Bad Backsights: Potpourri

Why I Love the Profession of Surveying

I’ve been surveying since 1980 when I was 19 years old. I’ve been very fortunate in that I had a series of great teachers and mentors in my formative years as I have alluded to many times. My experience in the profession over the ensuing 43 years has been a veritable dog’s breakfast of different types of work in every kind of environment imaginable, from sea level to 8000 feet up, from 118 above to 35 below zero. I’ve done construction layout, railroad layout, bridge and powerplant layout, control over hundreds of miles of corridors, forensic surveys, mining claims, cadastral surveys, riparian boundaries, land development, environmental, subsidence, bathymetric, volumetric, as-built, property and ALTA surveys, and probably a few more I can’t think of right now. Truly it is the variety of work that has sustained my spirit over the years. I have a short attention span and too much of any one thing eventually bores me. Lucky for me that I work in the least boring profession of all time.

The historian in me has always enjoyed coming across little tidbits like:

  • An 1880 Mining Claim in the Tombstone Mining District, signed by three fellows named Earp and witnessed by some guy named Holliday. One of the Earps was the surveyor who laid out the claim (might have been the one that got the girl in that Tombstone movie…);
  • A smithy-forged axe head, stamped 68 (probably the year), found in the scattered remnants of ghost town Aurora on the mining claim owned by a guy named Clemens, better known as Twain;
  • A huge document recorded in multiple states, creating the checkerboard lands that financed the first railroad across the nation, at least through California, Nevada, and Utah, signed by a gentleman named U.S. Grant;
  • A similar document a few years later across the southern portion of the west, signed by some fellow named Roosevelt;
  • A Swamp Land Survey prepared along the Sacramento River by A. Von Schmidt, just one puzzle piece to consider while trying to recompute the bounds and area of the filled-in original channel of the American River at its confluence with the Sacramento River;
  • Retracing the grant deed for lands that once belonged to Erle Stanley Gardner, of Perry Mason fame.

The storyteller in me has enjoyed the unusual circumstances and extraordinary projects that I often found myself in, such as:

  • Surveying the limits of a bombing range so the Navy could build a fence to keep protestors away from the recently bombed remains of an historic ghost town;
  • Working on a supersecret military base where the daily instructions at the guard gate might include things like “from 0800 to 1100 do not look east” or “do not remove obsidian nodules from the site”;
  • Standing behind my instrument atop a ridge, staking a powerline into the valley below and looking down on an F-111 screeching by;
  • Sharing two sets of waders with three guys to a site across a shallow but vigorously flowing river, meaning that one guy (me) got to make multiple trips, one of which was carrying a guy and a couple more for equipment—not funny at the time, but made a good recollection at the bar later;
  • Getting trucks stuck in mud, in snowbanks and crossing gullies and once with four flat tires courtesy of desert greasewood, breaking the frame on a truck, working on a week-long project 300 miles from the office with two trucks, one with a starter that went out on day one and the other with a battery that wouldn’t stay charged. Hotel ritual became park them next to each other, jump start the dead battery truck with the dead starter truck then push start the second truck with the first truck (every day for a week);
  • Checking out the Rainbow Falls at Yosemite through the instrument while waiting for the tourists to move out of the way so I could grab a backsite shot;
  • Being ferried from peak to peak by helicopter for some mountain traversing.
  • Debating on how to tell the boss about the Voodoo shrine we found in the forest (instead of the quarter corner he sent us after…).

The naturalist in me has enjoyed (or mostly so) working across the west and encountering: Wild horses, deer, antelope elk, mountain lions, coyotes, badgers, chukar, sage hens, roadrunners, owls, eagles and vultures, an extremely out-of-place herd of buffalo running off through the desert (after escaping from some ranch) and a really angry Polled Hereford bull that charged my parked survey truck and put a nasty dent in the driver side door, not to mention scorpions (turn over any dried cow patty in the northern desert and behold the little bastards), tarantulas, rattlesnakes, all kinds of lizards and lest we forget flora: cholla, Joshua trees, poison oak, blackberry brambles, the aforementioned greasewood and untold miles of sagebrush and rabbit brush, to which I am deathly allergic.

And finally, the explorer in me has been stimulated by discovering:

Abandoned mines, abandoned mill sites, ore car tracks with their cute little mini railroad spikes, ghost towns (bombed and un-bombed), desert springs, a wild apple orchard grown feral when the ranch went bust back in the distant past, fossils, crystals large and small, clear and green and red (some of a highly poisonous nature like realgar), turquoise, petroglyphs, arrowheads, mountain streams, caves, pine nuts, chokecherries, elder berries, 150 year-old whiskey bottles, 80 year-old beer cans, license plates from the 1920’s.

And then of course, there are the monuments we all know and love. When looking for section corners, I have, like all of us, sometimes found what was called for and sometimes I found something different:

Redwood posts within or without rock mounds, notched stones, unnotched stones, a rotted willow branch in a tiny mound, car axles, t-posts, iron pipes, drill steel, a chiseled x on a granite outcrop, a pump handle, and numerous railroad spikes. I’m still waiting to identify my first mound and pit.

So, the kid that read Mark Twain obsessively and grew up exploring in the hills and dragging old bottles and cool rocks and weird critters home, much to my mother’s dismay, the teenager that read Ed Abbey and Bernard DeVoto and Loren Eiseley and spent most of his high school years off-roading in the mountains and deserts, grew up to be the professional land surveyor who pretty much still does all those same things. The deck was stacked. I couldn’t have been anything else.

Partial Trial Transcript

Judge: Please state your name for the court:

Witness: Myron Muneliter

Judge: Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

Witness: I do

Judge: Thank you Mr. Muneliter. Mr. Sharke you may begin your interrogation.

Attorney Sharke: Thank you, Your Honor. Mr. Muneliter are you employed by a firm, or self-employed?

Witness: I am a Survey Project Manager for Dewey, Cheatham, and Howe Engineers.

Attorney Sharke: I see. And is that a full-time position, with salary and benefits?

Witness: Yes sir.

Attorney Sharke: And in your capacity as a Project Surveyor at Dewey, Cheatham, and Howe Engineers, do you deal with clients and prepare proposals and contracts?

Witness: Yes sir.

Attorney Sharke: I see. And in addition to your full-time position at Dewey, Cheatham and Howe Engineers, you have, on occasion taken on side work, which you presumably complete in the evenings and on weekends, is that true?

Witness: Yes sir.

Attorney Sharke: And if I may enquire, why would you not direct these clients to contract these surveying services through your “day” job. That is to say, why are you, in effect competing with your employer?

Witness: Dewey specializes in large projects and our rates are very high. We typically can’t service small client projects.

Attorney Sharke: So, your firm does not usually take on these “small” jobs. And you would prefer to help these clients rather than give them a reference to a competitor who does take on “small” projects?

Witness: Well sir, I will have already evaluated the project needs and even though my company can’t do it because of our rates, I feel an obligation to help out these small clients.

Attorney Sharke: I see. And do you use your company’s survey equipment to complete these “small” jobs?

Witness: Yes sir.

Attorney Sharke: And does your employer approve of your use of their equipment and truck?

Witness: They have never said no in the past. It’s kind of a grey area.

Attorney Sharke: Ah, so the topic has never come up. Do you suppose your company has any sort of official policy regarding taking on side work?

Witness: Not that I am aware of.

Attorney Sharke: If I may be so bold, wouldn’t that be something you want to clearly establish before embarking on these “small” jobs?

Witness: Yes sir, I suppose so.

Attorney Sharke: Yes, I would think so too. May I enquire as to whether you carry your own general liability insurance and/or errors and omissions insurance?

Witness: No sir. That is an expense I cannot afford, since I only take on this work intermittently.

Attorney Sharke: Well, that is unfortunate, indeed, given the facts of this case. Let me move on to another line of inquiry. Did you perform a diligent search of public records to ascertain the existence of the private access easement that is at the center of this dispute?

Witness: Yes sir, I did an on-line search of the Recorders office records.

Attorney Sharke: You did? And yet, somehow you failed to find the recorded document from 1965. The document establishing the easement that my client has relied upon for access to the public street, across your client’s property.

Witness: Yes. I realize now that I should have searched for documents granted by my client’s predecessor in interest. It was an unfortunate mistake on my part.

Attorney Sharke: I agree. It was indeed an unfortunate mistake. And when your client constructed his new fence blocking access to my client’s property, that was an unfortunate mistake, as well. Would you please tell the court who you believe bears the liability for these mistakes and who will be responsible for reimbursing my client for the damages these mistakes have caused him?

Witness: I guess that would be me.

Attorney Sharke: I see. I think we can all agree that you would have been better off to carry some professional insurance for instances such as these. Well Mr. Muneliter, once this case is settled, I feel confident that the Board of Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors will be looking into certain issues of ethics and competence. No further questions Your Honor.

Judge: Mr. Muneliter, you may step down. I will remind you that may be called to the stand again and you remain under oath.

Your Client ‘Karen’

‘Karen’ most typically works for state agencies or on occasion for a regional or county entity. She (or he, or – pronoun of their choice…) puts the ‘B” in… uh, bureaucrat. Equal parts condescending and dismissive, from the moment Karen’s department engaged you to do a survey, this person owns you. It starts at the scope and fee. “I need more detail” is said more than once and goes hand-in-hand with “I really think you could word this better,” which translates to “I think very little of your third-grade writing level.” Another likely comment is along the lines of, “While I appreciate the time you took to make this illustration of the survey, it still seems too vague. Don’t you have Google Earth over there?” Ouch.

Karen wants it in both feet and meters, state plane and Universal Trans Mercator. Karen wants it by Tuesday. Karen apologizes for the delay in payment, she just hasn’t had time to fully review the invoice from two months ago. Would you mind resending it? Karen schedules her vacation for the exact date that she expects delivery of your survey. Karen can’t put you in touch with the people who have the gate keys, you’ll have to try someone else on the staff. Karen doesn’t know who that might be. Karen wonders if it would be too much trouble for you to shake off that dust before setting foot in her office.

Karen doesn’t understand how such a simple thing as a bathymetric survey of the mouth of the river could cost so much, maybe she will shop around a bit. Karen says it’s “situated” not “situate.” Karen used her phone app to measure that parking lot herself and there’s no way your mapped 2.8 acres is correct. It’s at least 3.2. Karen thinks your logo is old-fashioned. All the other firms she deals with have modern-looking logos.

Hey Recruit

  • No boundary resolution ever lines up completely with what they taught you in the GME 152 class.
  • Sometimes the spot where the crew put the base station is less than optimal. The real world is not a treeless plain.
  • The truck does not load itself. If we plan to leave the office at 7AM, then you’d better get here ten minutes early and start loading.
  • Whoa there pardner, that outfit is not gonna fly in this office. I know we’re casual around here but there’s a limit to everything. Maybe consider wearing shoes.
  • You need to come to work every day. Remote work is for people who can work alone and are used to the system.
  • I appreciate how much work you put into making this map look absolutely perfect, but don’t you think 200 hours is a bit much for a parcel map?
  • Here’s a thought—maybe put your cell phone away until break time.
  • So, you have a degree in Geomatics but you’ve never run a level loop? Really?
  • You should get a real calculator to keep on your desk. (Reverse Polish Notation is a thing—look it up.)

About the Author

Carl C. de Baca, PS

Carl Baca, PLS, is a Nevada and California licensed land surveyor. He served as President of the Nevada Association of Land Surveyors, and has served on the Board of Governors and Board of Directors of the National Society of Professional Surveyors. He owned a business serving the mining industry for 11 years.