Ryan Abrahamsen is the creator of Terrain360, a company that creates virtual tours of hiking trails, national parks, and rivers throughout the United States. Similar to Google streetview, these tours use 360-degree panoramic images, taken every 40-60 feet, to put visitors into iconic places such as Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks. Using custom-built pontoon boats with six cameras mounted 13 feet high, Ryan and Terrain360 have travelled the Chesapeake’s many rivers as part of the Chesapeake Conservancy’s John Smith Chesapeake Trail Riverview Virtual Tour series to give you a firsthand look at the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail from the perspective of a boater in the water.
What was the inspiration for you to create virtual tours?
In 2011 I was looking at Google streetview and I thought this was missing for the outdoors—hiking trails, waterways, biking trails, etc. I also thought about how it would be to bring those to life with beautiful photography and a great mapping platform that could be different and outdoor-centric. In 2014 I teamed up with partner Andy Thompson to grow the platform and since building that platform, Terrain360’s goal has been to create a tool to encourage people to go to places they have never been to, to get outside and see things they wouldn’t normally see, and become educated about what is out there. Most people have the 25-mile radius around where they live and don’t typically go past that, and this is a way for people to explore more.
Why do you think it is important to have access to these places through your virtual tours?
I think it’s really important. It’s educational—it gives people awareness that there is something greater out there than they might already know. It helps people understand and see areas they would never visit. It is a tool to enjoy the outdoors, especially in places that are sensitive. For example: Fones Cliffs on the Rappahannock River. How many people actually go out and see that? Sure some fishermen and some recreational boaters, but there are not a lot of recreational boaters out on that section of the Rappahannock—I know that from personal experience. What better way to understand the impact of the proposed development of Fones Cliffs? If you don’t know what it looks like, you don’t care as much. When people see the beauty in the photography and are able to travel that four-mile stretch, I think it that could change peoples’ perspectives toward hot issues.
You have traveled so many of the Chesapeake’s rivers to create these virtual tours. What has it been like taking on this project? Which was your favorite river and why?
I have several. There are big differences between the rivers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The South Branch of the Potomac River was one. We put in at Petersburg, West Virginia with our brand new second boat, which was meant for faster water with rapids. It was absolutely beautiful, weather was about 73 degrees the entire time, no humidity, and full sun. It allowed us to take some of the most beautiful photography of the project. We had no cellphone service—middle of nowhere—for three days. It can’t get any better than that.
My second favorite trip was on the Nanticoke River. We put in at Emperor’s Landing Park in Vienna and took the boat 35 miles to the end of the Nanticoke River– river right. Looking for a place to stay, I turned toward Fishing Bay and camped on a nice beach and saw absolutely the most gorgeous sunset overlooking the bay.
Finally, on the York River, we left from West Point, not far from Yorktown, Virginia, to the Bay- river left. I saw dolphins two miles from West Point, which was incredible. I also camped on an island that night and woke up to a beautiful sunrise. I continued to the Bay and when I got into Mobjack Bay the water was crystal clear—you could see 10 feet down and it was unbelievable. It was beautiful and pristine. It had a completely different vibe than the other two rivers.
How do you think it is beneficial to show people the lesser-known areas of the Chesapeake?
It broadens people’s understanding of how big the Chesapeake Bay watershed is. It is one thing to cross over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge or 64 in Hampton Roads, which is the perspective that most people ever see. Getting out onto the water in some of the areas that are more far-flung—and even pristine—broadens your understanding of how beautiful and important it is to protect the Bay. One of the goals in the Riverview project is to open people’s eyes nd understanding, because there is a great deal more to see than crossing the Susquehanna on I-95.
The Occoquan River has a launch at Occoquan Regional Park in Virginia, but if you keep going up the river you can find a small set of rapids. A mile from I-95—who knew that existed? Everyone who travels from the Washington D.C. area to Richmond on I-95 has seen that area and not too far away they can get into some rapids.
A lot of the watermen I have met in different places share the same idea I have about conserving the more pristine places. I think making the public aware of these places is important to emphasizing the idea of how big the Chesapeake is and how important it is to conserve and protect it.
What was your favorite part of the Chesapeake before taking on this project and has that changed?
My favorite part of the watershed—and the only part I had really been to—was on the tidal James around Dutch Gap. It was a very small area – maybe 12 miles. But that was really my experience seeing the watershed. Going into the project it was all I had seen. I still have a love for the James River, but now I think my favorite part of the Chesapeake is the Upper Potomac. It’s big, it’s wild, and I think it is absolutely gorgeous. Even without a boat, the C&O Canal will give you the chance to see a lot of the Potomac.