Boundary Hunters

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When David Webb describes a place called Andres Thicket, he calls it a "10 to 12-year cut-over," meaning the stretch of land was last cut 10 to 12 years ago and then left in order for the vegetation to grow back on its own.

As president of Webb Surveying in Hope, Arkansas, David knows quite a bit about what goes on in the six-county region served by his company. His father founded the business in 1978, surveying construction layouts, airports and commercial sites, such as Wal-Mart. Webb, however, considers his area of expertise as that of a "boundary hunter".

As such, he will tell you there really isn’t a place called Andres Thicket, although it recently–and quite literally– grabbed his attention. In reality, Andres is the name of a family that lived in a community called Sutton in southwestern Arkansas. "It’s a very rural part of the state and at one time was a thriving community where the Andres homestead was located," said Webb. "The traditional homestead now has been split up among the Andres family heirs into several smaller, equal tracts. The community has since dwindled to maybe a dozen dwellings. All the lots and streets still exist, but very few are open. The place is grown up with saplings and thick underbrush, but mostly it’s covered over with green briars."

When Webb recently was recommended as a surveyor for 16 acres of the old Andres homestead, he accepted the job and quickly learned that, while all boundary surveys can be rough, this one had its own obstacles. "The biggest challenge on this job," he said, "was the actual cutting of the boundary lines. Both the south and the north side of the property are a quarter of a mile long. Either end of the property is slightly more than 500 feet long. All of that area had to be chopped out. Cross vines and briars covered the area like a blanket. When you let any piece of land go for over a decade without cutting it becomes a thicket." Although terrain can cause serious problems, based on his prior experience in the county and his travels along back roads to reach the spot where the surveying job would begin, Webb found terrain itself–underbrush aside–wasn’t all that difficult at the Andres thicket."We had to crawl over one or two trees and literally fight our way through the underbrush and briars," he commented. And one thing David Webb knows all too well is rough terrain and thickets. At 55, he still thinks about the hard, difficult work he was exposed to as a 12-year-old boy. "Every Saturday–and I mean every single Saturday–I went to work with my father. My job was to drag a chain. We went to the job site and, for example, if we had to survey an acre or even 20 acres, we had to work our way through the type of undergrowth that we found at Andres thicket. That happened more times than I care to remember." Back then, he said, his dad was the boss and, "I was the worker. Once he set up the instrument at the corner where we were to start from, he would release the needle on the compass of the instrument, turn it to a point that he felt was about right and we would start chopping a line and placing stakes every 100 feet. If we missed the corner at the end of the line, say by 13 feet," Webb said, "we would go back to the first stake and move it over 12 feet. Then we would go back to the next stake and move it over 11 feet and so forth. We did that many, many times." Webb said this "chaining" would take two hours to chop one way and two hours to chop back the other way. "And," he added, "we were guaranteed to miss the corner."

That early boyhood experience and the hard work that it entailed could well explain why David Webb, in 2006, paid close attention when his son, Jonathan, talked him into buying the company’s first GPS system.

That year, the RTK GPS spread spectrum radio board with an extended range of up to 2.5 miles was introduced by Topcon Positioning Systems. The board is integrated into the Topcon HiPer Lite+ receiver, providing an extended range for improved job site performance. The unit increases radio range by 65 percent, from 1.5 miles to up to 2.5 miles.

"It made the job a lot easier," Jonathan said. "Before GPS it would take us a day and a half to run out a square mile. With the Topcon HiPer Lite+, we can do the same job in about half the time."

The crew that tackled the Andres surveying job was made up of David, Jonathan Webb, who served as "party chief," and crew member Jason Griffith, who was responsible for cutting line trails. "I spent most of the time weaving in and around vines to stay ahead of my father and Jason cutting behind me" Jonathan explained. "I carried a regular five-foot pole with my Topcn RTK unit on top of it held in place by a bracket. That day I got ripped to shreds by the briars," Jonathan said. "While Jason and my Dad did the hacking, I tried to pick the best route to stay ahead of them. It took us two days to survey that 20-acre tract."

When they arrived at Sutton, David Webb said, the first thing crew members did was to locate the highest, cleanest place they could find to set up the GPS base unit, "and get control by hitting at least two points and sometimes three." The best place to set up a base station, Webb explained, is to look for clear sky overhead. That enables the base station to better receive satellite signals, thus enhancing the accuracy of the work. "The clearer the sky all the way to the horizon, the better," he said. "The next thing we did was find the high spot. High is good if you’re going to be branching out. We have used a five-watt radio and reached up to five miles. But high ground isn’t nearly as critical if you are going to work in close proximity to the base, as we did at Andres thicket," Webb said. "We were able to find a spot less than a quarter of a mile from the tract to be surveyed where the sky was open," he said.

The crew entered the thicket carrying the GPS unit, a Kaiser blade, metal detectors, a shovel, metal stakes, and ribbon. Said Webb, "We went in chopping." To hack through the briars, the crew used an ax "that is razor sharp," said Webb. "If you take those axes and cut less than a 45-degree angle–20 or 30 degrees, for example–that thing will slice through sharp briars like butter. But only up to a point. After that things start to go south pretty quickly," he said. "The first thousand feet of marking the boundary of the property went pretty well, but by the time we made our next 300 feet, made a turn north for more than 500 feet, then made a turn back to the west for another 1,320 feet, I was aching. I still have shoulder ailments from swinging the ax that day."

Jonathan Webb has this perspective. "We ran into lower level brush, briars and young saplings. It was rough cutting to get through it. We had a blade on the end of a five-foot piece of wood with a hook on the end. You use that to grab vines and cut through them." As party chief, Jonathan would walk ahead for 100 feet, fix to a point on the line and wait for the crew to "clean out" to him. When they reached Jonathan, he moved down another 100 feet, fixed to a point on the same line and the crew cut out to him again, and so forth.

While the GPS system dramatically reduces errors in data gathering and eases time-consuming labor, Webb pointed out, like anything else, GPS has to be monitored closely. "If you’re not careful, or when there’s heavy canopy, the unit–although it’s
rare–will give you a false reading. For instance, if we take two or three observations on a corner and two of the three observations agree, then we’re all right. However, if for whatever reason the observations don’t agree, we take the rover and turn the pole upside down for a few seconds," Webb said. "The instrument then loses its fix. We then turn it right side up and take a second shot. If you had a bad shot, it won’t do it a second time. If you take three shots, two of them generally agree. But, again, getting a bad shot very seldom happens."

To locate the corner posts on the property, Webb’s team looked for visible evidence. Evidence could be a fence, perhaps, or maybe an old tree on a stretch that doesn’t have fencing any more, or telltale signs on the ground. But the biggest help of all, said Webb, is a U.S. Government topographical (quad) map. "People won’t believe what an invaluable resource those maps are," Webb commented.

To lay out the boundaries on the job, once party chief Jonathan "was on line," Webb set a stake at that particular spot. "We make sure we are able to see from one stake to the next. We always have at least two stakes, one inside the other to define the line," he explained. However, to give the land owner "something a little more permanent," Webb said, the work crew used axes to face both the front and back of "witness trees," provided the trees were off to the side of the line. "If it’s really sparse and there’s nothing else, we let it go," he said. "When the bark is knocked off and the tree heals, the scars will always be there. In addition, he said, ribbon is hung on trees about every 50 feet.

The property owners, George and Bobbie Jean Smith, had walked the boundary line (or what they assumed was the boundary line) prior to the survey. After the survey, George Smith said, "We just followed the trail from one corner stake to the next." Smith monitored the survey team part of one day. "I was amazed that using the GPS unit, at one corner, Jonathan said `It’s within a foot or two.’ David, dug down in the dirt and found an old pipe used as a corner stake less than a foot from where Jonathan had the pole holding the GPS unit." If the crew has to leave the area for any reason, Webb noted, each "witness tree" has a nail driven low and perpendicular to a line from the witness tree to a pin. The nail is hammered in low on the tree so that if the tree is cut down the nail remains in the stump. "If you have at least two trees, you can take a tape and pull the distance from the nail on one tree to the nail on another tree and intersect the two distances back into the corner if the corner is gone," he said. Webb is required to log the distance and the direction from the tree to the corner. If each corner has those two witness trees and a skidder comes through cutting trees and accidentally snags the corner monument pulling it out of the ground, a crew member can always return and put the corner monument back in place without having to call the surveyor back.

While all this activity is going on in the field "office work" is threaded throughout the work project, Webb said. Necessary deeds and other paper work have to be in hand, after which Webb gets his computer and does a search on what has been done previously in the area. To accomplish this you have to have good coordinate geometry software. That software is used to do most of the calculation. "You also use CAD software and, in addition, you need access to government office land survey notes-they have the notes and the plans that accompany the notes at the courthouse," he said. In the case of the Andres thicket property the notes and plans also are on record at Little Rock. Other sources of useful information are websites of other state surveyors who have worked the area. All said, Webb Surveying has taken advanced GPS technology, sophisticated computer and software technology, and mixed in a little old-fashioned surveying "street smarts" to successfully make the transition from "way back then" to "right now".

G. C. Skipper is an award-winning freelance writer whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including the construction, trucking, technical and travel industries.

There is a place called Andres Thicket

George and Bobbie Smith, owners of the property, laughingly disagreed there was no place called Andres Thicket. George, the great-grandson of the original Andres­ Charles Montgomery Andres, a Civil War veteran who settled on the land in 1870­said, "The first thing we purchased was a sign that reads, `Andres Thicket Farm.’ We’re going to grow three things: ticks, chiggers and … thicket!"

Smith at one time owned the 16-acre tract and sold it to a cousin. Fifteen years later, he bought it back to build a vacation/ weekend house that will eventually be the couple’s retirement home. "My great-grandfather settled this place in 1870," Smith said. "He build a dog-trot house on a small rise near the western edge of the tract. We’re building a dog-trot within 20 yards of where he built the original house."

Smith said an accurate survey was important. "All the other tracts are family owned, and knowing exactly where each tract starts and stops keeps peace in the family." A few weeks after the survey, a mulching machine that clears up to two to four acres a day (trees six-inches in diameter and under), was brought in and transformed the place to much the way it looked when he was a kid, walking these piney woods. The first thing the mulching machine did, with its six-foot-wide rolling blade-studded drum, was go around the entire boundary of the property. The operator simply followed the trail of ribbon left by the surveying crew.

A 2.217Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE