Surveyor Storytime with Joe: Seeing the Forest Through the Trees

7 min read

Nearly 20 years ago, when I was attending Southeast Community College in Milford, Nebraska, I was required to do a co-op—a required internship taking place during an entire academic quarter. I was able to complete mine with JEO during the fall. Most of the time, I provided supplemental support on construction-staking projects for a day or two at a time, usually working in Lincoln or Omaha. I helped where I could, but the crew chiefs had the majority of the responsibility.  


About halfway through the internship, we had a project that required us to perform a topographic (topo) survey of a large tract of land and a creek for a flood-control project our water resources engineers were designing. As we neared the end of the survey, all that remained was the creek portion. The creek itself was dry most of the year, and the flowline wasn’t very deep compared to the surrounding terrain, but there were a lot of trees nearby. Because there were so many trees, we couldn’t rely on GPS to perform the topo survey of the creek, so we had to utilize the total station. For those not familiar with surveying, this is the instrument you may have seen that sits on a tripod. It records horizontal and vertical angles and measures the distance to a reflective prism (target), which is held by a surveyor. We refer to the station as the “gun” since the internal electronic distance measuring device “shoots” an invisible beam of light to the target, which was mounted on an adjustable height pole carried by another surveyor. Each topographic survey crew is typically made up of two people: an instrument person and a rod person.


For the entire week, my crew chief, Corey, and I traversed and surveyed the two-mile-long creek. With fall setting in, we tried to make best use of the daylight each day. We would leave the hotel at dawn so we could begin our setup as soon as it was light enough to work. It was only a 10-minute drive from the hotel to the project site, but we often saw deer or turkeys on the way. This had a big impact on my mindset. The work could be relatively repetitive, but the possibility of seeing wildlife around each corner made it seem more adventurous.


By this point in my co-op, I was learning how to use the survey equipment well and realizing where we needed to take each “shot,” but I was still not quite fluent with the entire process. It wasn’t too long into the first setup that I got a lesson about surveying in a heavily wooded area. On site, the more experienced surveyor typically runs the prism pole since each shot requires a specific code that the CADD software uses to apply the proper symbol to each point in the drawing. Specific codes would create line strings in the CADD software. If coded properly by the field surveyors, linear features such as the edge of a road or fence lines would be automatically drawn in the CADD software. If the lines were coded incorrectly, the CADD drawing would be a mess and would require the drafters to spend a considerable amount of time adjusting it. For this creek project, there were several sharp breaks in grade (breaklines) that we needed to measure to accurately model the terrain. There was a certain degree of skill required to look ahead and know which breaklines you would be terminating and where to start new ones. All the instrument person had to do was aim at the prism, take a shot, and type in the code that the rod person shared over the radio. I had been using the code list for several weeks by this point, and understood the logic behind the linework strings, but I had to commit a lot more bandwidth to being a rod person than an experienced crew chief like Corey had to.


So, off we went. I started out behind the gun, with Corey at the prism pole. Corey took no more than a few seconds to analyze the site and think about how he wanted to number his breaklines. The first few cross-sections were along a gravel road in an area relatively free of trees, but it wasn’t long until we had to contend with trees. Corey stopped in tree-free openings and radioed the topo code and rod height to me, and I would take the shot and signal him to move on once it was stored in the data collector. As we started hitting our stride and he got further away from my location, it became difficult for me to spot the prism through the trees. I could track his blaze orange vest with my naked eye, but finding the six-inch-square target through the scope of the total station was much more difficult. This flustered me a bit since it was the first setup of the first day, and we had a lot of work ahead of us.


I’m sure this would be frustrating for any crew chief, but I remember Corey being patient with me. After fighting through the first setup, my eyes strained searching for the target, so we decided to switch roles. I became the rod person, and Corey ran the gun. While I knew the code list and the logic behind the linework codes, I had only worked in open areas where a crew chief could watch me and straighten me out if I relayed the wrong code over the radio. This time, I remember being a bit anxious about keeping the breakline codes straight, and not switching the line codes. “Is this breakline 5, or breakline 6? Oh wait; I stopped breakline 6 at the last cross-section and started breakline 8.” Thoughts like these constantly swirled in my head. Corey was several hundred feet away and couldn’t walk to me every few minutes to tell me which codes to use. We had a deadline to meet, and I didn’t want to be the reason we didn’t meet it. We had to be efficient with our time.


It turns out running the pole was the right place for me. Corey is known for his eagle eyes, and he tracked that prism through some thick brush. There were times I would lose him behind the gun, but I’d regularly hear his voice over the radio: “Go a foot left … raise the pole a foot … got the shot.” With each setup, I became more confident in my ability to use the proper codes. Everything started to crystalize for me. I was able to think a couple of cross-sections ahead and see which breaklines would be terminating, where to begin new ones, and how to number them to keep them straight in my head.


This was a new experience for me, and my view of being a land surveyor changed because of it. Instead of seeing my role as a series of small tasks that I had to consciously think about, I began to see it through a logical lens where I could identify the next obvious thing that needed to be done. Since I didn’t need to commit all my bandwidth to simply not messing up, I felt like I could view the project through the eyes of the engineers and the client. This gave me a greater sense of ownership in the project and further motivated me. This also allowed me to relax a bit and fully appreciate the scenery and the rural Nebraska setting during harvest time.


To this day, this is one of my favorite projects. I’m not sure if it was the nature of the work, the support from Corey, the need to meet the deadline, or a combination of all three, but something just clicked. It was certainly a good feeling—and one I have experienced again and again over my 17-year career as I have taken on new challenges and roles. I have learned that I cannot force those moments when uncertainty falls away and is replaced by confidence. However, the pursuit of those moments, and the knowledge that they may be just around the next creek bend, keeps me forging ahead.