SHERIDAN — During the month of April in 2018, 154.4 million Americans used Google Maps, according to Statista. Digital mapping systems send drivers and tourists from point A to point B along (what Google says) is the fastest route.
About 250 years earlier, Charles Joseph Minard created a map illustrating Napoleon’s march to Russia in 1812 — a jagged route showing the width of his army. The graphic shows 422,000 soldiers dwindling to just 10,000 by the end of the campaign.
Anaximander is considered to be the first cartographer, as the first documented ancient Greek to draw a map of the known world, according to Google. Cartographers document physical space, snapshots of history and more.
Sheridan-based cartographer Richard Urbatchka has found through his work that even well-used and trusted data can be a few hundred feet off, and there is merit in keeping old techniques alive.
Urbatchka is full of cartography facts. For example, the edge of a map is called a “neat line,” not a border, to avoid conflicting terminology with a country or state border.
His home work space is organized with books about map design, a drafting table, overhead lamp, ink pens from the 1970s and a closet full of notes, rough drafts and correspondence.
Urbatchka has created 37 maps since 2010 — some on commission but most for himself, family and friends. Urbatchka’s depth of knowledge about the history of cartography contributes to well-researched, accurate, visually-pleasing maps of his daughter’s home, family travels, hiking maps and weather charts. Each map was drawn by hand.
Inking the maps is tedious but enjoyable, he said. Simple mistakes can be corrected while large mistakes go in the trash along with the map.
His most recent maps include “The Urbatchka Family’s Memorable Places” and “Rich’s and Kathy’s Old Faithful Winter Expedition.” Urbatchka’s hiking maps show local routes like Cloud Peak, Steamboat, Humphreys Peak, Medicine Bow and Porcupine Falls.
Over years of research, he has found a few errors in available data. Google Maps, one of his sources for a map of his daughter’s house in Arizona, had an incorrect scale for the surrounding block.
“I’m wary of the internet,” Urbatchka said. “You know, a third of it’s in error, they say. But maybe that’s an error because it came off the internet.”
Urbatchka has a degree in geography with an emphasis in cartography and one in mathematics/secondary education. He worked for the Kansas University Cartographic Service and has worked creating maps and charts professionally.
He planned and executed vertical aerial photo missions for mapping, environmental studies and documentation. He is licensed to operate a hot air balloon. Urbatchka used maps, weather data and aerial imaging as a high school math teacher to illustrate geometry and other complex concepts to his students.
His cartography practice is a combination of design, mathematics and research. Urbatchka said he enjoys the craftsmanship and technique involved with hand drawing ink on vellum paper.
Visual display, balance, hierarchical emphasis, figure/ground relationships and lettering are key components of high-quality mapmaking. People are more likely to enjoy and read a map if it’s visually appealing, he said.
Scale means everything — a gentle gradient on a hike could appear overly steep if a cartographer uses incorrect scales, he said.
When making a map, a cartographer should use the best available data sources and display the minimum information necessary to communicate the essential elements of the map, Urbatchka said. He can differentiate between a dabbler and an educated cartographer based on how they present their map elements.
“I would say 70% of the maps you see now are not done by educated cartographers,” Urbatchka said. Larger companies have well-trained cartographers but even educated professionals miss a few things, he said.
The gold standard for topographic maps are those made using high-resolution aerial photographs with a stereoscope from the 1950s and 60s, updated through the 90s, he said.
Comparing a map from that era to a digital rendition from the United States Geological Survey, the modernized version obfuscates a cliff at Porcupine Falls. Still, GIS is popular because it can show complex layers and different data — useful for making maps for mining operations, he said.
While working on a map for a friend, Urbatchka started his research with a Google Map search of the area, which showed the wrong river flowing through Kendrick Park. Google Maps uses the USGS base from the 1960s, 70s and 80s data to map their rivers, Urbatchka said. Big Goose Creek has changed since then.
“I had to adjust where Big Goose was in one or two places because Google Maps had it wrong and I’m into the best available sources,” Urbatchka said.
Much of his research can be done from home but he sometimes gathers information from the field, like mapping where a bird feeder or seesaw was located at a friend’s family cabin.
He’s accumulated dozens of trusted maps to use for research, though he’s found that even some of those are about 200 feet off.
When out in the field, he’ll use a GPS and take notes about correct elevation and turns on trails. He reconciles his data against USGS data back in his office to create gradient profiles for hiking maps.
Overall, Urbatchka’s passion endures because he enjoys the craft.
“I was encouraged to do something more with them even though I just do them for me,” he said.
Sheridan Travel and Tourism showed some interest in the maps recently, and a booklet of hikes in the Bighorn Mountains, created by North Arrow Maps and Charts, is available in the Travel and Tourism office.