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HAND-HELD UNITS PUT OUTDOORSMEN ON THE MAP

I've been crazy for maps since grade-school. Give me a really detailed chart and I can enter a trancelike state of imaginary exploration.

Since the DeLorme company began publishing detailed atlases of each state, I have kept them handy to scout for hidden streams, check topography before a hike or bike ride (steep hills CAN be avoided!) and simply enjoy the fine detail that shows every road and trail known.

The company has kept up with the digital revolution, too. Last week, a friend from Ohio visited, seeking the country graveyards where his pioneer ancestors were interred. I drove, he navigated -- and Tom had never been in Western New York before!

His laptop computer, loaded with mapping software and equipped with a small global positioning system antenna, made it easy: Tom read our position and could zoom in to find the road name and distance for our next turn.

GPS, developed by the military, is a system of 24 earth-circling satellites. An antenna picks up signals and pinpoints your position. GPS devices can chart a direct course, show your progress and a site as a "way point" for a future visit.

"We offer both road maps that allow you to chart a route and tell you where services are along the way, and topographic maps to show slope contours and elevations, bodies of water and other land forms," DeLorme spokesman Charlie Conley said. "The maps are updated regularly. Most users print them out on home computers, load the custom routes into a PDA, or use a laptop and antenna in the car, like your friend did."

DeLorme also offers 3-D aerial views at www.delorme.com.

While digitally-stored maps are useful, GPS is showing up in autos as well as sophisticated hand-held units that are very attractive for outdoors enthusiasts. This is remarkable since the first civilian GPS arrived only about 15 years ago.

The first I saw used was on a charter boat aiming for a productive fishing area. The skipper keyed the stored "way point" and the GPS unit gave the compass heading, showed boat speed and indicated arrival time.

It was made by Lowrance, a pioneer in civilian uses of military electronics. Their "green box" sonar flasher gave us some idea of the bottom contour, the depth and the fish under the boat?

"We were one of the early adopters (of GPS) once the Department of Defense allowed nav units for consumer use," said company spokesman Steve Wegrzyn. "Those earliest models were plotters-only: no background map, just 'cookie crumb' trails on a blank screen. At least you got to lay down way points!"

Map images soon followed. Today the company makes units with color screens up to 10.4 inches for boat use, GPS for private pilots and a new, award-winning auto unit.

And GPS is better than ever. New units can get you to within a few yards of your goal and some tell you when the next Thruway exit is coming.

But a hand-held unit, usable in car, boat or afoot, makes the most sense for outdoors folks, and several companies offer these at reasonable prices. These have limited memory, thus need to be loaded with maps for each section of the country. You can download those as needed from the Internet.

Lowrance also offers preprogrammed memory cards like those in digital cameras: Pop in the road card for routes, restaurants and other wayside services, or the topo card to follow off-road trails and see land contours.

Their iFinder series, priced between $200 and $300, looks appealing. The Hunt model is waterproof, has an altimeter and electronic compass, fits in a shirt pocket and runs on two AA batteries. Just buy the cards you need for sections of the US, Canada and places even further afield. Their site (www.lowrance.com) is easy to use and chock full of information.

I'll always be entranced by paper charts, imagining all that unfamiliar territory to explore in day-dreams. And I carry paper topographical maps when headed into back country. But a handy GPS unit that tells where I am, pinpoints where I want to go (such as a remote trout stream or favorite tree stand) and also gives me highway directions to the trail-head is truly appealing!

And, just in case Santa reads this newspaper, I've been a VERY good boy this year.
e-mail: yvel@adelphia.net

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