map he held in his hand was unlike any other depicting the Boundary Waters. 

For one, it’s not paper. Spadino and his True North Map partner, fellow Hudson resident Jerod Arlich, decided to print their product on fabric.

The result is a map that, in addition to being accurate and reliable, is designed to be worn, easily accessible and reused, the men said. The product has buttonholes on all four corners, which allow the map to be attached to clothes or connected to a carabiner and then clipped into anything from bag straps to canoe crossbars.

The True North Map Co. partners said if users prefer, they can fashion the maps into bandannas or kerchiefs. The product protects for up to UPF 50 — for when the sun shines down on necks during long paddles.

The maps’ polyester base provides moisture wicking capability; since they’re printed on sub-dye equipment, they can be rewashed without losing detail, Spadino and Arlich said.

Spadino, who runs Hudson-based Blacktop Concepts, said the idea for a dynamic map took root one day when he was paddling the Boundary Waters in a canoe with his brother in the front seat. Desiring a peek at a map, it occurred to Spadino how helpful it would be if his brother just had a map on the back of his T-shirt.

“Why doesn’t somebody do that?” he remembered thinking. “Why isn’t there an easier map?”

But the concept of a functional map remained in his head. When he met up with Arlich — whose wife is a longtime family friend of Spadino — the two learned of their shared Boundary Waters interest. The wilderness area became their favorite subject during get-togethers, where Spadino shared his idea about a T-shirt map.

“We joked around about that,” he said.

But the more they talked about it, the less funny it seemed. Spadino’s was a really good idea, Arlich explained. 

The only problem was they didn’t own the copyright to reproduce the maps.

‘Geek’-ing out over BWCA

Arlich, like Spadino, visits the Boundary Waters multiple times a year. He is familiar with the task of keeping paper maps protected in the wilderness, where they would be examined, refolded and examined again — ad nauseum.

“Pretty soon, you have origami,” Arlich said with a laugh.

So he embarked on a personal project to map the entire Boundary Waters. He would work on the comprehensive map during late nights during the summer of 2018 tending to his newborn. 

A self-proclaimed “geek” who works in 3M’s IT department, Arlich, with the help of friends, had taught himself GIS. Those skills in tow, he went to work gathering data from public departments and agencies that have mapped the Boundary Waters. 

The data, pulled from the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Forestry Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, became a massive spreadsheet project that would map the entire Boundary Waters.

“The data is as good as you can get it,” Arlich said.

He revealed the 8-foot by 3-foot map to Spadino in October. 

Arlich had also since cleared the most important hurdle: Receiving a copyright to the map, so it’s his to produce and sell as he likes.

Spadino then reminded him of the bandanna idea they had talked about two years earlier.

“And, boom, things start rolling,” Arlich said of what would become True North Map Co.

Together, they refined the canoe maps, to which Spadino added some unique insight on their features.

For Boundary Waters aficionados, some features might look a slightly different. To foster ease-of-reading, the True North guys did away with elevation numbers and lake depths. They figured that, while helpful, those features make the maps too cluttered.

So they left behind contour lines that still give readers a clear sense of rises in elevation. Shaded areas mark forest cover, Primitive Management Areas and historical forest fires, while campsites are marked with dots and portages are listed — along with the number of rods visitors will trek along them.

True North contributes 10 percent of sales from its products, which also include reproductions of the full wall map, to the Save the Boundary Waters group. The organization opposes sulfide-ore mining just outside the Boundary Waters border.

“We felt it is super important to protect the wilderness area,” Spadino said.

Looking forward, the True North guys are already considering the possibilities of mapping other areas around the country, where wearable maps would be useful for people who paddle or sail. Arlich said it’s all possible, now that they have the process down pat.

For now, they said they’re eager to hear feedback from customers who take their maps into the Boundary Waters.

“We do feel that we’re just part of this larger community,” Spadino said.

To read the original article and see more photos and related reporting, follow this link to the Superior Telegram website.