Now that anyone with a computer is "living at the Library" it's easy as pie to get maps and charts for pretty much anywhere. Well, maybe not easy as pie, but do-able.
Here's a reminder that when you're planning a kayaking or canoeing trip, try to get more information than you can find at Google Maps. Look up a canoeing guide, or a kayaking blog. What do the yacht enthusiasts and fishermen have to say about the area where you want to go? Find some maps and charts designed to be used by small boaters. I'm not dissing Google Maps or Mapquest... it can be very handy to look at road maps and satellite photos online. I'm just saying that the best preparation comes from combining online maps & photos with paper maps and local knowledge.
Printed maps have details on them that are meant to communicate more than just where the roads go or which way the rivers run. If you've never taken a map-reading class, pony up for one at a recreation centre or a paddling festival. Yes, I mean that if you have to pay for the class, pony up, cuz it's worth it. There's heaps of knowledge on every chart and map at the public library. The bicycling map for Greater Victoria has details of interest for paddlers too, such as which roads have steep hills... that's something to think about when one is pulling a kayak along on wheels.
Before I paddled down the Red Deer River last year, I'd read several trip reports from paddling clubs in Alberta and across Canada, like Paddle Alberta. I didn't just stick to reports on that particular stretch of that particular river, either... which is how I noticed the many occasions on which rivers rise suddenly following or during rainstorms. Every night I slept on the riverbank I lugged my gear above the summer high water mark, and made note of where the winter high water mark lay along that particular shore. At one site, a cabin owner had marked the high water point with a hand-lettered sign. I took care to lift my kayak to an inconvenient but necessary height above the river each evening, and tie this light inflatable to a tree even when this meant connecting my throw bag, bow painter and a bungee to stretch the distance; that night, the kayak looked like a dog pulling on a very long leash. Results paid off immediately, as each night the rain poured down in thundershowers, but I never had to venture out in a downpour to move my kayak or tent. I'm a flatwater paddler most of the time, on seashores and lakes -- it was reading forum notes from river kayakers and canoeists that reminded me to do these simple preparations in an effort to be prepared for flash floods.
As well, I didn't rely only on anecdotal reports from one-time noodlers. I bought a map through Mountain Equipment Co-op, and had it laminated at the local copy shop. This map was made by Mark Lund, and it was worth any price. Go to Paddle Alberta's page here, and scroll down to see if Mark has made a map for a river you plan to paddle; with 60 trip reports, he just might. Heck, if you're looking for a good armchair read for vicarious paddling, pick up a copy of his book Mark's Guide For Alberta Paddlers, which has all those trips in it. It'll fill you in on details for trip planning, for camping in general, and for understanding why it's so important to know what those wiggly lines mean on a map or chart.
By the time I actually set up my inflatable on the riverbank and said goodbye to my ground crew (thanks Lila and Sapphira!) I had been jonesing for this trip for over three years. I was also confident that Mark Lund knew what he was saying when he called this portion of the river a safe trip for a paddler with almost no whitewater experience, as there was no whitewater. There was one riffle, not even a Class 1 rapid, which scared the snot out of me but was exactly where it was marked on the map, and was exactly the conditions the trip reports said it would be.
In spite of all the preparations, I was one small paddler in a small boat, alone on a stretch of the river that I had seen only on satellite photos. That laminated map was bungeed firmly to my boat. You can't always rely on online maps and satellite photos, as I knew well from calling up my home location on Vancouver Island, and noting how some of the islands offshore are simply not there on the online maps. Whole islands disappear -- islands I've seen or been to -- for one reason or another.
As well, there are islands on maps which simply aren't there in real life. The SPOT website people posted a little note about this phenomenon the other day, noting that Sandy Island, in the South Pacific, has been taken off the maps as it apparently never existed. Check out this link to learn more.
Islands that don't exist get onto maps for any of several reasons. Mirages, bad chart-making, mistaken log entries by bad navigators -- these are only a few causes for imaginary islands to appear on maps. But maps without existing islands? Other things are going on.
Any one map, particularly a commercial map for businesses or a reference map, has at least one artifact that is not accurate; these artifacts are made so that the person who owns the copyright for the map can prove in court that someone else is selling copies of a proprietary design. "Look, here's Blahblah Crescent drawn as a cul-de-sac with a turnaround. There is no BlahBlah Crescent at that spot, it's an undeveloped road allowance between two vacant lots in an industrial park!" These little fake details are carefully put in places so they won't be dangerous for people reading the map.
That's part of why you'll see on many road maps the notation: Do Not Use For Navigation At Sea. A car driver needs to see two islands in a bay only as rocky lumps barely visible from a road winding around a bay past buildings and tall trees. A kayaker needs to know that there are two islands and a reef barely underwater at low tide, where the current which is minimal elsewhere in the bay can suddenly rise to make standing waves over the reef.
On the other hand, when Bernie rented a kayak in downtown Toronto and paddled across the harbour to the Toronto Islands, the rental store gave him a paper placemat to use for a map. It was sufficient for their purposes, when combined with local knowledge and particularly the advice to stay inside the islands and out of the way of sailboats. No better map was needed in that place. Bottom line: there's information available in lots of media to help us have a good time on the water.