Friday, January 29, 2010

GPS Meets Satellite Communication

To continue my story about SPOT, wouldn’t it be cool if you could not only send an “I’m OK” message, but also a custom message to your friends and family? For example, “Slow progress today, I will be an extra day before I reach the car. Don’t worry.”

A few month ago, a friend who works at DeLorme in Yarmouth, Maine told me that his company was working on such a feature as part of integrating their Earthmate GPS with SPOT to provide that type of service. It was not yet released to the public, so I didn’t tell a soul (or my blog). But now it is public knowledge. Here is a link with a lot more details.

The really cool thing is that I have been asked to be a Beta tester for this, so I will be starting that soon. It will involve a couple of months of testing. It won’t be the best hiking weather but hopefully I can get in a few hikes in rugged areas. I am looking forward to trying this out starting in a month or so. It is pretty amazing stuff, isn’t it? It makes the old map and compass, although still indispensable, look pretty tame!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

X Marks the SPOT

Obviously, I like to hike. Often times, I go by myself, sometimes with other people. It might be an easy couple mile stroll where I have plenty of company, or a rugged walk through remote country where I feel like I am the only person on earth that day. I’ve never been in a situation where I badly needed help, but I know that could easily happen at some point. A storm comes in and you get disoriented and miss a key trail junction. You trip over something on the trail and take a bad fall. Or less serious but still disabling, you sprain your ankle badly. That in particular is very easy to do – how many times have you turned an ankle just a bit while hiking? And I rarely hike in areas where cell phones work. So last year, I bought a SPOT satellite GPS messenger.

Since they work off satellites, like a GPS, they work almost everywhere with a clear view of the sky, unlike cell phones - which must be near a signal. SPOTs have three functions, although you must sign up for the annual service for any of the functions to work. The first is a “911” function for a serious life-threatening problem, such as a bad fall or other incapacitation. In that case, a call center gets the message and notifies authorities.

The other two functions rely on your network of family or friends. The first of these is a help message, which sends an email or text message to the list you specify telling them that you need help. Maybe you are completely lost and in the woods for the night, but it is survivable. Or your car has totally broken down in a remote area. In any event, someone getting your email must relay the information to authorities.

The final function is the “all is OK” function, just to let your family and friends know that all is well. The help and OK messages send the text message that you set up on your account, along with a link to your exact location. Here is an example from my last hike that I did just as a test:

GPS location Date/Time:01/16/2010 20:54:15 GMT

Click the link below to see where I am located.,-75.91031&ll=36.66102,-75.91031&ie=UTF8&z=12&om=1
Message:Art checking in with a SPOT Check. All is OK.

I enjoy coming back from a hike and going to the links I sent to see exactly where I was, and toggling between the map, topo, and satellite views.

You cannot vary the message without being at your computer, logging into your account, and changing it. But imagine if you could change the message in the field. “It’s so beautiful here I am going to hike another day.” “I’m fine but hiking was rough today, and I made slow progress. So I will be late.” That would be pretty cool, eh?

Tomorrow, I will write about a new development with DeLorme that will do just that, and my fortunate involvement in that as a Beta tester. It should be pretty amazing!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Back Hiking at Back Bay

After my short workout with the two Team in Training Teams in the morning, I got down to Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge for a short 4 mile hike that afternoon. We have had weeks of what passes for cold in Virginia, but the last two days were mild, and it felt great to be out and about in the outdoors for a little while. At one point, I gazed out over the marshes and spoke out loud how much I love being outdoors.

The dike trails remain closed for more than two more months, so the hiking opportunities are limited. Unlike my last hike here, I didn't see much wildlife: just a rabbit and a quick view as I turned around from looking to my right of an aquatic mammal diving. I waited for five minutes to see if it would surface, but if it did, then it did so some distance away. My guess is that it was a nutria, although a muskrat could also have been possible, or even an otter - very unlikely, however. I could hear the amazing calls of hundreds or even thousands of tundra swans out in the marshes, but couldn't see them. Here are a few photos from my hike:

The first trail that I hiked on was this short nature trail:

This freshwater pond reflects the winter sky:

Twisted tree

View of the winter marsh

Unlike my dawn beach hike and my beachcombing hike of a few months ago, I didn't hike long on the beach. But I had to at least get a quick look:

Friday, January 1, 2010

New Year's Day at Back Bay

On the first of this year, I was at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge for a short hike, maybe 3 or 3.5 miles. It is good to start 2010 with a hike, I hope the first of many. I also got in a 4 mile walk at the start of the day. One of my goals for 2010 is to work out more, another is to hike more, and so at least on the first day of the year, I was able to do this. This first photo shows the winter marsh on this gray day.

It was a quiet walk on a cool winter's day. I started about 4:15 and finished a little more than an hour later as it was getting dark. I saw some wildlife, including a total of six deer in three different locations. The light was not good enough and/or the distance was too great to get photos, but I was able to watch all of them for a while before either I or they moved on. I also saw some tundra swans, and was able to watch them with the help of binoculars. On the way out, when it was almost dark, a group of five swans flew by pretty close. They are so pretty!
This next picture was taken from a wildlife observation building on the edge of the marsh. I always stop and check it out when I hike here. Usually I see nothing, but this time there were two deer, about a dozen tundra swans, and about the same number of Canada geese well in the distance. My field glasses brought them all in close for me.