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Mapping the wild

Southwest Oregon has always been a mysterious land, hard to get around in. It started a couple of hundred million years ago when the earth's mantle began scraping along the West Coast's continental crust, leaving a twisted, folded and faulted mountain range we call the Siskiyou.

The rare geologic process didn't just leave a steep landscape most difficult to navigate and survive in; it left a biologic province allowed to evolve for millions of years unaffected by ice ages.

It left ancient plant species, dinosaur reptiles, high mountain lakes, wild rivers and sharp ridges — all of it for you to explore.

Unfortunately there's not a surplus of great information to be found about exploring our little pocket of southwest Oregon. Popular guidebooks barely scrape the surface of the Siskiyou's serpentine soils, and even deciding which map to use can be difficult.

But you don't need step-by-step directions to find some of the gems hidden in Southern Oregon's backcountry. And you don't have to sift through a pile of maps or go to the ranger station during business hours. Thanks to a couple of online tools, sourcing USGS maps — the most detailed, accurate and best all-around maps available — is easy. And free. You just need an Internet connection and a sense of adventure.

Start out by using the map locator and downloader available at store.usgs.gov. The service allows you to zoom in to any given area using a Google Map and download the associated 7.5-minute or 15-minute quadrangle maps for free. After you've downloaded the map, you can print it out or load it into your mobile device for field use.

The USGS Store will direct you toward an add-on for Adobe Acrobat called terraGo. Download and install the free program, or you won't be able to see all the maps' features. The terraGo toolbar also allows you to measure distances of a trail, which is a great tool for trip planning.

Thanks to the USGS, Siskiyou hikers don't have to pay a retailer's margin for hard copies of USGS maps. The USGS Store also has historical topographic maps available, and those can be useful for locating roads, trails, mine shafts, ditches and other features that have been omitted from current USGS releases.

For even better, higher-resolution USGS maps, though not wrapped up in a tidy PDF file, use the Gmap4 function available courtesy of map guru Joseph Elfelt and his website, mappingsupport.com. Start out by going to mappingsupport.com/p/gmap4.php and use the scale on the screen's left hand side to zoom in to your area of interest.

The two pull-down menus on the top right side of the screen offer many useful functions. Users can change overlays that include satellite, terrain, roads and three USGS topo overlays, which are your best route to exploring the Siskiyou backcountry.

You can even use the "draw and save" function to trace a route. Gmap4 will tell you the length of the route you're planning, and you can download the data as a GPX file, which can be uploaded straight into your GPS device or used to create a Google Map.

Another handy pull-down function is "Link to this map." It displays the exact link for wherever the screen is placed, allowing you to copy and paste it to share with friends or save for future use.

Gmap4 has other more technical functions, such as overlaying Web-hosted GPS files or integrating land-ownership grids, but they take some reading. That's easy, because Elfelt has an excellent, all-inclusive help page available on his website.

The service may take some time to get used to, but it operates quite intuitively, it's the most powerful tool of its kind, and it costs nothing. There are similar programs available, but they run off of your computer's hard-drive, take lots of memory, must be updated frequently, and they're expensive.

In the wake of rising prices and depreciating wages, it's nice to know that at least one type of product is becoming cheaper: information.

Freelance writer Gabe Howe is executive director and field coordinator for the Siskiyou Mountain Club. Contact him at howegabe@gmail.com.

Online tools are now available to help get into tough-to-reach areas in Southern Oregon, such as the wild Siskiyou Mountains. (Photo by David Smigelski) - Photo by David Smigelski