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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.
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High tide floods Bainbridge’s shore twice a day, which kiboshed the notion of circling the island in a few long hikes. I’d have to work within a daily five-hour low-tide window.

But that wasn’t my only concern. Often just reaching the beach proved a problem. Bainbridge’s swankiest houses are along the shore, and the owners of $1.5-million properties get ornery when strangers trespass to reach the beach. A handful of public-spirited islanders have fought to establish access points, which they’ve published online. But in my ground-truthing of the shoreline, many "public access points" turned out to be "nonexistent access points." Maps that don’t conform to reality are the most frustrating kind, so I developed a strategy and made a vow: I’d hike access point to access point, and my map would include only those that could actually be found.

Because the incoming tide often precluded a return hike, I worked a variation of the old chicken-and-fox-cross-a-river solution. I’d drop off my bicycle at one access point, drive the van to the other end of the section, hike the shore, and pedal the back roads to return.

The new strategy helped me trace the shoreline in discrete chunks up to about four miles long. And by hiking at low tide I discovered unexpected treasures. At Murden Cove, for example, I found dense beds of living sand dollars that are exposed when the water recedes. These weren’t the bone-white medallions that wash ashore like four-leaf clovers of the sea. They were purplish-black, covered by tiny hairlike spines that trap organic particulates, and piled on top of and beside one another like a dropped stack of dinner plates. Like most things in nature, the chaotic arrangement is no accident. Perching slightly oblique to the tide and current allows the sand dollar to capture more food in the drift. I took a picture and put it on the map.

Before starting my circumnavigation, I’d imagined finding spots just like Murden Cove–quiet stretches of shoreline where I could hike by myself, or with family and friends. Places like the Lost Coast, where a mile-long trail leads from a wildlife preserve to a pristine beach. But I never imagined the surprises you only find by mapping as you go–instead of leapfrogging to locations others have marked. I paced off Rockaway Beach, Bainbridge Island’s own gold coast, which, curiously, abuts an old creosote factory that’s now an EPA Superfund site. I stood at the dock site where the island’s Japanese Americans were taken away during World War II, forced into relocation camps for doing nothing more than symbolizing America’s post-Pearl Harbor fears. Clams under the ferry dock treated me to a mesmerizing show of spouting fountains while, above, dozens of drivers sat impatiently in their cars, oblivious to the natural wonder going on below. Who knew?! Readers of my map will.

As I waypointed clams and madrona trees and other discoveries, it occurred to me that I was practicing the mapping equivalent of the locavore movement. Call it locartography, and tell Lonely Planet and Trails Illustrated they have a new competitor: you.

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