My Final Day in the Field?

This entry is part 58 of 67 in the series Field Notes

We have all heard the phrase “You can take the surveyor our of the field, but you can’t take the field out of the surveyor.” For the most part, I believe that is true on several levels. For sure, not every day in the field is a good one. Hot, cold, wind, critters, poison oak, dust, noise, angry landowners, high speed traffic, mistakes, and more just come with the territory. But so do beautiful spring or fall days, finding original corners, some over 100 years old, wildlife sightings, and the sense of a job well done at the end of the day. I think most of our best memories were likely made in the field, although great work can be done in the office also. It’s just not the same.

In addition to the memories comes experience when one transitions to an office role. You are more competent to prepare complete packages for the field staff. More adept at asking questions about what was found, especially if the notes aren’t clear. That field surveyor you brought with you into the office will serve you well, even without the dirty boots.

Although I made the transition from full-time field surveyor to the office well over 25 years ago, I have had occasions to get back in the field, mostly doing a few private surveys. However, I gave those up over 10 years ago as well. Since then, I had one occasion to do some field work and research, which I wrote about here. I probably should have quit there.

Recently, I was contemplating buying an undeveloped six-acre parcel in a very rural area near where I live. I met the agent at the site to take a look. There were no lines of occupation and her “guess” as to where the corners were wasn’t adequate for me. However, she did have a parcel map that depicted the property.

The parcel was created by that map in the 1970s by a local surveyor (still active) with a good reputation. Off to a good start. I asked her if I could have a copy of the parcel map and return at a later date to search for the corners before even considering making an offer. She agreed. I told her that I wouldn’t mark anything I found, as this was just for my personal knowledge.

The day had arrived. I strapped on my boots, dug out my meager gear; belt with tools, vest, and Schonstedt, which needed batteries. The belt was so old and worn it broke when I tried to put it on. PitifuI. I tested the magic wand to make sure it still worked correctly and that I still knew its “language.” I packed a lunch, water, and maps and off I went. A friend agreed to meet me there to assist, provide company, and a safety factor.

The front of the property was fairly open and flat for this area. The parcel map bounded both sides of the county road with monuments, so I spent some time getting oriented. As mentioned, the parcel had zero lines of occupation on either sideline, so I started with a parcel one lot over. I immediately found the record corner at the front of that parcel on the county right-of-way. From there, I paced the record distances down the road to start looking for the easterly front corner at the right-of-way per the map. My buddy, not a surveyor, followed along carrying gear and asking questions.

When I stopped, then paced from the road centerline to the RW line, he asked what I was doing? I told him I should be close enough to start searching even though it was quite a distance from where the real estate agent “guessed” the corner was. No surprise there.

I fired up the magic wand, and within a minute or so got a strong signal. I asked for the shovel and scraped off the surface of the soil. About two inches down I got a clunk and smiled. I carefully worked my way around the object to expose a perfectly vertical capped iron pipe stamped per the parcel map. He was quite impressed. I placed a temporary lath. I told him it was a good start, but that I needed to find more to be certain it was the right corner, although there were no other record monuments depicted on the map within 200 feet of that location.

It almost felt like beginner’s luck, but I was no beginner. I hadn’t paced in years, and this pacing was almost 300 feet downhill. I was probably within 10 feet or so of where I found the pipe. I inspected the map again, then off I went pacing down the road. Time to locate the other front corner.

When I stopped, then paced over to the right-of-way (or tried), the location fell in the middle of a huge blackberry patch. I waived the wand around above the vines for only a minute, but it was too far above the ground. Fighting the vines would be time consuming. Time for Plan B.

I remembered seeing a neighbor working a small tractor just up the road when I drove in. Rather than fight the berries, I walked up to ask if he could help me? We chatted for a minute, then he said, “Well, we might be neighbors, so sure.” Nice fellow.

He was there in a few minutes. I instructed him to not take any soil as he used his bucket to quickly clear my search area of the vines. He was done in a couple of minutes, then off he went, offering his help again if needed.

Now clear of berry vines, I started waving, again getting a signal within a couple of minutes. This time my buddy had the shovel ready and started digging gently as I cleared the wand. On the second scoop he hit something solid, then slid the shovel up it vertically. I smiled. There was the match to the first corner. He thought I was some sort of savant. I felt like it was one of those “staged” finds we often see on TV programs, but he knew I had never been there before. Temporary lath placed like the first one.

I inspected the map again. Across the county road there was a front corner shown for that parcel. It was about 60 feet away from this one. I reached into the back of my vest and pulled out a 100-foot steel tape on a reel. I paced across the road and instructed him to hold the foot (59 as I recall) over the pipe we just found. I swept an arc with my foot, fired up the wand, and almost immediately heard the familiar ring again. He blurted out “No freaking way.” I just smiled. We quickly uncovered the corner, then I asked him to hold the 59 right on top of the pipe and we sort of flat chained across the road. The measurement matched record within a tenth. I was pretty darn confident of what I had found at that point. If nothing else went right the rest of the day, I now knew where it would be safe to cut a driveway in if I made the purchase.

I was prancing around like a proud rooster. My buddy was amazed by my proficiency. Still more work to do, however.

We took a break for water and to regroup. I looked at the map again to see how we could get oriented to search for the rear corners. We walked to a parcel two over from the subject parcel where there was a sideline fence and found a record corner, then another, which marked the rear line I was seeking, albeit some 400 feet east from the closest rear corner of the subject parcel.

Unlike the front, it was a jungle of small trees and underbrush coupled with steep, undulating terrain. Virtually impossible to pace with any sort of confidence. The deeper we went, the thicker it got. The area hadn’t been touched in decades. I spent time sort of reading the forest, looking for any signs, surveying or otherwise. Nothing. The glow from my earlier success was fading quickly. I wandered in a methodical pattern, waving the wand and looking for sign for probably 20 minutes. Nothing. I had to admit that without traversing in, we likely were wasting our time. I suggested we regroup, then look for the final rear corner.

We pushed our way through the brush and trees about 400 feet as the ground got steeper and steeper. Again, I started totally blind, but within a few minutes I noticed a weathered, vertical piece of wood amongst the trees that looked squared, not round like a tree. Sure enough, it was an old fence post. I looked in each direction roughly on the orientation of the rear parcel line and saw another post maybe 40 feet away. Then another. I waved the wand and got strong signals between the posts, then uncovered strands of barbed wire in the forest duff. I spent the next hour chasing those posts and wire, looking for either one of the rear corners. My buddy had long given up and returned to the truck, citing the rough terrain, hunger, and poor pay. He told me to holler if I really needed him.

It would have been easy to join him, but I couldn’t give up. I was on the evidence. The treasure was surely near. No reason those corners shouldn’t be there. They almost certainly still are, but I never found them.

About two-and-a-half hours after I went into the dense forest a proud and confident surveyor, I wandered out an exhausted, frustrated, humbled, and thirsty man. I had run out of water an hour or so prior. Did I mention exhausted?

I was defeated. My buddy handed me a water bottle as I staggered up to the truck and he commented on my ragged appearance. He was still upbeat and reminded me that if I bought the place, I knew where to put the driveway. Of little consolation at that point, but thanks, buddy.

As we drove out, I stopped to pull the lath I had placed on the front corners and kicked dirt over them, then stopped to thank the tractor guy.  My buddy and I parted ways with a big thank you and small gesture from me for his assistance and company. I sure didn’t feel like much of a surveyor as I drove back home, struggling to get out of the truck upon arrival. Did I mention exhausted?

However, in the weeks since, I realized that it really was a success. I had used the evidence in the front to quickly find and verify the corners. My pacing was still calibrated. Just like the good old days. Then I got a reality check in the dense forest. But even there, I found evidence. Surveying is like that. Come spring, I may just go back with fresh legs, more water, and realistic expectations to again search for the rear corners along the old fence line if the property is still listed. If not, that could have been my last day surveying in the field. Hey, I batted .500. If I was a pro baseball player, that would put me in the Hall of Fame. But as a surveyor, I got an “F” on the test. Not the way I wanted to go out, but sometimes the forest wins. Being 62 didn’t help either.

Did I mention exhausted?

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