Mapping Patagonia

Photo by Christina Hutton
Ross and Marty conduct field work in Patagonia. Photo by Christina Hutton.

In January of this year, cartographers and explorers Ross Donihue and Marty Schnure kicked off a cartographic expedition of Patagonia, a mountainous and archipelagic region at the bottom of South America. (Explore Patagonia with our MapMaker Interactive.)

Fresh back from their months spent in the field, I caught up with Marty and Ross (also former interns at National Geographic and colleagues of mine) to hear about their expedition and learn more about the inspiration that drove them to map the region.

Sean: What is the purpose of your expedition/project?

Marty & Ross: The purpose of our expedition is to tell the unique story of the future Patagonia National Park and its conservation mission through maps. Our project consists of two phases: a three-month expedition to the park to collect geographic and multimedia content [geo-located videos, photos, and information about the park and the features found within it]; and three months of map production in the U.S.. Our final products will be a large-format print map and an interactive map of the park.


Sean: What inspired you to undertake this expedition?

Marty & Ross: As employees at National Geographic, we were inspired by colleagues, explorers, innovators, scientists, and storytellers on a daily basis. Their work motivated us to pursue our own project and focus all of our time and effort on making it happen. When we heard about the Patagonia National Park Project (learn more about the project here), we realized its conservation mission and the wild landscape would be the ideal setting for our dream project.


Sean: Can you tell us a little bit about what the day-to-day, on-the-ground experience was like during your time in Chile? How did you prepare and what did you think about when packing for such an expedition?

Marty & Ross: Our days in Chile started and ended the same way…in a tent. The majority of our time—about two thirds—was spent backpacking and exploring the backcountry. We would typically spend a day stocking up on food, packing gear, planning our route, meeting with park staff and then the hit the trail. Our excursions into the backcountry would last 1 to 5 days and allowed us to collect geographic and multimedia content about remote valleys, ice-cold lakes, and free flowing streams.

To prepare for our three month expedition we spent a lot of time researching this region of Patagonia.  We tested and chose gear that would hold up to the variable temperatures and weather conditions. We found sponsors and used crowd-funding resources to outfit our expedition. Our preparation paid off and we felt well-prepared for all the conditions we faced throughout the expedition.

Sean: What were your most important tools in the field?

Marty & Ross: This expedition required a lot of technology for collecting multimedia content and geographic content. We had audio visual equipment, computers, and geographic technology that we relied heavily on for the majority of the trip. Our camera and handheld GPS unit were the tools we used every day in the field.

Our tools in the field were made possible by a few key sponsors who enabled us to go further and produce stunning content that would not have otherwise been possible without their support. First and formost we are grateful to have been awarded a National Geographic Young Explorer grant. Their support was foundational to this project. Our technological capabilities in the field would not have been successful without our sponsorship from Goal Zero, which outfitted us with an all-star solar recharging setup. Rise Bar supplied us with healthy, high-energy, packable snacks that went with us into the field. Our SPOT device allowed us to communicate with our friends, family, and supporters while we were abroad. Patagonia (Freeport, Maine) provided us with jackets for all the weather conditions. We captured multimedia content in the field with the assistance of Rhino Camera Gear.


Sean: When not in the field, what are the most important tools you use in your project?

Marty & Ross: When we aren’t in the field, the most important tools that we use are our laptops, open-source data, and high-powered software that allow us to create, manage, and develop our maps.


Sean: One of the goals of your project is outreach to schools and the general public. Can you tell us about your outreach and any personal favorite ideas for educational activities or resources that blog readers can tap into to start thinking like cartographers or geographers?

Marty & Ross: We’re excited about sharing our project with as many people as possible. It is such a privilege to be able to go on a cartographic expedition and we are anxious to share our experience in classrooms and in presentations at various venues this fall when our project is completed. A favorite activity we use to help people think like cartographers is a mental mapping exercise. It’s always fun to see what people come up with when they’re drawing their mental maps.


Time:15-30 minutes

Resources: Pencil, Paper

Activity: Give students 7 minutes to draw a map that tells the story of their trip from home to school. Tell them to add as much detail or as little detail as they want but they have to use the full 7 minutes. Make it clear that these maps do not need to be artistic or scientific works.

Discussion: Have students break into small groups and use their maps to tell the story of their trip from home to school. Compare and contrast how their maps vary. With the whole group, ask students to share what differences they noticed in each other’s maps–what kinds of information they included and excluded, the different ways of representing the story, etc. A fun way to get kids or adults thinking spatially about their own environments and experiences!

Photo by Ross Donihue & Marty Schnure
A Patagonian vista. Photo by Ross Donihue & Marty Schnure

Thanks to Ross and Marty for sharing their story with us! Exploration and mapping can happen in far away places and right by our homes. We love exploring the world around us at all scales. And we look forward to seeing the results of Ross and Marty’s cartographic expedition when they are ready to share their maps with the world.

One thought on “Mapping Patagonia

  1. I had the chance to see Marty and Ross working in Patagonia while i was doing personal adventures around the park. They shared with me their work and we spent a great time living in the outdoors!
    I’m really glad to see them finishing this fantastic project. These guys work really hard, i can tell!!

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