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Navigating by GPS in Rural Maine: The Downside
08/21/2013   Reported By: Jennifer Mitchell

For people who can't fold maps, the advent of the global positioning system is a boon - so much so, that it would seem that the paper map is all but extinct. The racks of road and city maps which used to be standard fixtures at every gas station have dwindled, and disappeared from some stores all together. But the paper map is hanging on in rural states like Maine, experts say, because it's not uncommon for travelers to find themselves dazed and confused by the directions delivered by their high-tech gadgets. Jennifer Mitchell recently spent some time getting lost, and has this report.

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GPS voice: "Getting route."

Jennifer Mitchell: "It's listing 'zero feet' as my destination, but it really has no idea. It thinks I'm off route but it has no suggestions.

GPS voice: "Make the next legal U-turn."

That's me, lost on a narrow dirt road in Washington County, with a GPS device. It's trying right now to update my location, and it can't find me.

Getting yourself lost in Maine is an easy thing to do. Pavement turns into a dirt track, and before you know it, you're driving through miles of blueberries and boulders, and your GPS isn't offering any helpful suggestions.

"Where it's an electronic device, and has batteries, and relies on a satellite signal, there's a lot of things that can go wrong," says Bryan Courtois, a Maine guide and president of Pine Tree Search and Rescue.

Courtois tracks down travelers and hikers who have lost their way. Trying to rely solely on electronic mapping in Maine's remote areas, he says, is a great way to get yourself lost.

"If I'm going somewhere, I might use the GPS, but I'm always aware of where - I'll probably look at a map ahead of time, and just have a rough idea," Courtois says. "And then if I agree with where the GPS is bringing me, then I follow it. If not then I'll probably pull over and look at the map."

If you can find one. "I think there's definitely a slowing down of the production of paper maps," says Shannon Garrity, a data specialist with Delorme, a Maine company that deals in paper maps, including the famous Maine Gazetteer, and GPS technology covering some of Maine's more backwoods areas.

The most common GPS programs that one finds in cars and on cell phones, however, are likely to be most useful when you're in semi-familiar surroundings, she says - for example, when you're trying to find a store in downtown Portland. But if you're trying to locate a trailhead in western Maine's Misery Gore (south of Rockwood, on the shores of Moosehead Lake), these kinds of units don't always do the trick.

"You know, you hear those stories about the people who follow their GPS exactly, and drove off the road that didn't exist," Garrity says, "or turned into a store building because it said to turn right."

And those are not just urban legends.

Audio montage from news reports: "Divers just pulled an SUV from the Mercer Slough." "Three Japanese tourists who hired a car with a GPS and then drove it into the sea." "Three women escaped the vehicle, and they're blaming bad GPS." "There have been five prior cases in the same spot, of motorists ending up in the water while following GPS."

That last one was actually from earlier this year, in Lebanon, Maine. Maine has seen several incidents in recent years of motorists driving into bodies of water, most recently in Roque Bluffs (see map, above), where two women drove their car off a boat ramp and drowned.

It's not known whether the women were using a GPS device. But driving along that same road, here's what I got when I set "Roque Bluffs" as my destination:

GPS voice: "Your destination is straight ahead."

But at that spot, "straight ahead" is a fairly steep hill, and at the end of that hill is the ocean, which you really can't see until you're already on your way down. On a foggy day - or at night - you probably couldn't see the water at all.

By comparison, a peek at a road atlas, while it doesn't offer any specific warnings about "Danger: Road ends in water," your progress is slowed: You have to stop the car, locate the road, and then you see that the ocean lies straight ahead.

Not having this kind of "big-picture information" is essentially what's wrong with popular GPS units when trying to navigate through rural Maine, says Garrity. The unit is only as accurate as the data map it uses, she says. And not many companies are focusing on accurate data mapping in places like the Bold Coast, or the woods of northern Piscataquis County.

"GPS units are mostly used in cities, so there's definitely a lot of mapping that takes place in major cities so that, you know people can get around," Garrity says, "which is the opposite of what Delorme wants to do - we are taking care of where they aren't."

In time, says Garrity, GPS information - and its accurate, timely delivery - will be improved for places like Maine. But for now, when taking the road less traveled, you might also want to take along an old fashioned road map - even if you can't fold one.


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