My 10/29/07 Missoulian column: GPS useful, but remember: ‘The map is not the territory’
When I drove by the Bonner game check station last Sunday, I realized there must have been a good number of Global Positioning System units in the pockets and packs of hunters, programmed with maps and waypoints for their opening-day hunts.
It seems like we’ve never been without GPS technology. The first handheld GPS gadgets came on the market in the mid-1980s, and now we depend on the system’s accuracy.
Within the last month alone, this newspaper reported on half a dozen GPS-related stories: evidence from a GPS unit was used in a criminal trial in Butte to prove someone’s location; a grizzly bear involved in a conflict with a hunter was trapped, fitted with a GPS collar, relocated and will be tracked by satellite; biologists wished they had a GPS collar on a grizzly that traveled 140 miles to the Bitterroot Mountains so they could have figured out his exact route; and a climate scientist used GPS to navigate on the flat, white expanses of the Greenland ice cap, where there are no landmarks.
Go into any outdoor store and you’ll find a bunch of GPS toys – handheld units, others for trucks and ATVs that talk you through driving directions, CDs of topographic maps that can be downloaded onto GPS units, and so on.
The Global Positioning System itself is a fleet of 30 or so satellites 12,000 miles up, arranged in a semi-synchronous orbit, which means they move around the Earth once a day. Six satellites are within sight of any location on Earth at all times. GPS units find their location by talking with at least three of the satellites, calculating the time it takes a microwave signal to bounce between the two and triangulating your location to within 50 feet.
GPS is so useful and valuable that it’s been integrated into most everything: from navigation units for ships, planes and military weapons, to social networking Web sites that integrate points of interest – trails, fishing holes, coffee shops – to trade with friends and strangers. The few times I’ve called 9-1-1, the dispatcher has turned on the GPS in my phone to pinpoint my location.
GPS units are great for backcountry travel. Add waypoints and a map, and follow your route to the lake or hunting spot you studied at home on your personal computer. Everything you need is in your hand, so you can find your way in and back out.
In a roundabout way, that brings me to my point: I don’t use GPS. I don’t even own a GPS unit. I don’t see the need.
GPS units are interesting devices, that’s for sure, and the technology behind them is amazing, but I think that part of life in a high-tech world is knowing when you need a high-tech gadget and when you don’t. I stick with maps and, sometimes, a compass. That’s the way I grew up traveling in the mountains, developing a good sense of direction on my own and using that elusive thing called common sense.
GPS likely has saved hunting and fishing trips, and I’m sure it has saved lives, too.
I’m not totally technology averse when it comes to the outdoors: I’ve used Google Earth to “fly” over the trails I walked in the Bob Marshall Wilderness and the Bitterroots, and to look over ridges I was curious about and find routes to lakes and peaks. I’ve searched and saved topographic maps on my computer, too. But I stay non-digital in the backcountry: a leatherman multi-tool, backpacking stove and dog. That’s about as high tech as I get. For me, the outdoors is the place to get away from things like satellites and computers.
I’m not perfect. Once I was “lost” for part of a late spring day coming down from Trapper Peak, and my map didn’t make sense. But I slowly skied a gulch downhill, knowing I’d find a creek or a road, and I was right. Farther down the road was another road, more traveled, I figured, by looking at the tire tracks, and I found my truck not much later.
The old saying that “the map is not the territory” is not a catchy phrase. A map on paper or on a screen means nothing if you can’t relate it to the land and your experience, and a GPS unit won’t get you out of trouble if you used it to get into trouble.
In his book “Holding on to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium,” University of Montana philosophy professor Albert Borgmann mentions well-known mule packer and outfitter Smoke Elser. A client on one of Elser’s backcountry trips recorded the route and the good fishing spots on a GPS unit, cutting out years of knowledge and experience. Sure, the data is good to have, but how does it fit with the experience of the trip itself?
The Global Positioning System is an incredible resource, and it’s not going to go away. But, on a personal level, I wonder if GPS will ever help us locate the value of not depending on it?
A clarification on last week’s column: some “weak” captchas have been broken for some time and, as a result, don’t protect Web sites from bots, while more complex captchas still defeat bots. The Colorado Rockies ticket site (which uses the same software as GrizTix) was hammered by bots looking for World Series seats, according to ESPN.