By: Anthony Brousseau
It didn’t take long for Hudson, Wis., resident Joe Spadino to fall in love with the Boundary Waters. In fact, it happened on his first trip.
“I love the outdoors, but even though I grew up [in Minnesota] I never went up to the Boundary Waters. So my buddies and I decided to do it, after that first trip I was pretty much hooked,” Spadino says. “Just the quiet and the solitude and just clean water for as far as you would ever imagine wanting to go, and very few people. Yeah, I was hooked.”
He’s returned many times since, and his treks even triggered a business idea for Spadino and friend and fellow Hudson resident Jerod Alrich.
Joe Spadino (left) and Jerod Alrich. The two initially bonded over their "communal love for paddling up in the north."
“The thing about the Boundary Waters, I don’t know if you’ve been up there, but it’s not the place that you go without a map,” Spadino says, adding most maps are not designed to survive the rough-and-tumble trips up north.
“I never really was a big fan of these paper maps that you had to sort of fold up a certain way based on what lake you were on and then tuck into a protective map case. And then when you got to the next lake, you’d have to refold it. And by the end of the trip your map was crinkled in a million different ways. And I thought, you know, there’s got to be a better way to do this.”
So Spadino cooked up an idea to print a map on a T-shirt, or maybe a bandana. Before he could do that, though, he and Alrich needed to actually make a map. Alrich did most of the heavy lifting there, Spadino says, spending months traversing public records, putting data into mapping software and talking with outfitters in the Boundary Waters and the U.S. Forest Service. That last part was important for getting the most updated data, according to Spadino.
Once the mapping was complete, they needed a tenacious yet malleable material to print it on. Spadino says he doesn’t “want to give too many of the details” of how they landed on a suitable substance, because “this was the hardest part, believe it or not.” But he will spill that after calling “hundreds of different print shops, locally and not locally,” they settled on one in Wisconsin that had the right material.
“We wanted something that was going to last 50 years, and something you could machine wash and the ink would never come out of,” Spadino says. “It’s moisture-wicking, feels real good and the nice thing is that, according to the manufacturer, it can be washed 15,000 times before you will notice fading.”
It also has an ultraviolet protection factor of 50, Spadino says, so you can wear it around your neck to prevent sunburn. It also works as a towel, can be sprayed with permethrin to keep bugs away and more.
“Every piece of gear that you’re taking into the woods should have a purpose,” Spadino says. “So we did want something that would be multifunctional.”
True North started selling the maps online in January and has since expanded to more than a dozen outfitters in northern Minnesota, as well as outdoor retail giant REI.
Ten percent of all the company’s proceeds go to Save the Boundary Waters, but True North’s advocacy is more than financial. They seek to ignite a love of the area in young people, as well as prepare future explorers for their trips up north.
“We want everybody to be able to have a map and to be able to see where they’re going, and to start to see the landscape while they’re canoeing along a shoreline looking for a portage, to see what that looks like on this map,” Spadino says. “Learning to do that, it’s something that people have always done and is a little bit of a lost art now that we have our smartphones and Google Maps.
“We don’t really connect with maps anymore. But if you’re up in the Boundary Waters, you’re sort of brought back into the time of the voyagers and when the Natives would paddle these waves.”
Trips to the Boundary Waters birth innumerable stories for wayfarers. For that reason, Spadino says True North's maps are just as much keepsakes as knapsack necessities.
“If you have a paper map it’s not something you’d bring out and show your buddies, but with this map I feel like you can kind of take it around and relive your trips a little bit,” he says. “Everybody’s wanting to point out the certain fishing hole or the great campsite or how tough this portage was, and with that map in hand you can just tell the story.”
True North Map Company currently offers a swath of fabric maps covering different parts of the BWCA. On their website, they also offer wall maps, apparel and more.