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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Volunteers use Google Trekker cameras to record area trails for online viewing

The world will soon have virtual access to paddling the Little Spokane River, biking the Centennial Trail and hiking across the suspension bridge at the Bowl and Pitcher.

Volunteers this month are escorting the Google Trekker along some of the area’s signature routes. The high-tech digital imaging device will provide panoramic Street View images of off-road scenery for anyone with Internet access to explore.

Google, the California-based search engine and mapping technologies company, debuted Street View in 2007 with camera-equipped vehicles dispatched into cities to begin linking 360-degree images with Google Maps. Real estate buyers and sellers were among the first to go online and browse the views of houses and buildings as an owl would see them while perched on a vehicle driving public roads.

To date, Google reports documenting more than 7 million miles of routes in at least 65 countries.

In 2012, the concept was expanded off the streets to document scenery along trails and the rapids of wild rivers. The device that had been mounted on cars was reworked into a backpacking version called the Trekker.

Two students from the Eastern Washington University outdoor recreation program are among 15-20 volunteers taking the Trekker on local tours ultimately for a global audience.

“This is one of our favorite places,” said Katherine Beal at the Deep Creek Trailhead in Riverside State Park. “We like the idea of sharing it.”

After the 30 minutes needed to boot up the computer system, Beal and Andy Fuzak would take turns carrying the apparatus over miles of trails and off-trail routes.

The cameras, battery and computer unit total about 40 pounds – as much as backpackers carry for a multi-night trip.

The Trekker consists of 15 five-megapixel, F2.0 lenses mounted in a sphere at the top of a mast. Each lens is angled in a different direction that enables Google to stitch together a 360-degree panoramic view. The lenses snap images as the Trekker is carried along a route, allowing the world to follow. A sophisticated GPS system links the routes to Google Maps.

“Yesterday we did five miles of trail before noticing a leaf covering the top lens, so we don’t know how the ‘above’ view will be affected,” Fuzak said, noting there’s room for error.

The Trekker’s cameras tower to about 8 feet off the ground when shouldered on Fuzak’s 6-foot, 2-inch frame, forcing him into a Cossack-squat to go under overhanging branches while keeping the mast as vertical as possible.

Dents and scratches mar the Trekker’s painted aluminum sphere housing the lenses. “That’s cool,” Beal said. “You can tell it’s been somewhere.”

Indeed, Trekker units already have been along Hawaii’s Na Pali Coast, into Arizona’s Grand Canyon by foot and raft, and up Half Dome in Yosemite – not to mention through the Khumbu Valley in Nepal and the haunts of elephants in Kenya’s Sanburu National Preserve.

Spokane will join the ranks of the Pyramids of Giza and the polar bears of Churchill, Manitoba, as Google makes the Trekker available to third-parties. The units are loaned to tourism boards, non-profits, government agencies, ski areas, universities and research groups to photograph areas that can’t be recorded by Street View vehicles.

“We see this as a great opportunity as many of the trekked locations are places that visitors and locals enjoy,” said Peyton Scheller of Visit Spokane.

“For those who are considering visiting the Spokane region, or those who already live here and want to discover something new, viewing the locations on Google Trekker will give them the option to see the beauty of the region and test out the different trails and parks before experiencing them in real life.”

Visit Spokane staff helped schedule volunteers to pack the Trekker from the Spokane River to trails on Mount Spokane as well as county conservations areas, golf courses and university campuses.

Timing impacts the view the world gets of a region. This month, the Trekker is recording Spokane after the driest summer on record. Manito Park looks great, but natural areas are crispy brown – a much different image from spring, when the showy golden arrowleaf balsamroots were in bloom.

“I really like being able to scout a river’s rapids using Street View,” Fuzak said. “On the other hand, the image wouldn’t necessarily be useful without knowing the flow rate.”

Overall, though, Fuzak said he was in awe of Street View technology and Google’s quest to map the world.

After helping Beal strap on the aluminum pack frame, Fuzak marched ahead out of the camera’s sight while giving other trail users a heads up that the Trekker was coming.

Beal followed holding an Android smartphone that allowed her to give the Trekker cues and to pause the recording if needed.

There’s no temptation to use the phone at Google’s expense, she said: “You can only make emergency calls on it.”

“We get some weird looks,” Fuzak said. “People don’t know what to think; most have never heard of the Trekker. Some people feel a tiny bit bad about being photographed.”

Street View computer-vision programs look for house numbers, street signs, even corporate logos, such as the face of Col. Sanders, in which case the bot would flag the corresponding point on the map with a note that there’s probably a KFC franchise located there.

The Trekker apparently doesn’t go that far, although distinguishing between a ponderosa pine and a Douglas fir isn’t out of the technology’s reach in the future.

Beal and Fuzak assured anyone who asked that Google software technology would blur everyone’s faces so they can’t be recognized.

Danny Murphy, volunteer coordinator for Riverside State Park, is making sure the Trekker records park highlights, including the Little Spokane River, Bowl and Pitcher and Spokane House, which commemorates the region’s trapper trading history.

“This is a great opportunity to expose the park,” he said.

Luke Bakken, a Spokane Mountaineer volunteer, put in an epic Trekker effort last weekend, hiking 20 miles in one shot, averaging 3.3 mph to record Trail 25 looping through Riverside State Park.

Although he didn’t pause for much chatting, he said the most common question he heard from passers-by was, “How much do you get paid?”

“Of course, the answer is zip,” Bakken said. “But now I can block advertising the rest of my life with a clear conscience.”

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