Solo Notes: Surveyor Stays Connected in Alaska
More than 45 years ago, Scott McClintock, PLS, started surveying as a teenager in Arizona. Now, he works in Alaska, doing everything from small lot retracements and subdivisions to environmental reclamation projects and topographic surveys for engineering. He also dabbles in construction and road work. “We do things on a much larger scale in Alaska and, of course, the challenge is the terrain and the weather and the logistics — there’s no comparison down south,” he says.
McClintock has been in the state for 25 years now, based in the city of Nome, and says he enjoys living vicariously through the eyes of his interns, who are totally captivated by the wow factor that comes with the state’s unique landscape. He says he wouldn’t be surprised to see the role of surveyors change moving forward and that it’s important the next generation gets training from industry vets as opposed to newcomers.
POB: Explain what you do.
McCLINTOCK: On a normal day when we’re working hard, we usually get up about six o’clock in the morning, have a quick breakfast, and then we’re out the door by 7:30 a.m. and we work 14-16 hours. It depends on what we’re doing. Of course, the sun doesn’t really set up here during the summer, so we’ve worked actually up to an 18-hour stretch. It depends on what we’re doing. After a while, you kind of lose track of time anyways, especially if you’re on a roll. You don’t want to stop in the middle of the job just because you’ve worked eight hours, and have to come back the next day, because it could be a long hike. After we’re done, then I still have to download the data and process it into the computers, and then be ready for the next day’s work. So, I generally have a pretty long day.
We stay up with the technology. The go-to instrument for me, because I am working alone, is my IS-3, which is a robotic total station and a scanner that Topcon makes. I’m really happy with that. It’s quite the labor-saver. I use it quite a bit. Then, we do a lot of GPS or GNSS work, and I use the Topcon HiPer V for that. Then, I use a Nikon total station, which is a prismless total station, for some things. We also use a Seafloor Systems SonarLite for our inland waters work that we do occasionally.
We’re very fortunate. We work statewide. I do a lot of subcontracting with other engineering firms to perform their topographic or their construction staking, or whatever they need. Some of them don’t have in-house surveyors, or those that they have don’t have the particular expertise that I have. I have an ongoing project that’s probably waiting to go this fall in Delta Junction, which is quite a ways from here. In the past, we’ve worked almost to the Canadian border. There’s a place called Chalkyitsik. It’s a very small native village, and we had to pioneer a six-mile long road for their new landfill facility.
POB: What aspects of the business do you enjoy most and why?
McCLINTOCK: It’s the people. I like meeting different people. It’s really challenging in Alaska, because we do a lot of work bringing infrastructure into the native villages. When I have the opportunity to actually sit down and talk to some of the elders in particular, it’s very enlightening. It’s cool to talk to the people.
POB: Do you have any memorable stories from field work and/or a favorite project you worked on?
McCLINTOCK: They’re all challenging. We did the seven-year environmental cleanup of what was a military base at one time out on St. Lawrence Island. The military just abandoned it and there was a very large fuel spill that occurred there, and that was probably one of the bigger issues we had to deal with as far as cleaning that up. We were working with an environmental company based in Anchorage and it was a really good fit for us. After the years, we knew what they wanted and they knew that we knew what they wanted. So, it worked out really well. I had a crew stationed out there for three seasons. They lived and worked with the guys out there. I’ve worked out there myself several times.
I guess I could tell you the story about the six bears. This was in southeast Alaska, when I worked In Haines. We were retracing an old U.S. survey, which was an old homestead. This was moose hunting season, in the fall. Myself and my assistant had to drive in about six miles — there was an old dirt road that we had to follow in. This is up on the upper Chilkat River. We parked the truck and then we walked in about a mile, and I was semi-familiar with the property. It was about a 150-acre piece of land. As we’re talking, I see a little movement in the corner of my eye and, of course, we were armed with rifles because there are brown bears around there. Of course, we weren’t expecting bears. So, I took a look over there and a brown bear popped up. Then another head pops up, and another head pops up, and then a whole bunch of heads pop up. They were all grown, 8- to 10-foot tall. They were on somebody’s kill; there was a carcass. Short of getting between a sow and her cub, walking up on six bears on a carcass is not a good thing. So, we basically walked out of that place, rifles loaded, a bullet in each round. Those bears chased us all the way back to the truck. Needless to say, I’m a little paranoid now when I go out into the field.
POB: What has been your biggest challenge so far?
McCLINTOCK: Keeping up with the technology is always a challenge, both from a monetary standpoint and from a logistical standpoint. But I’ve learned over the years that technology can be a very good thing if you learn how to use it properly. They’re great tools. Then, probably my biggest challenge right now is connectivity. Because we’re so remote, I have a really difficult time. Most of my clients are in the bigger cities and our Internet connection here is not the greatest, so I’m having to get creative about how I do things. For instance, I have storage on the cloud, because otherwise I’ll try to send a large PDF or a large AutoCAD drawing to a client and it’ll timeout, and they won’t get the entire thing. Sending it via mail on a jump drive or a disk is not always a great alternative for us because our mail service isn’t that great up here, because of the long distances. It can take up to a week just to get a parcel out of Anchorage. That’s our closest big town, but that’s 700 miles away.
POB: Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to get into the surveying business today?
McCLINTOCK: Obviously, a college degree is necessary these days, if for no other reason to stay abreast of the technology that’s necessary to do this business, because it’s changing so fast. My number-one thing I tell all of my interns is to get as much hands-on experience in the field as possible, working with a surveyor who’s been around the block more than a year or two, who really knows the business and can show you. A lot of the new guys can use their button pushers and data gatherers, but they don’t really know what they’re doing with the data. They have to hand that off to somebody else. Working with somebody who knows the entire business, from going out and collecting the data to doing the research and then bringing it in, and knowing what to do with the data, is really, really important … and a lot of guys are missing out on that.
POB: How do you stay on top of the latest trends and technologies?
McCLINTOCK: Of course, I do read POB magazine religiously. Trade magazines are a very good source. I’m also registered in Texas. Every year, I attend the Texas state convention because I have to keep my continuing education going. It’s a chance for me to talk with my brother and sister surveyors to see what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, what’s working and what’s not working. Then, of course, the tradeshows are there too, and it’s always neat to see the new gadgets and new gizmos and everything. I’m kind of a gadget guy.
POB: How has the surveying profession changed since you started and where do you see it heading in the future?
McCLINTOCK: When I first started, I was a rear chainman. The party chief was an old civil engineer. He actually lived to be over 100 years old. I started with the transit and steel tape, and we went from there to theodolites. When I went to the military, we used great big giant tellurometer boxes that were electronic distance meters. When I got back from Vietnam and was surveying for private companies, they had the Hewlett-Packard 3810, which was just a wonderful little box that sat on a tripod and would shoot over a mile. It was great. Now, we’re going with photogrammetric, long-range-sensing, infrared technology. The sky’s the limit. That’s where I think this is all going. I think a lot of stuff that we do as surveyors is now going to be done by either GIS people or engineering types of people, and I think the industry’s going where surveyors are going to be more and more leaned upon for their legal deeds — boundary retracements and reestablishments and those kinds of things — and things that technicians just can’t do.
Scott McClintock, PLS, has spent the past 25 years working in Alaska, which means taking on assignments that range from small lot retracements to environmental reclamation projects, often far away from home in rugged yet captivating conditions. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Solo Notes is a regular feature in POB magazine and highlights the experiences and strategies of solo surveyors and small business owners. To share your story in a future issue, please email Associate Editor Valerie King at firstname.lastname@example.org.