Jamie Robertson's and Amelia Hagen-Dillon's world expands and contracts with the seasons. In the summer, they're out hiking hundreds of miles of western Montana's sprawling backcountry, charting trails with GPS devices. In the winter, those landscapes are shrunken onto a computer screen in their cramped and cluttered lower Rattlesnake Valley apartment, where their GPS data is merged with topographical information to make new, more accurate wilderness maps.
Last year, the duo, who make up Cairn Cartographics, logged about 600 miles on foot between July and November—400 miles around the northern half of the 1.5-million-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and 200 in the 61,000-acre Rattlesnake National Recreation Area and Wilderness.
On a recent afternoon, Robertson, a lanky, blond and bearded 27-year-old GIS whiz who works half the year in the University of Montana's IT department, points to an old Rattlesnake map taped to their office wall. "This trail coming down out of Porcupine Creek, it's close to a mile off," he says. There are a number of such discrepancies—"way more than we thought for an area that's this close to a population center like Missoula."
Their new waterproof, tear-resistant map of the Rattlesnake, due out in April, will correct them, applying modern global-positioning technology to Missoula's rugged backyard wilderness, which was set aside by Congress in 1980. It improves upon the official Forest Service map of the area, last updated in 1995. And it will include all of the non-Forest Service trails between the Rattlesnake and Missoula.
Robertson and Hagen-Dillon, who is 25, pull up the Rattlesnake map-in-progress on their computer. It's an intricate web of data sets—elevation, vegetation, ownership, shaded relief and contours. "We find that a lot of people really like the shaded relief in addition to the contour lines, because you can sort of absorb all of the knowledge about the terrain without having to study it," Robertson says. The information comes from different agencies; boundary lines from the U.S. Forest Service, hydrological data from the U.S. Geological Survey. They overlay it with the GPS data they collected.
"The big thing that we do is print trail mileages," Robertson says. For example, you can see that when walking trail No. 534, it's exactly 1.5 miles from the junction of trail No. 516, on the Stuart Peak Ridge, to trail No. 329, toward Worden Lake.
They hope to release the Rattlesnake map in a digital format for GPS devices in late 2012.
Cairn Cartographics' map of the north half of the Bob Marshall Wilderness will also hit local stores in April. It complements its map of the south half—the company's first—released a year ago. For that, Robertson and Hagen-Dillon, and Robertson's brother, Thomas, hiked about 800 miles during the summer of 2010. They used the web-based fundraising platform Kickstarter to collect the $5,000 they needed to print the first run of 2,500 maps.
Keagan Zoellner, director of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation, which coordinated food drops in 2010 so the cartographers could hike longer distances and minimize backtracking, says what Robertson and Hagen-Dillon are doing is "pretty spectacular...It's the first map that has been GPS ground-truthed of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, so it's super-accurate."
Robertson is on his third pair of boots since they started mapping; Hagen-Dillon is on her fourth. They average about 15 miles a day. The two met five years ago, while working for a nonprofit that was mapping the spread of invasive species in the Greater Yellowstone area. Hagen-Dillon remembers thinking, "It'd be so fun to make our own maps instead of collecting data." They figured they could combine their cartography expertise and love of the backcountry into a business, especially since many maps of western Montana wilderness areas hadn't been updated in years.
Not everyone believes in Cairn Cartographics' mission. Cass Chinske, one of the local conservationists who in the '70s pushed for the Rattlesnake's wilderness designation, says such technology doesn't belong in the backcountry. "Personally, I think that going out with GPS [devices] and mapping everything, getting it precise, misses the whole point of wilderness," he says. "You go out there and meet the area on its own terms. You don't try to conquer it, because you can't."
In any case, Robertson and Hagen-Dillon are planning to head back to the wilderness this summer, though they're not sure which one. Perhaps the 1.3 million-acre Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, 74,000-acre Mission Mountain Wilderness or 28,000-acre Welcome Creek Wilderness. That's to be decided later. For now, they're hard at work in their tiny home-office putting the finishing touches on their new maps. Like their first Bob Marshall Wilderness map, they'll be sold at the Trail Head, Rocky Mountain Map Gallery, Bob Ward & Sons, REI, and Cairn Cartographics' website, www.cairncarto.com. The Rattlesnake and Bob Marshall Wilderness maps will cost $11.95 and $14.95, respectively.