Smartphones and Nature

“Clearly, we have compiled a record of serious failures in recent technological encounters with the environment,” wrote ecologist Barry Commoner in 1969.  His point of view reflects the suspicion, if not antagonism,  that some environmentalists have had about the engineering advances of modern society.  Recently, I took some new technology along with me on my encounter with the environment of Northern Michigan, and while I don’t think this is what Commoner was warning us about, the interaction was positive, mostly. As we keep learning, technology should always be our servant and not our master.

Smartphones and the many “apps” that they can carry are a useful tool in our offices and our homes: they organize, entertain, and connect us.  Increasingly, the power to link us to information–scientific 

iBird Pro shot of the Kirtland’s Warbler

and cultural, temporal and geographic–has made a smartphone a handy accompaniment to outdoor adventures as well.  As an avid ornithologist, early on I acquired a bird-watching app that enables me to have a comprehensive guide with descriptions, range maps, photos and even bird calls in my pocket, and without the need to tout a heavy field guide. I also like being able to quickly note when and where I sighted a particular species  (I use the iBird Pro, but there are other comparable, cheaper, and perhaps, for you, better apps out there).  

For exploring Michigan, I have made use of not only the ever-improving map functions on my iPhone, but have thankfully relied on the DNR’s Camping and Recreation Locator (info here).  This tool can help you find nearby campgrounds, boat launches, and other state park facilities.  You can search a region or around a specific place, including a chosen number of miles within your current location.  I have found it particularly useful for locating one of the many small state forest campgrounds.  These rustic (i.e. no bathrooms with running water) campsites are among some of my favorite places to camp while exploring the Upper Peninsula ((check out the campground at the mouth of the Two Hearted River on Lake Superior).  The App easily connects to Google maps thus easing your navigation.  You can also be linked to the reservation system for state park campgrounds.

A Preserve in the Hand is now possible with smartphone apps that are linked to a specific land conservancy.  The largest environmental organization, The Nature Conservancy, has a new app called Nature Near You that locates many of their preserves and allows you to learn about where they are working throughout the world. In Michigan, 16 preserves are listed with descriptions and detailed directions. The app also contains stylish features that allow for taking, sharing, and viewing photos of the beautiful places encountered in the wild.  Additional development of this tool for exploring the work of The Nature Conservancy is underway.

Another of Michigan’s excellent land trusts, the Little Traverse Conservancy, has a useful app, LTC Explorerthat provides an in-hand user guide to northwest Michigan and parts of the Eastern UP. I recently put it and my iPhone to the test on a winter weekend in the Boyne City-Petoskey area.  The first day out, four of us loaded up our cross-country skis and headed first to Young State Park on Lake Charlevoix.  The DNR’s app provided the location; the little nordic skier logo let us know we could expect to enjoy this activity, which we did by following the many tracks of previous skiers on several miles of trail.  The highlight was a detour to ski on the frozen lake and make snow angels. 

The LTC Explorer app got us to our second ski site, the Hill Nature Preserve, just north of Boyne City with a handy link to my iPhone’s mapping app.  This function could, of course, be used without the LTC app, but the challenge in finding preserves is securing a street address for a non-urban location that lacks any structures (that’s why we go, right?).  The conservancy-specific app has the location of the preserves already loaded so that navigation becomes the first step in going to a preserve.  Lots of additional features make the LTC Explorer app a particularly useful tool. In addition to descriptive information and photos, the app has a feature that allows visitors to make comments about their visit, which in this case provides for occasional grooming reports.  The “check-in” feature provides a linkage to Facebook and Twitter. Also, at the Hill Nature Preserve site there is a link to a site-specific trail map with topographic information that helps one either seek out, or avoid, the steepest sections of the preserve.  We used the map to help locate a lunch spot with a scenic view out over Lake Charlevoix.

Over-reliance on Technology has created problems for societies throughout history who have thought that the new tool or technique would solve the difficulties of their current time and place.  And it’s true that for me the slick design of an iPhone, the authoritative ease with which that much-desired fact appears, and the certainty of the flashing dot on a map screen all have left me enamored with the latest piece of in-the-field technology.  So, it was easy to start out for a snow-shoe trip near Petoskey confidently calling up the map on the LTC Explorer app and have my smartphone plot a course to it.  Of course, the map does not take into account seasonal or daily weather, and we soon found ourselves on one, and then another, snow-blocked road. If we had only looked at the old-fashioned printed guide, we would followed the written directions to the Skyline Trail preserve that brought us in from the north, where the road is plowed.

No matter.  We were there to snow-shoe, and we could tell from the mapping program that we were close to the preserve and we headed off cross-country charting our position both electronically and visually.  The large cellphone towers in the area provided reference points that kept us moving in the right direction; and their signals located us on Google maps, though we were frustrated that the “satellite” version depicted leaf-on photos that obscured some route options. But it all added to the adventure, and soon we were following my old companion the North Country Trail to a sweeping overlook of the Bear River Valley and Little Traverse Bay beyond.

Create Your Own Relationship with Nature.  It was a cautionary trip that reminded me that a good smartphone app cannot completely substitute for first-hand knowledge and diverse sources of information.  Look at a map, talk to locals, bring a compass, and–most importantly–keep your eyes up from the screen in your hand to read the landscape, look at the weather coming in, and enjoy the people your with.  And of course, there are still parts of Michigan that, thankfully, are out of range of celphone service.  And in such remote places, your smartphone is reduced to a camera that can also play music.  

We live in the information age and technology provides us a constant link to collective knowledge. Our smartphones will continue to evolve and new options for exploring nature will be part of our outdoor adventures.  The Nature Conservancy in Michigan is now attaching QR (Quick Response) codes to the back sides of preserve signs; they provide a real time connection to historical and ecological data. Geocaching, an early hobby of those with satellite-driven GPS units, has now moved to smartphone apps (read review of iphone options). Undoubtedly, there are, and will be, other great uses of smartphones in the wild. As with all technology, we need to be smarter than our phones and choose how, when, and where to employ science to enhance, rather than detract, from our relationship with nature. 

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