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We Alaskans

A new Mat-Su map shows a special, hidden place

  • Author: James DePasquale
  • Updated: August 11, 2017
  • Published August 11, 2017

James DePasquale presents his Mat-Su map at a 2016 conference in San Diego, Calif. (Courtesy James DePasquale)

Do you have a favorite Alaska place?

I do, and as I write this, I'm there now. Chances are you've never heard of it. Few have. It's up beyond the Susitna River, up where Craigie Creek gets its start at an unnamed turquoise lake.

This is a small stream born out of Talkeetna Mountains glaciers. It flows into the mighty Susitna River — renowned for how it pulses with salmon each summer — then rages unfettered down to the valley floor and into the sea at Cook Inlet.

Craigie Creek is not a popular spot. For me to get there, it takes an hour's drive out of town into the southern toe of the Talkeetnas. Then I turn onto what may have once been a mining road, but is now a boulder-strewn creek bed so bumpy that the dogs implore us to let them out so they can walk beside the truck.

When four-wheel drive is no longer an option, we start walking with backpacks. We hike an hour or two into the rocky crags and ice fields, passing an old prospector's cabin before finally reaching the turquoise lake. For well over a decade, my wife and I have come to this place to mark Alaska's high summer.

The scene in this U-shaped valley glows emerald. Lupine, fireweed, Alaska violets and chocolate lilies paint swaths of color. Brushy willows line the creek banks. Walls of granite rise from the valley floor. Up high, hanging valleys filled with ice and hidden lakes spill whitewater into steep canyons. As the season progresses, the tundra turns crimson and acres of summer wildflowers give way to fall blueberries, low-bush cranberries and crowberries.

Down the middle of it all runs Craigie Creek — clear, fast and colder than a January gravestone. Rushing, gurgling, falling over rocks and down waterfalls, the stream provides a perfect continuous background audio loop in an otherwise silent setting. I love Craigie Creek in every way, but most of the Mat-Su is full of places like this.

Like the back of my hand

I mapped this place. It's my job. I'm a geographer for The Nature Conservancy in Alaska. On this project, the idea was to make the be-all and end-all map of the lakes, rivers and streams — the hydrography — in this West Virginia-sized chunk of Alaska. People in Alaska refer to this vast basin as the Mat-Su. It's a shorthand mashup of Matanuska and Susitna — the two mighty rivers that shape this place.

When our team embarked on this project, we expected to learn a lot. After all, this place has 40 glaciers, more than 24,000 lakes and water everywhere. What we didn't expect, however, was the discovery of 27,000 miles of previously unmapped streams. For context, that's more than enough distance to travel around the equator. That's a lot of water and, to our delight, more than we'd thought possible.

One might ask: How could we have "missed" such an incredible resource until now? The answer is technology. New mapping techniques, such as a 3-D laser scanning method known as LIDAR recently deployed by the Mat-Su Borough, make it possible to measure and map streams small enough to step across, streams previously not visible using traditional satellite imagery.

If Alaska is a land of salmon, the Mat-Su is like a fertile crescent. And people love its lakes, rivers and forests as much as the salmon do.

So it is no surprise that the Mat-Su is also home to Alaska's fastest-growing population. I like to think of this as an opportunity: So I asked myself, as a geographer, how could I help people understand the inextricable linkage between people and salmon in Alaska? With 27,000 miles of newly discovered salmon streams, the answer was simple: We needed a new map.

Craigie Creek valley is in the Talkeetna Mountains, on the Willow side of Hatcher Pass. (James DePasquale)

Telling a story with a map

I think of maps as stories about places. I wanted to tell a story of how remarkable this place is. Rather than convey technical concepts, I wanted people viewing my map to experience a sense of awe, as if they were here themselves.

So I got started, and one iteration of the map led to another. Dave Albert, an excellent Juneau cartographer who directs the science program for The Nature Conservancy in Alaska, provided tips and ideas. I read books and articles on cartography. I presented various versions of the map at workshops and even made a version for viewing with 3-D glasses. (Fun for a map geek like me, but not that practical, I learned.) Then, I decided to enter my map in the Esri International User Conference in San Diego, arguably the largest gathering of mapmakers in the world.

By this point I had come to realize that the Mat-Su basin, this special place, speaks for itself. My map did not require complex symbology or fancy fonts. All it needed to be was a window to this place. Just show the entire Mat-Su, I thought, and the place will tell the story.

I made the map look as natural as possible and avoided cluttering it with text and labels. I included huge and wild salmon rivers as well as tiny, off-channel streams one could step across — those safe places where young salmon grow big enough to swim off to the sea. I added enough anthropogenic detail to give the audience perspective and scale, such as the cities of Palmer and Wasilla, but favored the natural terrain over all else.

Although I have done so many times, it is painful for me to attend the annual Esri conference the second week in July, as the sockeye are typically running and my Alaska friends are filling their freezers with fresh fish. Nonetheless, when July came I printed the final version of my map and boarded a plane.

Once I got there, I tacked the 36-by-36-inch map on the wall in the exhibit hall and was soon surprised to see how the map could draw a crowd.

People stood inches away, squinting at details. Others stepped back to take in the vast watershed. In the end, the map took top honors. It's now on the cover of annual "Esri Map Book" — and reviewed on the Maps We Love blog.

The way forward

I still wonder how a single map could win such acclaim. And, to be honest, sometimes I feel as if I had an unfair advantage. My subject area is so beautiful and diverse that all I had to do was let it be. It's the uniquely Alaska landscape that won these recognitions — the rivers, glaciers, floodplains, mountains, forests, ocean and estuaries on the map draw people in like a campfire in the dark. With the release of this year's Esri map book, I'm excited for more people to learn about what a great place the Mat-Su basin is.

You know the funny thing about this map?

We say it's for the wild salmon, but, of course, salmon don't need a map. Migrating salmon know where they're going. The map is for us, everyone who believes people and wild salmon can share the same place. It's long been an elusive goal, but maybe a good map will help.

James DePasquale of Palmer is a geographer for The Nature Conservancy in Alaska. 

Want a copy of the map?

The map is not currently available for sale. You can download the high-resolution PDF here and have it printed at a local print shop: The Esri map book is available from both Esri's own publishing company and Amazon.

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