Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Digitizing the Adirondack Backcountry

At times, it seems as if the entire world is going digital. The Digital Revolution is in full swing, ubiquitously deploying its combined forces of computers, tablets, smart phones, Internet, Wi-Fi, etc., penetrating every aspect of our modern lives. Its newest weaponry, Facebook, Twitter and numerous other social media websites continually distract us from the real world, whiling away the moments of our lives.

Luckily, there are still a few refuges from the constant information bombardment of the 21st Century. The Adirondack backcountry is one such place, where the Information Age has only a small footprint in the form of handheld GPS, an intermittently functioning cellphone or a personal locator beacon. Here the backcountry exists much as it did long before digital gadgetry took up arms against our sanity.

Unfortunately, this may not last for long though. That is, not if Google Trekker and its co-conspirators have anything to say about it.

Despite what it may sound, Trekker is not Google’s recent effort at moving into the footwear business. Google Trekker is a 40 lbs. equivalent to the technology found on Google’s Street View cars, worn as a backpack, for the sole purpose of photographing trails in the backcountry.

Recently, Google took the Trekker to the bottom of the Grand Canyon with much fanfare, for its maiden voyage to kick off their most recent project to digitally map and photograph the world’s most wild places. Even the backcountry is not safe from Google’s plan at world domination.

Google is a relative latecomer to the photographing backcountry trails game. Many others attempted similar feats, concentrating on the more popular areas, with varying levels of success. For example, General Mills previously introduced the Nature Valley Trail View, which features numerous hiking trails in some of the most popular National Parks, such as the Great Smokey, Yellowstone, and, surprise, surprise, the Grand Canyon. Although relatively primitive, these nascent efforts are probably only the beginning, especially as competition drives the effort forward with increasing speed.

After conquering the Grand Canyon and the more popular parks, how long before the many Adirondack trails are photographed, digitalized and technologically dissected for all to enjoy from the clean, temperature-controlled comfort of their own homes?

Some believe this trend may increase the popularity of backcountry areas, as these virtual hiking opportunities inspire more people to venture out and enjoy these wild areas. The only negative consequences being the fomentation of the idea that anyone can jump on a trail with nothing more than blue jeans, flip-flops and a cellphone without any knowledge of the surrounding environment, weather conditions or aggressive terrain.

The law of unintended consequences implies there may be many detrimental effects of photographing and digitalizing backcountry trails. Perhaps these new virtual efforts will do for hiking what social networking has done for personal socializing, reducing it to a mere shadow of its previous prominence.

Before we know it, these backcountry images, combined with technically advanced software packages, will provide a hiking experience unencumbered by long, sweat-inducing walks, noxious smells of numerous body odors from one’s self and others, and heaven forbid, black flies and mosquitoes! Would not the world be a better place without these inconvenient biological intrusions, anyways?

Perhaps Wii Hiker would allow the user to set certain random parameters for sighting unusual wildlife, or experiencing unusual events (e.g. a microburst). Long lost celebrities brought back from the dead for one more personal experience (e.g. the return of Yellow-Yellow). And if you run out of time to continue today, just save the entire scenario and start it up again tomorrow where you left off.

What will this virtual convenience mean for the Adirondack experience? No more inconvenient downpours ruining an otherwise pleasant afternoon hike. No more hot spots swelling into blisters. No mosquitoes or black flies. What about the famous Adirondack wave? I shudder at the thought.

Does this sound a little far-fetched? Is there a real threat, or is this just the ranting of curmudgeonly Neo-Luddite? A supreme case of paranoia running rampant? Probably all of the above.

Give it a little thought if you have time between updating your Facebook status, playing the newest video game and catching up with your followers on Twitter. I will wait by exploring the trails of the Grand Canyon online until the weather turns warmer and the skies clear.

Photo: Truck Trail in the Five Ponds Wilderness by Dan Crane.

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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.

19 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    This is great. Now people don’t need to leave their couches to visit the Wilderness. You can have like a little bowl of potpourri for the scent and everything. Maybe open the fridge to experience a cold breeze and you are all set.

  2. Big Burly says:

    as a wild worker (a la Pete Nelson version) there was much angst in our family about whether to push for hi-speed low ping broadband to our home. We find ourselves at times glued to the computer or iPad instead of paddling or sailing our canoes, or just taking in the scenery on a walk.
    The best of both worlds is a balance. Maybe what Dan has forecast will result in more visitors to our wildness, then again maybe not, except viscerally. As we age, a digital hike might be easier to handle 🙂

    • Dan Crane says:

      With a job that requires sitting at a computer 8-hours a day, combined with a hobby where I sit in front of computer and compose blog posts, I can relate to striving to strike a balance between indoor and outdoor activities. I am still searching for that appropriate balance, but I am certain (and I think the medical industry agrees) that keeping active, even into your old age, is very important to maintaining healthy physical and mental abilities. Better to go out for a walk in the neighborhood, than take a virtual stroll in the Grand Canyon.

  3. Cloudsplitter says:

    Not to be nit picky, but it’s the law of “unintended” consequences- as in, I never thought about THAT happening.
    After google streets, we know that eventually the whole planet will be digitized.

  4. Tony Goodwin says:

    In one incident that I report on in an upcoming Accident Report in Adirondac, a search was initiated for a father and son on the N-P Trail because they hadn’t checked in one evening with their spot locator. Turns out they had sent a signal, but it was “lost” on the family’s home computer. Seems it wasn’t too long ago that a father and son could hike this trail without having to “check in” every night. Now Google may make it possible for the family to follow every step of such a trip right from the comfort of their own home.

  5. Gary Fortcher says:

    Great article Dan. I say fear not. Those that venture out will always continue to do so, possible aided in some aspect by the new technological offerings. Those that never did probably will not hike the digital trail either. But some in the middle ground who will be lured into attacking the great out-of-doors because of this digital experience. That is probably a good thing. I never thought I would say this (but as I read your digitally delivered piece) – technology…bringing people and nature closer together. The people will eventually speak through their actions.
    Now how do I sign up for that digital beer delivery?

  6. Pete Nelson says:

    In my recent Dispatch I imagined a virtual meeting in a NYC conference room, with the “wild” Adirondack worker essentially immersed in that room as though he or she were there. By “immersed” I mean subjected to a variety of sensory experiences of that room – in my example visual, auditory and tactile – that lend the “feel” and utility of being there. The technology for such an experience is coming rapidly, no question of that.

    However, here’s what’s not coming: a convincing simulated environment. The virtual office I posited would be functional: that is, it would be effective and productive. But it would not be close to believable as real. People get caught up in all the tech blather and get misled, thinking that’s where we’re headed.

    The fact is that we have hardly any understanding whatsoever of how to make the virtual real because the mysteries of human perception are still that: mysteries. We can effect a primitive simulacrum, a “gizmo” version of something, but we can’t fool anyone.

    Consider a band performing live behind a curtain. Then consider a state-of-the art recording and playback system delivering a performance of the same band behind a second curtain. The playback is so good that the sonic differences between the two are too slight to be measurable. In experiments like that, listeners overwhelmingly know which one is live, basically which one is “there” or “real.” Why? Well, that’s the question. Maybe it is that the band knows they are live, so at some level they perceive the listeners, smell them or hear subtle sounds, coughs, they sense emotions and they alter their playing to respond to these perceptions. The audience can sense that interaction. There is a give and take in the room, with far deeper dimensions of perceptive interaction than we can imagine.

    We don’t know how to duplicate anything like that, because while we are understanding more and more of the plumbing that gives us perception, cognition and the link between them, the algorithms, the software, the “how we really do it” part is still beyond even theoretical understanding.

    At a more practical level, I have big problems with distance education for the same reason. You can throw all the technology you want into a classroom to enable remote or virtual participation, but there is no virtualizing the magic that happens in a classroom between an engaged teacher and engaged students making something happen together, a situation I find to be the very essence of great teaching and learning. The remote students cannot experience that magic in the same way, so distance education is inherently unequal (it’s still a good idea in many cases, since some teaching is better than none).

    With respect to Dan’s column then, I simply point out that a virtual experience even close to actually being on the trail is never going to happen in our lifetimes. Oh sure, many people will play with the virtual stuff, take virtual hikes. That will be what it is, nothing inherently wrong with it. But it won’t be any substitute for the real thing. In fact, I’ll bet good money its dissatisfactions will actually increase demand for the real thing. All this technology just makes us need the wilderness more. As a lifetime technologist, I can report that is certainly true for me.

    Our family has a rule. It used to apply to crossing the border of the park; now it applies to the first step taken into the back country: no electronics. Lost Brook Tract is an Internet-free zone. Goodness knows we need such places, such earthy experiences.

    I’m all for wiring the park, but it ain’t happenin’ on my land.

    Not in my lifetime.

    • Bill Ott says:

      Hi Pete,
      Wire the park?
      I live in Lakewood, Ohio, and I have been wanting to return for one more trip this year. WIRE THE PARK?? Keep that away from me. I will destroy anything that looks at me on any tree or trail anywhere, and I will go to jail for that. Come and get me. 1984 is not here yet. I was in Vietnam, and I did not go there for what I see coming.
      Bill Ott

      I stand behind what I say,
      Come and get me you government people.

      • Pete Nelson says:

        Well Bill, when I say wire the park I mean make high speed Internet available to residents of the park, not put web cams in the wilderness.

        As it happens, a good part of my background in IT is related to security and privacy. Trust me Bill when I say that I’m with you all the way.

        But as Scott McNealy once famously said about privacy concerns “Get over it.” That was years ago and what he meant – namely that technology had already obsoleted private control of personal information – was true then. It is far more true today. In the modern wired world privacy as we have known it is essentially gone.

        Except maybe in places like the Adirondack wilderness. I’m in lockstep with your view. I don’t want the back country wired. It’s likely unstoppable, at least along popular routes and locales. But hopefully not everywhere.

  7. Paul says:

    Every device that I have has an on and off switch of some kind.

    We can see everything everywhere thanks to satellites. But right now only a few people have access to the images. The Google Trekker guy is just re-inventing what the military and the CIA already have. And they can see it in real time.

  8. Paul says:

    I have heard that the APA is trying to photographically map many areas focusing on lake shores first so that they can determine if development is going on sans permit. Maybe they can put this guy in a boat and get him to map the shoreline.

  9. catharus says:

    Yeh, let them do it. But it never will be close to the real thing, as we all well know. If someone is satisfied with a virtual walk, all the better for me. Thanks for the post, Dan.

  10. Dave Mason says:

    At some point this kind of technology potentially ruins that sense of discovering something, coming upon a special place unexpectedly. That’s sad to me, knowing what your hike is about to reveal?

    Some day all the ‘hidden’ places you know only because a close friend of family showed you will be geo tagged and trekker mapped, just go-to points on maps in the cloud. I wonder what happens then. Clearly it changes things but how?

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