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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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On days when high tides prevented hiking, I often wandered back to explore Blakely Harbor. In the late 1800s, a wharf of fir pilings and planking covered its pebbly shore. Immigrant workmen fed old-growth forests into one end of the buzz saw. Out the other end came the bones of the grandest homes in San Francisco. The mill closed decades ago. The only building that remains is the shell of the mill’s 1909 powerhouse, a stubborn symbol of the staying power of reinforced concrete. The building has become the shared canvas of local graffiti artists, who put up new pieces weekly. Teenagers hang out inside, smoking dope and drinking beer.

To map Blakely Harbor, I wanted to get small. I needed to practice hyper-locartography: the act of mapping per square foot, maybe even per square inch. But few tools let me go nose-to-the-ground. At a certain point even Google Earth blurs to pixels.

Then a friend tipped me to Ortelius. MapDiva released this software for hand-drawn mapping last year (see left, it’s still only available for Macs). And unlike most freeware, once I got it started, it took off like a Ferrari. Blakely Harbor–my Blakely Harbor–came to colorful life on the screen. I added more details with every trip. The evolving map spurred further explorations. The world somehow became more interesting: an old steel cable sticking out of the mud like a leg bone in a cemetery; a beautifully marbled madrona tree. I pulled on a wet suit, paddled around on my surfboard, and discovered a sunken sailboat. Its stern was caught on the seafloor but its bow snouted up like an iceberg.

It didn’t take long before Ortelius went viral in my household. My kids already enjoyed flying over their schools or visiting exotic lands on Google Earth (Willie, a manga fanatic, liked to drill down into Tokyo), but the ability to create their own maps whole cloth sparked something new in their imaginations. They drew up make-believe lands like those conjured by J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien. They even created maps of their own messy rooms–truly a navigational challenge worthy of George Vancouver.

I’ve printed out my own Ortelius map of Blakely Harbor a half-dozen times, but it keeps evolving. I keep adding to it. Same with my Google Earth map. New photos, interesting places, odd curiosities–they all get poured into the maps. The Google Earth map is so dense now that the "exploded pincushion" view completely obscures the island’s landmass. Even my hardcover guidebook, Mapping Bainbridge: Hiking My Way Home, has already been updated with new maps and photos: The second edition was printed three weeks after the first.

They’re not just artifacts, these maps; they’re living documents. They change, and they’ve changed me as well. I keep my eye on the tide chart these days, like a surfer watching buoy reports. When it’s a super-minus or a high flood tide, I grab my hiking gear and go, searching for new discoveries on the coast. But when I go exploring now, I don’t feel like a foreign visitor. We’re no longer strangers, the island and me. I’ve put it on the map.

Bruce Barcott is the author of The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw."Footprints Needed!"–his story about Colorado’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park–appeared in September 2009.

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