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BWCA Portages on Google Maps?

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Most of us knew it was only a matter of time until Google had even the Boundary Waters mapped… has that time come?

Could it be that anyone with access to Google Maps will soon be able to use it as a primary tool in planning canoe routes? Google Maps, the same service that still doesn’t even label some of the smaller lakes in the BW?

We’re doggedly pursuing answers to this interesting development, but let’s get you caught up first.

What’s Going On?

Yesterday a link was posted on Reddit, directing users to this locality — in the Sawbill Trail area lakes — where indeed several portages are marked and labeled. However, at the time of writing, only some in that area are showing up.


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We’re observing this phenom elsewhere in the BW; a number of portages can be seen off the Gunflint Trail (Gaskin Lake to Winchell Lake, Caribou to Horseshoe, among others).

The portages’ display is similar to that of roads (but at about 50% opacity) and their lengths are measured in rods (not feet or meters). Campsite locations are not currently displayed.

Why’s This Significant?

No doubt, BWCA map info has been available online for a long while, and in many forms. From downloadable KML files for Google Earth, to Google API-enabled sites and other such avenues, the Web has seen users mapping and sharing trip routes, and even cataloguing the wilderness area to varying levels of detail. But arguably, most of these have required some level of opt-in for the user, if not a good deal of trial-and-error searching. Either one has to find a specific site, download this certain file, or register with that online community, or get a link to someone’s custom map. Of sites that do have online maps, information is limited to whatever the site admin has time to upkeep, or the mapping technology is antiquated and simply doesn’t perform as well as Google’s technology. In other words, accessing this kind of info is inconvenient and not very straightforward. The world is increasingly looking to Google as a universal source for all things mappable.

But. When portages begin showing up in a simple Google Maps search of the geographic area, that access becomes much more universal. And, if indeed Google is behind this effort, the possibilities are, well… interesting to speculate upon.

Case in point: Google has just announced a new effort to bring Street View to hiking trails with their new Trekker backpack camera system. Yes. That’s right. Would campsites with 360-views be next (not that either of those things are necessarily good ideas or bad)? Speculating further: Since Google has up-to-the-minute traffic alerts on roads, why not fire alerts or trail closures (okay, that’s a tall order, but maybe in the not-so-immediate future).

But these speculations are assuming that Google themselves are behind all this. Are they?

Who’s Doing This?

The fact that Google has been working on mapping trails, might make them seem the obvious choice.

However, the fact that portage lengths are shown in rods, would seem to suggest both a familiarity with the BWCA (or at least existing maps of it), coupled with a sensitivity for that rare unit of measure.

At present, our best guess would be users of Google Map Maker, which allows non-Google employees to submit places, roads, and yes, trails, for review; after which they may be published. Initial searches for BWCA-ish groups within its forum didn’t prove fruitful, but that wouldn’t disqualify that option, especially if only individual users may be behind this. And admittedly, a cloud-sourced, Wiki-like community making constant updates and corrections may be a very efficient way to keep things current for a trail system like the BW’s, which is always in flux due to fires, blowdowns, site closures, etc.

In any case, we can promise you two things:
1) Whoever is mapping the BWCA on Google has a LOT of work ahead of them (see opening comments re: unmapped lakes).
2) We’ll keep you posted on anything we hear about this.

Comments? Thoughts? and most importantly, Leads? Let us know in the comments. We’d love to get to the bottom of this continuing story, and have you be a part of it!

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One Response to BWCA Portages on Google Maps?

  1. Camp System says:

    I have nothing else to add to this topic other the need to further understand it. You put a nice twist to it. Very valuable information Andy.

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