Hikers map future of mountaineering

August 2, 2011

By Tim Pfarr

Janet Wall searches in Issaquah’s Berntsen Park for invasive plants that she can electronically mark. Photo by Tim Pfarr

“Are we there yet? How much farther?”

If you’ve gone hiking with a child, you have surely heard these migraine-inducing questions thousands of times. As you take left and right turns up a mountainside, there is often no good answer to give the tired youngster.

After all, how much farther is it to the top? Where in the world are you on that map you brought?

If only you had a map created with GPS data. Every twist and turn on the trail would be recorded with surgical precision.

A virtual trail of bread crumbs

As GPS — global position system — technology blossomed in the past decade, getting lost and disoriented has been reduced to a novelty. GPS units not only tell us where we are or how to get where we’re going, but they can also tell us where we’ve been.

Coupling data gathered from a GPS system with computerized geographic information systems — commonly known as GIS — cartography has been propelled into a new age of accuracy.

Hobart resident Harry Morgan has followed the rapidly changing technology and studied its applications. From 2003-2005, the retired engineer with ties to the Cascade Land Conservancy and Issaquah Alps Club completed a series of GIS courses at Green River Community College.

After completing the coursework, Morgan put his new skills to use, mapping Squak Mountain’s trails for the Issaquah Alps Trails Club.

“He’ll get right down and help on the GPS,” Issaquah Alps Trails Club President David Kappler said, adding that Morgan’s expertise has become a substantial asset to the club.

After eight trips, Morgan had walked all the trails in the state park, using a Garmin 60CSx GPS to record his trips. He set the device — clipped to his backpack’s shoulder strap — to automatically record its location every three seconds. When he returned home, he loaded the data in his computer.

“It’s just like Hansel and Gretel going into the forest,” Morgan said. “You’re leaving bread crumbs where you’ve been.”

The computer program connected the points recorded by the GPS unit, and after placing the points atop a U.S. Geological Survey base map of the area, Morgan’s map came to life. For a time, the map was sold at Issaquah’s REI.


Morgan also used his GPS to create trails maps in Newcastle, Enumclaw and the Rock Creek area of Maple Valley. As a Cascade Land Conservancy trustee, he also started teaching courses on GIS systems to members of the organization.

Morgan even did work in Mexico, creating a city map for the town of Loreto, Baja California Sur, where he and his wife now spend each winter.

In the town on the shores of the Gulf of California, Morgan rode his bike along each street, recording the locations of restaurants, hotels and shops. He even took to local parks, walking the chalk lines of a nearby soccer field. The local bookstore now sells his map.

His work took another turn when he used his GPS and a depth sounder — which uses sonar pulses to detect water depth — to map the ocean floor off the coast of Loreto. The data provided crucial information about marine life in the area, and he gave the map to a local environmental group.

“The thing I enjoy most about GPS and GIS mapping is hopefully making a difference in the protection of important areas,” Morgan said. “Cartography can be an important tool if used well.”

The hardware

Morgan’s Garmin GPS — the size of a small handheld radio that costs in the ballpark of $200 — can only record geographic locations. He is forced to write additional information on a notepad. However, he recently began using a Trimble GeoExplorer on behalf of the Cascade Land Conservancy.

The GeoExplorer is the size of a shoe and has an interface similar to a personal data assistant. The touch screen works with a stylus, and the device loads satellite images, allowing users to see — in context — where the unit has recorded information.

With each data point the unit records, users can easily make notes, such as whether invasive plants are present.

Nevertheless, you’d have to fork over about $3,000 to purchase one of these nifty units. The Cascade Land Conservancy purchased the unit Morgan uses with a government grant.

Morgan’s sister, Janet Wall — an Issaquah Rivers & Streams Board member and 2004 Ruth Kees environmental award winner — has started learning the new technology as well. (The Ruth Kees award is the highest environmental honor the city of Issaquah offers.)

With a Garmin GPS of her own, she is learning to keep track of invasive plants — such as holly, ivy and yellow archangel — on specific pieces of property.

“It’s helpful to know exactly where those are found on a parcel and the extent of them,” Wall said. “You can’t just eradicate them in the first visit.”

In addition to noting coordinates, she can walk the perimeter of a patch of invasive plants to create a precise footprint that can be uploaded onto a GIS system. To track the size of the plants, she only needs to walk the perimeter again and compare the old and new footprints. That eliminates the need to place physical markers on the property.

Thus, she can also mark the locations of streams or any other features of interest.

Kappler said GPS mapping is particularly useful when it comes to locating ivy, particularly mature ivy that grows up trees, as it spreads seeds.

“A lot of times, those are off trails and in unexpected places,” he said.

Issaquah in the digital world

In the future, Morgan said he hopes to continue mapping trails in the Issaquah area for the Issaquah Alps Club, although the maps are now posted on the organization’s website and no longer printed.

“My hope and desire is to do a map of Cougar Mountain and of Tiger Mountain,” he said.

However, he is now working to create a “hood hunt” for Issaquah, in which participants follow a path through the city to find landmarks and answer fun questions.

Hood hunts have become popular in the Fremont and Alki neighborhoods of Seattle, and Morgan said he hopes to have Issaquah’s completed this summer. He said Issaquah’s hunt will center near Front Street and take participants about an hour and a half to walk.

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One Response to “Hikers map future of mountaineering”

  1. Margaret Koontz Siebert on December 23rd, 2011 1:31 pm

    Interesting article!

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