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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.

As I made my way around the island's northern tip--hikes 10, 11, and 12--my maps began to take shape. The iPhone let me email my tracks, waypoints, and photos to my home computer, where I'd pour the data into a Google Earth map of the island. That makes it sound easy. It was not.

Locartography in the year 2010 is fabulous, but it's not seamless. Everything that should take two steps often takes five. You can't just upload photos onto your Google Earth map from your hard drive, for instance. They first need to be uploaded to an online photo service like Photobucket. Ditto with video, which must be posted on YouTube to be inserted into a Google Earth map. Doing anything beyond a simple waypoint addition will have you googling up wiki helpers (try "How to post video on Google Earth," for example), which do the trick but shouldn't have to. Since most custom-mapping tools, technologically speaking, have only just been born, you will encounter some futzing. (To learn from my trial-and-error education, see page 90.)

Tech challenges aside, the actual process of mapping presented cartographic brainteasers I'd never envisioned. Three-quarters of the way around the island, for instance, I ran into conceptual issues. Old-school maps are great at illustrating the physical world, but not so deft at capturing the fleeting nature of experience. I was building a crackerjack database of access points, trails, mussel hotspots, staircases, headwalls, tide pools, and sand dollar beds. It's a more difficult thing to catalog the range of emotions triggered by the wind, tide, light, and sand: sadness, joy, relief, anxiety, boredom, wonder. Epiphany about troubled friendship experienced here. What would that look like on a map? I started embedding old photos. Linking to songs. Inventing icons.

When a thief escaped the local police by jumping in a sea kayak and paddling away, I found some perverse satisfaction in living on an island where criminals use kayaks as getaway cars. I waypointed the spot and annotated it with the police report. And what to do with the tip of Wing Point? Puget Sound's tidal currents swirl and crash around this spot, forming an amazing knife-edge ridge of moraine cobble (left over from the ice-age glacier that carved the basin of the Sound). The spit tapers thinner and thinner until it narrows to a handful of rocks that disappear into the water. Wander out here when the tide's rising and the ferry chugs past, on its way to Seattle, and you'll feel vulnerable, conspicuous, and alone. Can't go there yourself? Go to my Google map and watch the attached video.

Eventually, mapping the island led me to a feeling akin to what the French call esprit de l'escalier, wit of the staircase, the sadness upon thinking of the perfect witty comeback just as you're leaving the party. As I neared the end of the circumnavigation, I discovered many things that I wish I had begun mapping from the start. Pipes of mystery, for example. Bainbridge Island's shoreline bristles with them. Old pipes, new pipes, big pipes, and small pipes channel the outflow from drain fields, creeks, ditches, and gutters. Nobody's exactly sure what's coming out of them. Seriously. I checked with the City of Bainbridge's shoreline manager, whose job is to monitor the health of the beaches. "We don't really know," he admitted. We do know that there's a lot of lawn fertilizer, dog poop, and road waste (oil and tire dust, mainly) going into Puget Sound, and it comes from thousands of micro sources. Like, say, pipes. I'm marking every one I come across, but I started too late, so my map is incomplete. Or perhaps it's just getting started.


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