Jeff's Map
Credit: Jeff's Map

By Conor Mihell

Canadian history is steeped in the exploits of adventurer-cartographers like Samuel Hearne and David Thompson.

Travelling by canoe, these explorers sketched some of the first maps of the New World, retracing and documenting the age-old travelways of First Nations peoples. Now, a perfect storm of mapping technology, social media and government neglect has made the humble canoe the primary vehicle for a new type of cartography across northern Ontario. The next generation of backcountry maps are user-friendly, accurate and critical in preserving these traditional canoe routes. 

Jeff's Map (pictured, top)

Toronto-based paddler and entrepreneur Jeffrey McMurtrie was a teenager when a conspicuous error on a government-issued map of Algonquin Provincial Park convinced him he could create something better. Starting in 2006, McMurtrie mined historical records, chatted with other canoeists and taught himself computer mapping to produce a new and improved Algonquin map. 

“I was just a canoeist who thought the park map wasn’t up to par,” says McMurtrie. “I came to it with no preconceptions of what a map should be, and as a result was able to come up with some new features that make a canoe trip more enjoyable.” 

McMurtrie launched his digital Algonquin map in 2008. The canoeing community ate it up—and demanded print copies for field use. Since completing an undergraduate degree in geography in 2012, mapmaking has been McMurtrie’s full-time job. After Algonquin, he produced similar maps for Killarney Provincial Park and the Temagami area. All of his maps include travel times, campsites, portages, hiking trails and historical information. “It brings all the material together in a meaningful way,” says McMurtrie, who spends up to 60 days paddling each year to ground-truth his maps first-hand. With the aid of social media, McMurtrie says his goal is ever-evolving maps that are “relentlessly accurate.” (jeffsmap.com)

Rediscovering Nastawgan

Decades ago, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) mapped and maintained canoe routes across the province. With reduced funding, many routes on Crown land or in less popular provincial parks fell into disrepair. The sprawling lakes and rivers of Temagami are home to a network of nastawgan—the Ojibwa term for canoe routes. The non-profit Friends of Temagami (FOT) sought to document these routes, both to give paddlers more route options and to leverage heightened awareness to preserve the area’s wilderness values. FOT’s first production, a poster-sized planning map covering 10,000 sq-km of terrain, promptly sold 1,500 copies—and made a huge contribution to the organization’s operating budget.

“We felt that we have a lot of expertise that wasn’t represented on the maps that were available,” says FOT spokesperson Bob Olajos. “We crowdsourced the route information from our members and friends. Countless pencil lines from dog-eared topographic maps were transferred to ours.”

Last summer, the FOT produced a more detailed map, highlighting the Obabika Lake and Maple Mountain area and capturing the most popular canoe routes in Temagami. Olajos says his organization’s work built on the efforts of those by guidebook author Hap Wilson and ethnographer Craig Macdonald. “We’re inspiring the next generation to discover Temagami,” he says. What’s more, the FOT now has a single document to offer MNRF planners when discussing park management plans and forestry operations. “A big part of our work is protecting canoe routes and portages,” adds Olajos. “With our map, we’ve created a new standard.”  (friendsoftemagami.org)

Northwest Passage

One of Ontario’s largest and most ambitious volunteer mapmaking initiatives began in 2004, when Thunder Bay canoeist Phil Cotton made his first journey in Wabakimi Provincial Park. Spanning 9,000 sq-km of boreal forest in northwestern Ontario, Wabakimi is the province’s second-largest protected area—yet was virtually unknown compared to other destinations, like Quetico Provincial Park. 

Cotton discovered a paddler’s paradise—and also an area that was poorly documented by government planners. Starting in 2005, Cotton led crews of volunteers to maintain and map all of Wabakimi’s canoe routes. Since then, 175 Wabakimi Project participants have logged 4,600 km in the area, inventorying some 1,700 campsites and portages on a series of paddler-specific maps. After years of work, Cotton says the Wabakimi Project is nearly complete. Last fall, he founded the Friends of Wabakimi to carry on the legacy. (wabakimi.org