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Backpacker Magazine – May 2010

My Island, My Map: Creating a Custom Map of Bainbridge Island

If you think you missed the age of exploration and discovery, you haven't tried the latest mapping tools. Join our tech scout as he learns how to hike like a cartographer--and sees the wilderness in an entirely new way.

Day one: the shakedown cruise. My eight-year-old son Willie joined me for the inaugural leg, which began at Blakely Harbor, about a mile from our house. "How long do we have to walk?" Willie asked.

"Until we get there," I said, calling upon the wisdom of a thousand fathers before me.

A quiet cove ringed by madrona trees and million-dollar houses, Blakely Harbor is an industrial ruin slowly being reclaimed by fir trees, pickleweed, and salt-tolerant sedges. A century ago the largest lumber mill in the world roared full tilt here. Today, kingfishers and great blue herons make their living where mill hands once plied their trade.

Willie and I walked northeast, collecting crab shells as we went. We hadn't gotten far when the tide came in and pinned us against a small cliff. "What now, Dad?" Willie asked.

Hmm.

Most of my hiking has been done in the mountains, where topography, slope, elevation, ground cover, forest overstory, and weather dictate the route and set the tenor of the day. Along the shore there's really only one factor.

"The tides, Willie," I said. "It's all about the tides." We retreated. Obviously I'd need to map more than coves and cool tide pools. I'd need to chart the tides.

It turns out there's an app for that. A little research turned up an iPhone app called Tide Graph. For a one-time $1.99 download fee, it offered a graph of current and future tidal movements at any location in America.

Tide Graph so improved my hiking life that I called up its creator, Bryan Aamot. "I have a small boat in Long Beach, California, and there's a bridge near my house that I can't clear when the tide's high," he explained. "One day I forgot about the tide and got caught out." So he hammered out his own tide app. It's been among the iPhone's top 20 navigation apps for more than a year now, proving that--with today's technology--even personal navigation projects can become widely useful. (The app is so essential to shoreline hiking that I embedded a download link in my Google Earth map. Try that on a USGS topo.)

Using Tide Graph, Willie and I resumed our hike a couple of days later at a minus-two-foot tide. We discovered a drowned 30-foot madrona tree that fell onto the beach and became a marine nurse log, hosting thousands of barnacles and blue mussels (Mytilus trossulus), the predominant native mussel of Puget Sound. No other map in the world has it marked. Mine does.


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