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​Surveying in the John Muir Wilderness!

Article and photos by Matt Campos, BLM
03/23/15 -- Our day begins at 6 a.m. We wake to a brisk July morning at an elevation of 7,000 feet. Six of us venture out of our canvas tents at Clyde’s Pack Station, located 3.5 miles west of Wishon Reservoir, and begin to eat our first of many dehydrated meals.

Tents set up at Clyde's Pack Station, Photo by Matt Campos, BLM
Tents set up at Clyde's Pack Station

We are greeted with a warm hand-shake and friendly smile from Alan Clyde, owner and operator of the pack station. Alan is an unassuming, high-energy modern day cowboy, who’s been packing in the High Sierras for over 30 years.

For three of us, this a welcome return to finish the job we started back in September, 2012, and for all, a highlight moment of our survey careers. This project will bring us back to the days of Cadastral Survey where all projects were completed by camping and with pack trains.

BLM Cadastral Surveyors at Clyde's Pack Station, photo by Matt Campos, BLM
BLM Cadastral Surveyors at Clyde's Pack Station

Excitement is high for all of us as we begin our 10 mile hike into the John Muir Wilderness to our final destination of Crown Valley. Alan trails not far behind us. It’s hard to believe that all of our camping supplies -- tents, sleeping bags, camp stoves, and bear vaults packed with two-weeks-worth of food; survey equipment consisting of GPS units, tripods, rock drills, digging bars, and survey monuments -- can all be packed away neatly on just eleven horses.

Horses carrying surveying equipment, photo by Matt Campos, BLM
Horses carrying surveying equipment

We arrive to Crown Valley Station around noon, where my crew will camp for the duration of the trip, while the second crew continues to hike on down to Crown Valley to their campsite.

We take the rest of the day to setup base camp and collect water for drinking, cooking, and showering. From a natural spring running nearby the cabin. We fashion a make-shift spigot in order to funnel the water, and fill three 2.5 gallon containers with filtered drinking water, and three 5-gallon solar shower bags (this would become our morning ritual every two days). We have several portable power banks with solar panel attachments which keep survey equipment and radios functional while off the grid.

A string of horses at John Muir Wilderness, photo by Matt Campos, BLM
A string of horses at John Muir Wilderness

At the end of the day, we hear Alan and his string of horses coming up the hill, having just unloaded the second crew, and heading back out to the trailhead. Alan gives us a wave from atop his lead horse and gives out a yell that he will be back in two weeks. With him, rides our last connection to the outside world for the duration of the trip.

In the days that follow, we hike an average of 5 miles per day, searching for signs of the original surveys completed in 1883 and 1884. Portions of the original surveys are absent and believed to be fraudulent and/or fictitious, which makes the task of finding original survey corners much more difficult.

Surveyors searching for original survey corners at John Muir Wilderness, photo by Matt Campos, BLM
Surveyors searching for original survey corners at John Muir Wilderness

For this survey, the original corners that we search for are marked corner stones (marks consist of chiseled letters and numbers, notches on edges, or grooves on a face to represent miles from the nearest township corners) with nearby reference mounds of stones and scribed accessory trees, which act as references to the position of the survey corner in case the corner is ever disturbed or destroyed.

Marked corner stones, photo by Matt Campos, BLM
Marked corner stones

The challenge of locating and verifying original evidence can be both exciting and frustrating (mostly the latter), but the excitement of finding a 130 year old survey corner, or cutting into an original bearing tree and revealing scribing, outweighs any disappointments suffered along the way. In some respects cadastral surveyors are like detectives, unraveling the mystery of a survey, and retracing the footsteps of the original surveyor.

Original bearing tree reveals scribing, photo by Matt Campos, BLM
Original bearing tree reveals scribing

At night we would sit in the quiet darkness and look up at the bright stars -- while eating our freeze dried meal or drinking a warm cup of coffee or tea -- and reflect back on those that came before us. We have a respect for those pioneers that surveyed the land for the first time -- a rugged, tough, and hardy bunch; trekking across the countryside by horseback before there were roads and cars; in remote sites for months at a time, throughout different seasons.

John Muir Wilderness, photo by Matt Campos, BLM
John Muir Wilderness

Our final days are spent finishing up our survey, and packing up our campsites. Two of my crew member’s hike up Crown Ridge to retrieve our radio repeater and decide to continue on up to Crown Rock, a prominent peak made of large stacked rocks in the shape of a crown. It’s satisfying to know with this project complete the USFS can now manage this area without conflict and with a clear understanding of the public/private interface.

Surveyors at John Muir Wilderness, photo by Matt Campos, BLM
Surveyors at John Muir Wilderness

Departing is bitter-sweet, but sweeter yet is the thought of what awaits us at the end of the day; our first good meal in two-weeks…will it be pizza or Mexican food? We discuss the options as we race along the trail. In retrospect, this trip into the wilderness gave us a rare opportunity to turn back the clock, and to experience a little of what a cadastral survey crew would have endured back in the 1880’s. It brings a smile to my face knowing that perhaps 130 years from now some surveyor will be retracing our survey, recovering our corner monuments and chopping into our accessory trees, and wondering how we did things back in 2014.

Matt Campos is a BLM California Cadastral Surveyor, Central Unit, Cadastral Survey

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