Where do you draw the line when it comes to electronics in the backcountry of the National Park System? Does use of it reflect self-doubt about your abilities, or a savviness in putting the latest technology to work for you?
It's an intriguing question, one that I'm putting to test this week during a five-day float trip down the Yampa River through Dinosaur National Park.
A paddler for more than three decades, I've long relied on maps and compass to get by when it comes to navigating. About the only electronic gadgetry I've carried, if you could call it that, were flashlights and stoves with self-igniters. Although, I did carry a GPS unit into Yellowstone National Park's watery backcountry during last fall's paddle on Yellowstone Lake, but that was a trial voyage to see exactly what the device could, and couldn't, do, not for reliance.
Which brings me to this week's trip. I'll be armed not only with Garmin's 60CSx GPS unit, but also, Spot, the self-proclaimed "world's first satellite messenger."
The 60CSx is pretty cool in that you can load topo maps onto it for use in navigating the outback. It also tracks your movements; allows you to mark waypoints, either for later mapping reference or to mark something you find cool in the backcountry so you can return to the same spot at a later date; can tell you the times of sunrise and sunset, and; offers an electronic compass. Heck, you can even use it to find your destination as you drive cross-state or cross-country.
Now, I'll confess that Spot has been resigned to a shelf in my storage room just about from the time I received it as a demo late in 2007. I questioned the need for the gizmo, frankly. But with my wife's growing interest in my well-being (thank you, darling), I dusted off the box this past week and fired it up.
It's really quite a simple unit, but remarkable as well. Slightly larger than a deck of cards and bright orange in color, Spot comes with four buttons, one of which is the on/off button. Another allows you to send an "all-OK" email to friends and family, another allows you to let them know you're OK, but running a bit late or are in need of some help, but nothing as organized as a search-and-rescue team. The last button is the equivalent of calling in the Marines to save your butt -- 9-1-1. Push that and your GPS coordinates are relayed ASAP to the closest SAR team.
Since Spot works with satellites hovering high overhead, it offers communications where your cellphone might not. However, the messages it sends have to be written and stored in software at home before you leave civilization. In other words, once you're off the grid you can use Spot to let folks know you're OK or crippled, but without any details. Still, this is better than shoving off for a week in the wilderness with no ability to get word out.
Or is it?
Judging from last week's discussion over cellphones in Yellowstone, there are at least two camps when it comes to electronic tools/gadgets/gizmos in the backcountry, regardless of whether it's officially designated wilderness, lands managed as wilderness, or just a nice inviting forest or lake setting.
So this week I plan to give Spot a workout. Every evening after we've pulled off the river and set up camp I'll send the "all-OK" signal to wife, family, and friends and, if it works as advertised, Bob Janiskee will put up a post the next morning to not just let folks know how the testing is going, but to include a link to Google Maps that will pinpoint where along the Yampa we camped. That's another cool aspect of Spot -- it works with Google Maps so the folks you're signaling not only know where you are by GPS coordinates (something that's very handy in case of emergency extraction), but they can dial-up Google Maps on the Internet and zoom in to your exact location.
One more programming feature tells Spot to send out regular signals so your friends can follow your movements over the course of the day.
So, good deal or no? Tell us what you think. Let's take the discussion over electronic technology in the backcountry up a notch. Today we put-in from Deer Lodge. Over the next five days, let's see if Spot can keep track of me.