Have You Ever... Talked to a Cartographer?

Image courtesy of Cairn Cartographics.

Image courtesy of Cairn Cartographics.

I had never spoken to a cartographer until just recently, when I sat down with Amelia Hagen-Dillon of Cairn Cartographics. I got to pick her brain about what life is like as a cartographer, and it was such a great opportunity to learn! Amelia was fascinating, and I wished I could bring all of you around the table to "listen in" on what she had to say.

Why? Because cartography is necessary in the world of wilderness backpacking. I don't leave home without a map when I'm on a journey, and yet, this essential tool can be overwhelming and difficult to understand. (You're not alone if you've ever felt that way.) So I want to first introduce you to Amelia, and next week, she'll provide a beginner guide on how to understand maps. Woohoo! 

Let's cover some basics...How old are you, Amelia?
28

Where are you from originally?
Vermont!

What is your profession? 
Cartographer, and all the other things that go along with being a small business owner (marketing and communications, account manager, operations and logistics). 
 
What exactly is cartography?
Cartography is the art and science of making maps. 

Image courtesy of Cairn Cartographics.

Image courtesy of Cairn Cartographics.

What stands out to you when you first open a map?
I notice how clean the design is and how easy it is to get my bearings. I look at typography (the style, arrangement or appearance of printed letters) and topography (the features, such as mountains and rivers, of an area of land) and how the whole design works together.

How did you first get into cartography?
I took a few GIS (special mapping software) classes in college and loved them but I always thought it was kind of a bummer to make all these maps of places I had never been.  I found a summer internship in the Greater Yellowstone area mapping invasive weeds. Jamie (my now business and life partner) was my crew leader for that job. Along with two other people, the four of us spent the summer hiking to random GPS points and collecting data about the landscape there.

Then I spent a semester abroad hiking in Patagonia which is criss-crossed by all these old “gaucho” trails that were historically used to move sheep and cattle between summer and winter pasture, but now are disappearing. I thought it would be fun to map them as part of a cultural history project using the technology that I had learned about in Yellowstone. When I got home, Jamie and I started talking about how to make a project like that happen. We applied for a National Geographic grant to pursue that idea, which we didn’t get (but someone else did, a few years later). Instead, we decided to make maps closer to home, which was western Montana for both of us by then.

Tell us more about this Jaime character.  ;-)
Jamie Robertson is my partner in crime. We first met when he was my crew leader for the summer job I just mentioned. He studied geography and cartography in college and dreamed of making maps of wild places. We’ve been working and exploring together since 2007.

Sounds like you've found a great partner!
So tell me, what does the day in the life of a cartographer look like?

This really depends on the time of year. During the winter, all of our work is office work. So my day looks more or less like this: 

7:30-8: Wake up 
8-8:30: Drink coffee, read email and check social media. Once I’m feeling caught up with what’s happening in the world (and caffeinated), Jamie and I talk about what we are working on and what we're trying to get done. This is a mix of work and household tasks since our work life and personal lives are so intertwined. Then I write a very specific to do list and spend some time thinking about what order I should try to tackle it in. 
8:30-Mid afternoon: A mix of work and many breaks for snacks, laundry, putting away dishes and other "work-from-home" distractions. 
Mid-afternoon break: Exercise. Typically I would go for a trail run but my knee has been hurt this winter so I’ve been spending a lot of time at the gym.
Pre-dinner: I work a little more until it’s time to make dinner.
Dinner: Jaime and I eat together, and we often talk about maps! 
Post-dinner: If I am really on a roll, I might work a little more. But usually, I catch up some more on social media and read or write for a while before heading to bed. 

The summer is when we really get to know the area that we are mapping.

This means 5-10 days at a time, we are backpacking or truck camping and hiking to GPS trails. In the field, our days are pretty simple. We are up at or before first light, and I make breakfast while Jamie packs up camp. We typically hike for 8-9 hours but if it is really hot we might take a break in the afternoon for a few hours, especially if we can find a swimming hole. Once we get to camp, we make an early dinner and turn in. I usually read for a few hours before I fall asleep.

Image courtesy of Cairn Cartographics.

Image courtesy of Cairn Cartographics.

So it takes a year to make a map?!
Yes! We start by collecting all the data that is out there in the public domain for the area that we want to map. Looking at that helps us decide where to put the boundaries of our map. We try and track down as many people as we can that are familiar with the area to ask about trail conditions so we can know what to expect when he hike most of it. Then we spend the summer getting to know the area and GPSing trails, and the fall/winter combining our data together with existing data, and cleaning it up to make it look like a map. Once that's done, we get our maps printed at a press in Denver in the spring, so they are ready to ship out to stores during the summer when people usually buy maps.

Is that what makes Cairn Cartographics unique?
I think so. We spend more time on the ground getting to know the area we're mapping, than any other cartographers I know of. I think our intimate knowledge of the places we map shows through in the maps themselves. We also go over every single detail on our maps with a fine tooth comb. Everything from the green vegetation layer to the rivers and streams, to trails and roads gets fixed up using the most up to date aerial imagery and GPS data.

Is there a formula to creating a high-quality map?
I don’t think there is a single formula, just a lot of time and attention to every single detail.

What maps have you made so far?
The North and South Bob Marshall, The Rattlesnake Wilderness and Missoula, The Mission Range, The North Half of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and the South Half of the Selway-Bitterroot will be out this spring.

Image courtesy of Cairn Cartographics.

Image courtesy of Cairn Cartographics.

Which one are you most proud of? Why?
Our first map, the South Half of the Bob Marshall, because we proved to ourselves that we could make this crazy idea work! Also, the Rattlesnake and Missoula map because it was the map I wanted from the first day I moved here, but it didn’t exist. So I made it!

Which wilderness do you think more people need to know about? What have you experienced there?
All wilderness and Capital-W Wilderness! Some of the most wild places we’ve been haven’t been in federally designated Wilderness. I think there are always ways to get off the beaten path if you are creative [and experienced] with your trip planning. It’s easier to go to the places you see written up on blogs or in magazines like the Chinese Wall in the Bob Marshall, for example, or Blodgett Canyon in the Bitterroot. But if you spend some time looking at the map, you will notice trails you never knew were there or loops that look fun to try. Or, you might notice big open off-trail ridges that might connect two drainages. I would encourage people to be creative and explore, as you get more experience with backpacking and reading maps. Even small wilderness areas feel bigger when you get away from popular areas.

What's your favorite wilderness? Why?
The Bob Marshall has a special place in my heart because it is where we made this dream become a reality. The feeling of topping out on a pass in the Swan Range and looking to the west and north and south and knowing that it is Wilderness as far as you can see is pretty special. And I love the Rattlesnake too, because I think it is so amazing that we have a place like that so close to town.

Which area(s) are you drawn to for your next map?
We are still trying to decide. We have a lot of ideas so it’s just a matter of picking one!

What is something that most people don't know about cartography that you discovered, only by being in the field? There are so many little decisions that go into making a map that are totally subjective. The scientist in me has a hard time with this but the fact is the landscape doesn’t usually fit into neat categories. Sometimes a hillside is somewhere between forested and meadow and you have to decide which to display it as. Sometimes a road is somewhere between improved and unimproved and you just have to put it in a category. As humans we want things to be neat and tidy but in real life landscapes are pretty messy.

Are there other women cartographers you admire? Do you have any female mentors? If so, tell us about her.
I wish! I don’t have any mentors or role models that are in the cartography world specifically. I would credit my undergrad advisor and two or three other female professors that I had in college who were/are really passionate about encouraging women to study science and to be courageous about being smart and ambitious. Without the confidence they inspired I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Image courtesy of Cairn Cartographics.

Image courtesy of Cairn Cartographics.

How can we learn more about you?
You can find all things about my work on our website cairncarto.com and my personal musings on ameliahd.tumblr.com.

Check back next week for a beginner guide on how to understand maps!


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