“People won’t fight for what they haven’t seen.” I think of those words as our runabout bobs up and down in the lee of an old oyster house where my husband Eric and I wait for Rob Campbell. The early morning ride across the Rappahannock had been a rollicking one, with an air temperature in the upper 40s and a fresh 15-knot wind from the northwest. Now we are nestled in McKans Bay with the sun on our faces, watching a pair of eagles circle over the cliffs and listening to the occasional fish slap the surface. Letting people see this view and others like it is why the Chesapeake Conservancy has partnered with Terrain 360° to complete a panoramic imaging of the Rappahannock from Port Royal to Deltaville. It is also why we have braved the unseasonable cold to rendezvous with Terrain 360°’s custom-designed, high-tech photography boat.
We know it is Campbell as soon as we see the red pontoons round Jones Point. With a veritable crow’s nest of cameras atop a pole at the center of the 16-foot boat, Terrain 360°’s custom-designed vessel is unmistakable. My husband first spied it from the Hoskins Creek bridge the night before (we were the ones confounding Tappahannock traffic as we drove in circles and hung out of the windows to catch another glimpse). Today we are hoping to get a better (and safer) look at the equipment that is creating a kind of “Google street view” for the water.
We are not disappointed. Rob ties up to our stern and proceeds to give us the grand tour of this vessel that is the brainchild of Virginia entrepreneurs Ryan Abrahamsen and Andy Thompson, founders of Terrain 360°. The 8-foot-wide aluminum-frame boat is packed with supplies for the two-day trip down the river, and above it all, the array of six Canon EOS Rebel T21 cameras are perched atop a stainless steel telescoping camera rig.
Programmed via GPS to shoot simultaneously at distance intervals of 30 feet, the cameras download the photos to an onboard computer, where they are translated into a 360° image. A light sensor above the array auto-adjusts for everything from sun to clouds to twilight, so shooting can take place in all but rainy conditions. The juice to run all of this state-of-the-art equipment is provided by an 1800-watt onboard generator.
This unique rig has photographed the ghost ships on the Potomac’s Mallows Bay and mapped the James River. Its land-based version has captured vistas from the Cape Hatteras Seashore to Bryce Canyon National Park. Just take a look at Terrain 360°’s website—the results are stunning. It is the closest you can get to being there without . . . well, being there.
But I can hear you asking, do we really need another app, another device that takes the place of real life?
Abrahamsen and Thompson are dedicated outdoors enthusiasts who believe the panoramic views Terrain 360° can provide of our waterways and parks don’t take the place of the natural world. Instead, they are the gateway to it, inspiring viewers to see these wonders for themselves. Equally important, they believe their images also serve as a “useful barometer” of change, and of the challenges such spaces face every day.
It is a belief Campbell, a 2013 graduate of Randolph College’s Environmental Studies program, wholeheartedly shares. A community conservationist with the James River Association, he met Abrahamsen and Thompson when they undertook the first surface image map of an entire river—all 343 miles of the James and its tributaries.
“I don’t think they felt too comfortable taking all this equipment into rocks and rapids,” he says with a smile.
The pair were looking for someone familiar with the upper river, and Campbell, with five years experience as a head raft guide, was the natural choice. He found that he enjoyed the work, and is now in his third year working as a contractor for the company.
Not that there haven’t been some challenges to the Lynchburg native’s first experience working in Virginia’s tidewater.
“I have a whole new respect for tidal boaters,” Campbell says with a shake of his head. The previous day had included 30-knot gusts against the tide, and he had struggled to keep the pontoon boat off the beach. “I used to think you could only have three-foot seas in the middle of the river, but I had them all along the shore, and I tell you, they felt like ten feet.”
But Campbell isn’t complaining.
“This job is very rewarding—to do what I love to do, and to have people take such an interest in it. Not everyone can get out on the water. You should see the look on people’s faces when they pull up these pictures right in their living rooms, see what we see.”
Joel Dunn, Executive Director of the Chesapeake Conservancy, is hoping for just this response. He is excited about the possibilities for this new technology and would like eventually to see surface-level image maps for the entire Chesapeake and its tributaries. He points to the now common practice of Googling potential travel destinations, getting a satellite view and then a street view to help travelers plan their trips.
“Now imagine being able to get a view from the boat ramp or kayak launch in the creek all the way out into the river, to preview where you are going. This provides a way of exploring the Chesapeake Bay that up until now was not available,” Dunn says enthusiastically.
Like Campbell, Dunn thinks Terrain 360°’s most important use may be its ability to provide visual access to the 98 percent of our shoreline that is private and can only be appreciated from the water. He points out that people don’t get involved in issues that have no relevance to their own lives, and he uses Fones Cliffs, a four-mile stretch of 100-foot white-colored diatomaceous cliffs on the Rappahannock as an example. Environmental groups have opposed development of this important bird habitat, but it has been a hard sell for the general population. The cliffs are not readily accessible except by boat, and only a small percentage of people have even seen them—which brings us back to the words that echo in my memory on this Monday morning.
“People won’t fight for what they haven’t seen.”
We throw off the line and the pontoon boat turns downriver. Rob Campbell slowly motors along the south shore, and as the cameras snap picture after picture, I think to myself, “Yes. It is a view worth sharing.”