Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Dan Crane: Adirondack Information Supertrailway

Toad PondOccasionally escaping technology is essential for maintaining one’s peace of mind, especially as high tech gadgets increasingly invade every facet of modern life. From incessantly checking email, the ever-present Internet surfing temptation and the constant threat of an irritating cellphone ringtone disturbing every moment, it is important to find a refuge before becoming mental roadkill on the information superhighway.

The Adirondack backcountry used to be such a refuge, but it may not remain so for much longer.

Recently, the Washington Post, among others, reported about a Federal Communication Commission (FCC) plan to create a super Wi-Fi network, so powerful it could “penetrate thick concrete walls and travel over hills and around trees.” And presumably, into the interior of the Adirondack backcountry. Worse yet, it would be free for public use.

Fortunately, the story was patently incorrect.

According to Ars Technica, the FCC is not proposing a super Wi-Fi, free to all or otherwise. The details of the misunderstanding are more boring than reading about the current Washington-manufactured financial crisis, but the resulting story was published, went viral, and most likely became one of the many shared items on Facebook that have little basis in fact. Despite all the reporting to the contrary, the story lives on in the virtual world, probably because it seems plausible.

Regardless of the current feasibility of such a notion, the very idea of such a super network, combined with the recent news of the National Park Service’s proposal making Wi-Fi available in certain areas of some national parks should give pause to anyone dreading the notion of the instant communication following them into the backcountry. How long will it be before such a notion becomes a reality? Probably not as long as many would hope.

Annoying ringtones may soon disrupt the beautiful song of the white-throated sparrow at a favorite campsite. Distracted groups of hikers, shambling zombie-like down the trail as they stare into small devices may become a common feature along the trail. The glare of smart phones may replace the glow of a fire on hikers’ faces at many lean-to sites.

Will all impacts of an information super trailway be negative? Certainly not. Communication with the outside world during an emergency is an obvious advantage. Having access to a vast array of facts, figures and other knowledge at one’s fingertips will diffuse many a late night lean-to argument is another. Using electronic gadgets to register on each lean-to’s Twitter feed might replace the worn and torn notebook of old. I want to see an unprepared hiker use that as emergency toilet paper. On second thought, no I would not.

Having access to the Internet in the backcountry creates a quandary though, as it violates many of the primary purposes for pursuing such an experience far from modern society. It has the potential to disrupt the notion of solitude, erode a sense of independence and eventually distract from any profound communion with nature.

Now before accusations of hypocrisy start to fill up the comment section, let me admit I do use an occasional modern electronic gadget in the backcountry. Although I almost exclusively navigate by map and compass (except during wet weather), I am not above using a handheld GPS to find my location on a map (or having the map right on the GPS for that matter). In addition, I often carry a personal locator beacon (PLB) just in case of an emergency, especially when bushwhacking solo into the backcountry. However, I draw the line at carrying a phone though. In fact, I still do not even own a cellphone; it is true – my neo-Ludditism is no myth.

If the Internet does ever penetrate the Adirondack backcountry, there will always remain one bastion of refuge from the wired world – the trailess backcountry. No matter how much the world continues to shrink, or how much social networking dominates the physical world, few people will ever have the courage to leave the feeling of comfort and security provided by a well-marked trail system.

So, until black bears learn to use the Internet, the Adirondack backcountry remains a place to escape the increasingly interconnected world. Then again, we could always voluntarily disconnect ourselves, and just park our electronic gadgetry in the information superdriveway, though I doubt that is going to happen anytime soon.

Photo: Remote Toad Pond in the Five Ponds Wilderness by Dan Crane.

Dan Crane

Dan Crane

Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.


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11 Responses

  1. Dan, Thanks for a good article. You mention your Personal Locator Beacon- could you comment on why you went that route, vs. a Sat phone? I have seen that the costs of the Sat phone have come down quite a bit, some nearly comparable to cell phones. Like you, I don’t have a cell phone, but do carry handheld GPS for mapping purposes. With a Sat phone, one could make the call “Honey, I’ll be late coming out of the woods, don’t wait for me at dinner”- since it seems a lot of confusion comes out of getting delayed and coming out of the woods late. Vs. of course a “true emergency call” (ie. a broken leg, etc.) Do you know anyone who has used a Satellite phone in our backcountry and likes it??

    Teresa the Cartographer

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    • Dan Crane Dan Crane says:

      Teresa,

      The main reason for selecting a PLB vs. a Sat phone was cost. The PLB device was about half the cost of the Sat phone itself, and then on top of that there is the monthly service, which was not trivial. Since most of the year, the Sat. phone would be sitting in a closet; I found this added cost to be too high. The PLB runs of the government SARS system, and therefore is a totally free service.

      This was several years ago, so the cost different may not be as great now. I might have to look into this again, since I’m thinking about replacing my current PLB with a smaller one.

      I wonder if there is a market for used PLBs.

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  2. Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

    Dan:

    One way or the other, the near-future connectivity to practically every corner of the globe will be a given. The Adirondacks will be no exception.

    You can get a sat phone today that is indistinguishable from a cell phone. And while the article you reference was a misinterpretation and wild exaggeration of the intentions of the government, the capacity of the whitespace at issue to provide more powerful and penetrating wifi service is ture. In fact there is a robust project in the park going on right now to use whitespace to provide Internet access to remote users.

    The question is what to do with this universal access and what policies to have with respect to devices that use it in the back country. I feel a column coming on about that.

    I myself have no interest in any having any electronic device with me when I’m in the woods. These electronics – including GPS – runs jarringly counter to everything I seek to experience in the woods – up to and including having no idea where I am, which for me is a delicious, elemental, necessary part of the wilderness experience.

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    • Dan Crane Dan Crane says:

      Pete,

      Stop poaching my articles for column ideas!!

      Do you carry a map and compass? Or do you just go out in the backcountry clothed in loincloth and carrying a stone knife?

      Although I carry a GPS with me, I usually only navigate with a map and compass, since I find that way more fun. Since I started blogging about my adventures, I use my GPS a lot more as I find having a record of my route enhances my stories for the benefit of the readers (all 5 of them).

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      • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

        Dan, Dan, Dan (this is going to be a regular address to you, I can see that):

        But where would I be without your brilliant columnal leadership? I have to have a mentor and inspiration, even though you’re totally, utterly, desperately, stunningly, completely wrong about seasonal camping. In any case I’m too busy writing about oxen and reading survey field notes right now to scarf any of your ideas, at least for a few weeks.

        On the wilderness gear you got me, buddy. In the back country I wear animal skins, grunt and carry a club – basically the same ensemble I choose when required to visit the in-laws.

        I rely upon my internal compass, water and the topography of the land almost exclusively. I can navigate by magnetic compass as needed but rarely use it. The internal compass works well, not the least reason being that I have enough experience (mostly) to not be stupid about the times and situations it would utterly fail me.

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  3. Bob Meyer says:

    Like the TV at home. We still have the choice to turn it off or, in the case of a cell phone [which I carry in my pack] not turn it on while in the woods.
    I own a GPS, but frankly, like Pete, love the “aesthetic” of map & compass. It’s been years since I’ve even used the GPS. In fact, where is it? LOL

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    • Dan Crane Dan Crane says:

      Although we can certainly control our own actions, we have less ability to control those of others (at least legally). Other than a laptop, which I would never carry into the backcountry, I do not have a mobile device, but if many people are using them in the backcountry irresponsibly then I certainly could be affected by their use (i.e. they talk loudly on their phone, annoying ringtones constantly intruding upon natural sounds, etc.).

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  4. Brad says:

    I am no backcountry purist anymore, I take MP3,but the phone (if it even has signal?) stays in the drybag…would be nice to have a PLB for wife’s comfort zone however.

    The idea of being out of touch is one of the prime reasons for making the journey for me…kids and way too many adults) are so wired in to their E-toys they don’t see the reason to ever disconnect. And visitors to their seasonal homes, “would stay much longer if we had beter internet access”. Really, why do you leave your primary house then, to do what in the ADK’s?

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  5. Dave says:

    When I go on a hike, I just leave the phone, the gps, all that stuff at home. On a mountain top, I hate it when people phone home so I just move out of hearing range….I usually do anyway.

    But having service in a vacation home is a whole different deal. It does allow longer, and more frequent, visits.

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  6. Dan

    “Now before accusations of hypocrisy start to fill up the comment section, let me admit I do use an occasional modern electronic gadget in the back country”

    So, like most naysayers / evangelically anti-tech types, this is all just so much ‘do as I say, not as I do’ jibber-jabber?

    Well, thanks for ‘sharing’. Now we can more accurately ‘weight’ the value of the your objections to digital access (for everyone else).

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  7. Dan > ps that FCC ‘tech’ that could “travel over hills and around trees.” And presumably, into the interior of the Adirondack backcountry” that ‘doesn’t exist’ (wrong again)

    Thurman is deploying it, now. (Part of theNYS Bandwidth grants awarded, Tuesday. It’s ‘white space’ tech utilizing the unused UHF bands recently ceded back to the FCC by the TV networks (all those bands on old analog, over the air TV’s that were all ‘static’? That spectrum.

    And, good news, it DOES penetrate foliage and follow terrain so…there’s that. #justsayin

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