In the age of GPS and smartphones that read aloud directions, it can be easy to forget that at one point people had to read and interpret maps, which may not have been updated at the pace of development and expansion.
The U.S. Geological Survey was established in 1879 with the goal of classifying and mapping public and private lands. Part of the process was the creation of topographic maps that use lines to show the elevation change of a particular feature and give a sense of just how much a mountain towers over the surrounding plains.
Many of those maps haven’t been updated in decades – and that’s were Shari Erickson, 45, and her Apogee Mapping, come in.
Erickson, a native Californian who moved to Colorado in 2008, said she started mapping through a data entry job in Tucson, Arizona, where she input geographical information, such as roads and subdivisions, onto government maps.
She also was a volunteer for Superstition Search and Rescue in Pinal County, Arizona, and from 2001 to 2006, she focused on updating search and rescue maps to include trails, both official and unofficial, as well as other features the members of the team commonly referenced in the backcountry.
“There was a lot of intel that people had in their minds, like a lot of the group would hike all the time and they knew exactly where the trails were and likely campsites, but it was all in their head,” she said.
That didn’t help new members who didn’t know the terrain as intimately, or when the group collaborated with other organizations, she said.
The work of combining data sets, pools of geographical and development information drove her to create the one-woman business she runs out of her home in Edgemont Ranch.
When she started Apogee Mapping eight years ago, Erickson had 45 unique maps. Now, the count is just short of 300 that she offers local retailers or outdoor enthusiasts who seek out her products online.
Each of the maps contains an average of 15 data sets and it took up to a week to produce each one.
An example is a map of the Durango area that shows the boundaries of sections of public lands, private inholdings, trails, roads, houses, oil and gas sites, mines, cell phone towers, topographical changes, and campsites and is updated with new developments, such as housing or trail projects.
“That’s what sets my maps apart from other people’s maps. A lot of people just regurgitate the same government data, and I actually sit there and fuss with it,” she said.
Some data Erickson uses can be simply overlaid, and some she must manually input, essentially drawing roads into the map files using aerial imaging as a basis.
The practice leaves her with little competition because of the labor costs, she said. “It’s a lot of man hours for very little reward.”
That’s not to say there is no monetary gain from producing the maps, which she said has grown with her offerings.
“It’s not enough to pay the mortgage, so right now obviously my husband (Ian Erickson) is paying the big bills,” she said.
Her first customer was the San Juan Mountains Association, which was stocking USGS maps but did no in-house printing. Since then she has established partnerships with several local retailers, including Pine Needle Mountaineering and Gardenswartz.
Erickson said she provides custom maps and ones that customers express interest in, but when given the chance, she has a simple formula for deciding what to map: “Basically, I map stuff that I want to go see.”
But the reason behind crafting the maps, which range from $10 to $20 depending on the size and material, goes beyond the potential profit and into the realm of historic preservation.
“Fifty years from now, somebody’s gonna look, in theory, at one of my old maps like ‘Oh, wow, look at what used to be there.’ ... They’re kind of snapshots that preserve history,” Erickson said.
When not planted behind her computer or stooped over the printer, Erickson and her husband Ian are avid hikers and car campers, and usually will go out with their border collie Scout.
They also have an interest in homebrewing and have three concoctions currently fermenting.
“We have a Belgian Double, a Farm House and (another) we’re calling it a ‘jam in your rye,” which is a rye beer with a citrus undertones, she said.
There’s another reason Erickson favors paper maps over digital ones and has devoted her recent history to their creation: utility.
“It’s a useful tool: You can burn it in a fire; you can use it as toilet paper if you need to. It’s quite useful.”