I am obsessed with maps. I love how they can display huge amounts of geographic, cultural, and political information in a way that is both understandable and aesthetically pleasing. Visually scanning a map takes me on a mini-adventure. I discover where I want to go, recall places I’ve been, and attempt to visualize what the area may look like.
I often thought about making my own maps, and had even attempted making a few using Adobe Illustrator and Inkscape (an open sourced vector graphics application). But I was always disappointed with the results and frustrated with the process.
In July 2018, I was fortunate enough to go on a climbing expedition to the Brooks Range in Northern Alaska. This far-off mountain range is one of the most remote in North America and it encompasses more than 100,000 square miles of terrain, about the size of Colorado. The total number of visitors to the area each year is unknown, the region is likely visited by a few hundred tourists and adventurers every year and is inhabited year-round by Athabascan, Inupiaq, and other Inuit peoples in small settlements. The Dalton Highway, a lonesome unpaved road, is the only road traversing this rugged terrain.
Our expedition focused on the Arrigetch Peaks region of the Brooks Range, located in Gates of the Arctic National Park. When researching the area, I sought out topographic maps that would suit our needs.
The 7.5’x7.5′ USGS “Quad” maps are readily available, but it would take at least 4 separate maps to cover the terrain we were interested in. In addition, these maps had few features labeled, which would make them less user-friendly in the field.
The Trails Illustrated produces a map encompassing all of Gates of the Arctic National Park, but the scale was much too small to be useful for climbing. While beautifully made, it’s hard for me to imagine this map being useful for anything other than river rafting.
Faced with this predicament, I decided to make my own maps that would include the information we needed for our trip at a useful scale and manageable size. I knew doing this would require a level of precision not possible using normal vector graphics software. I would need a dedicated cartography application and the skills to use it effectively.
GIS software, short for Geographic Information System, allows one to view, create, edit, and analyze geographic data for cartography. A quick search for GIS mapping software came up with two choices: ArcGIS and QGIS.
ArcGIS is a paid software used by most professional organizations involved in cartography, including the USGS. Unfortunately, it costs $100/year for the basic personal use license. I was not prepared to spend money on software just yet.
QGIS, an acronym for Quantum Geographic Information System, is a free, open source application designed to accomplish the same tasks as ArcGIS. Open sourced applications are often not as user-friendly as paid analogs, but in this case, there are many tutorials and troubleshooting information available online for QGIS. Even better, many of the “advanced” features available with QGIS are blocked by paywalls with ArcGIS.
Over the course of 3 weeks in June 2018, I watched innumerable tutorial videos, visited Stack Exchange (a technical question/answer site with a dedicated GIS section), and read much of the QGIS Training Manual. I also learned how to access and use much of the freely accessible geographic data available from the USGS.
Amalgamating research on approaching the Arrigetch Peaks with my nascent GIS skills, I was able to create two customized maps I hoped would be useful for our expedition. It required maybe 30-40 hours of work from start to finish, including time spent searching for data and learning the software. Not too bad for a novice!
The first map encompassed the entire region we could possibly visit, from bush plane drop-off to every peak in the region. When scaled to fit on a 24″x36″ poster, 1.5 inches on the map was equivalent to 1 mile. Through a local commercial printer, I was able to print this map for $0.29/each in black and white using their “Blueprint” printing service.
On our expedition, we found this map most useful when we were bushwhacking to and from the peaks from our drop-off site. I also used it to plot our courses and points of interest for later reference. I liked that it gave a grand, top-down view of the whole region and allowed us to see where we hoped to go, where we had been, and where we were all on the same map.
The second map went through several iterations before printing. I wanted a map that could be folded small enough to fit in my pocket, encompassed all the peaks in the region, was of useful scale, and could be printed affordably in color. After speaking with the printing service, I learned that 11″x17″ full color prints would be the best bet, costing about $1.50/each.
Once the print size was settled, my work was just a matter of scaling the map data to fit in a way that was legible and useful. I also wanted to make an attractive title block to include the area name, distance scale, magnetic declination, and projection information.
Overall, we were very happy using the 11″x17″ color map in the field. Our base camp and all other possible camps within the Arrigetch Peaks are within its boundaries. The small size made it easy to handle and color graphics made it easy to read.
We wished that there were more contour elevation labels because we often had to tediously search the map to find an appropriate contour elevation. I also should have included summit elevations and lake elevations to make it more convenient to use. Stylistically, I thought the peak name label and contour label font sizes were a point or two over-sized. I also thought the contour lines were slightly too thick, causing them to run together too much on steep slopes. Now that I am back home, I’ve edited the maps to reflect those critiques.
This was a great introduction to GIS for me. The project was personally relevant and important, which made the learning process much more enjoyable. I think the project was complex enough to teach me a variety of GIS mapping skills that I can apply to other projects.
This project taught me how to find and download GIS data from the USGS, add vector and raster layers to my project from that data, manipulate the visibility of different layers and attributes, create labels, and produce a finished product for printing. Most importantly, it was fun! I found this kind of work challenging and enjoyable.