Bushwacking, map and compass, GPS

First a caveat about technology, adapted from a sidebar in our course manual What would Raven see:

The downside of gadgets

Sitka anthropologist Richard Nelson remembers that when younger Inuit first began to use compasses, the elders worried. The compass, they claimed, was weakening peoples’ intimacy with their treeless northern landscape. No longer could hunters orient themselves by the concordance of subtle natural signs, such as the way snow deposits in prevailing winds. The compass was, in a sense, weakening peoples’ relationship with their environment.

Avenza geoPDF on android tablet (also works on iDevices)

Today the compass–once ‘cutting edge’–is now increasingly left behind by outdoorspeople armed with more advanced navigational tools. As of 2015, even dedicated GPS units are being displaced, because our phones and watches ‘can do all that.’ But does ever-advancing technology place even more buffers between the navigator and the terrain?  Few would suggest we abandon useful tools such as compasses or GPS units. But we should remember Adaa analgéin—Raven’s way of studying the world. Do our tools sharpen or dull our perceptions?

Many of the maps viewable and downloadable from JuneauNature are centered on popular trails. Trails are cool. I’ve written a 72-page guidebook about them. But on page 65, I admitted:

Juneau’s trails are wilderness training wheels. Ultimately, good hunters, gatherers, naturalists and visionaries step off the trail.’  Should you try that, I recommend a geoPDF.


My favorite way to navigate is currently by means of personally-designed geoPDFs, in apps such as Avenza. A geopdf is a ‘smart-pdf’ containing spatial coordinates. Using the GPS on your phone or tablet, you can display your position on these custom maps, laying down a track and waypoints that can later be exported to kmz for display on Google Earth, or a converted to shapefile for use in ArcMap. Pictures taken from that device will also display as photopoints.

In the Media types > Maps section, many of the linked maps are geoPDFs. I’ve exported them from ArcMap for popular hiking destinations. Some are based on high-res orthophotos; others are on LiDAR-based hillshade, overlain with layers such as streams, fine contours, geology, trails, etc. I like to load both to my tablet for hikes, and often alternate between them depending on whether I’m considering landforms or vegetation cover. The free version of Avenza holds only 3 geoPDFs at a time. We just have to clean off the old ones and load the new ones before each hike.

Stay tuned to this page as I build out the geoPDF collection. My goal is to prepare them for many of our local trails and all of the surroundings of public schools—places where Discovery Southeast naturalists bring students on field trips.

Advances in GPS

Only 10 years ago, GPS was pretty sketchy in the dense Southeast rainforest, sometimes losing reception altogether under particularly tall trees, near steep hillsides, and at certain ‘weak’ times of day. But today, more and more devices include GLONASS, Russia’s version of America’s GPS. This has improved reception at high latitudes, and in dense forest.

Even my android tablet has a pretty good GPS, suitable for navigation. But at the end of a survey, or simple recreational hike, I like to download a more accurate track, which is then used to generate better photopoints than I can get from my phone or camera. My current solution (2018) is to place a tiny bluetooth GPS in a billcap pocket or high in my daypack. The Bad Elf GPS Pro+ is a fraction of the cost of survey-grade (sub-meter resolution) devices and delivers comparably convincing tracks under canopy. More on GPS and navigation in general is in Ground truthing methods.

Tracks and trails

The trails layer in my CBJ ArcMap project is a work in progress. Building off the USFS layer, I’ve been slowly fine-tuning it with Bad Elf tracks, and—where trails show on aerials—by tracing from the high-res 2013 orthophotography. If you have a more accurate file for any trail on my GeoPDFs, send it to me, as .gpx, .kmz, or .shp.

In this section

GeoPDFs Áak’w Táak lower (Mendenhall Valley)

High-resolution GeoPDF pair for field navigation in lower Áak’w Táak, inland from little lake (Mendenhall Valley). Includes on-foot destinations from…

2018 | Richard Carstensen | 2 geoPDFs

GeoPDFs Airport flats

High-resolution GeoPDF pair for field navigation on the Airport Dike Trail and adjacent tidal wetlands. Also shows coastline on the…

2018 | Richard Carstensen | 2 geoPDFs

GeoPDFs Shaanáx Tlein (Lemon Creek)

High-resolution GeoPDF pair for field navigation on trails in lower Shaanáx Tlein, big valley (lower Lemon Creek watershed). All of…

2018 | Richard Carstensen | 2 geoPDFs

GeoPDFs Sayéik (Gastineau Community School)

High-resolution GeoPDF pair for field navigation on trails behind Sayéik, spirit helper (Gastineau Elementary). In apps such as Avenza, on…

2018 | Richard Carstensen | 2 geoPDFs

GeoPDFs Downtown

High-resolution GeoPDF pair for field navigation on roads and trails of downtown Juneau. In apps such as Avenza, on your…

2018 | Richard Carstensen | 2 geoPDFs

Ground-truthing methods and workflow

Every few years I create an update of my methods and workflow: prefield prep, fieldwork, and postfield processing, journaling and…

2017 | Richard Carstensen | 5 pages

GeoPDF Chookan Aaní (Mend-Penn) & West Refuge

High-resolution GeoPDF pair for field navigation around Chookan Aaní, grassy land (Mendenhall Peninsula) and the western Refuge, where Pederson Creek…

2018 | Richard Carstensen | 2 geoPDFs

2011 fall newsletter. Recording nature: field journaling as Raven goes global

Journaling is my work and play. It’s how I taught myself to be a naturalist, and one of the ways…

2011 | Richard Carstensen, Kathy Hocker, Kevin O'Malley | 16 pages