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Mike Branham, at left, and Ryan Miller check their coordinates at a base station in the Schoolcraft State Game Refuge. The radio antenna behind them broadcasts a GPS coordinate that helps establish a permanent marker on county land. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Crew uses GPS to survey entire county

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By the time Mike Branham and Ryan Miller finish their quest, they will know every inch of Hubbard County.

They've embarked on the Herculean task of surveying the county, bit by bit, stake by stake, monument by monument, restoring a government survey conducted between 1868 and the 1870s.

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"When I started we chained everything," said Branham, Hubbard County deputy surveyor, referring to the practice of surveyors dragging a heavy metal measuring chain through hostile terrain and some not so hostile.

"Can you imagine pulling that chain through 3½ miles of swamp?"

Instead he and Miller are using high tech GPS technology to find existing points, but the swamp is still terrain they must maneuver through.

They're resetting section lines, corners, quarter sections and meander corners, points where a section line hits a lake and meanders around it.

They've been working in the Schoolcraft State Game Refuge and township area, remote, difficult country pockmarked with forests, wetlands and rugged terrain.

Of the county's known 3,475 markers, about 2,100 have been re-set. It's called re-monumentation.

"It was never really kept up and nobody has any jurisdiction over it," Branham said. "Nobody's required to do them so basically Hubbard County has done a fairly good job as far as northern counties go, getting them monumented."

It's a tedious process that entails first putting in National Geodetic Survey markers about every three miles.

NGS is a system of regional coordinates that provides a foundation for mapping, transportation and engineering applications.

The 85 NGS markers already installed "are a big deal. They cost a ton," Branham said. That's why the county asks that people leave them intact. They're an aluminum rod driven "to refusal," as Branham puts it, 60 to 80 feet deep, encased in a PVC tube.

From there, Branham and Miller set up a "HARN" station, for High Accuracy Reference Network.

It's a geek's paradise. The surveying high tech world is full of acronyms, geek-speak and initials.

A HARN is a statewide or regional upgrade of coordinates using GPS observations.

The men set up a base station near the geodetic marker and conduct an RTK (Real Time Kinematic) GPS survey. In plain English, real time surveys are remarkably accurate to within one centimeter from anywhere on earth.

Until the Cold War ended, "real time" coordinates were forbidden by the military to be broadcast. Surveyors had to use civilian codes to refrain from revealing sensitive troop positions. They were less precise.

The base station sends a broadcast to a device called a rover, which Miller operates out in the field. A female voice gives him coordinates so he can place a monument in the ground that will have GPS coordinates permanently established. It is illegal for members of the public to remove a survey monument.

So far the surveyors haven't found many of the original markers from two centuries ago.

A map behind Branham's desk tracks the permanent markers recently placed, marked by red pins.

But it's the blank areas on the map they're working on now, the painstaking effort to establish the new markers and record them.

The base station can only broadcast on 4 watts of power, via a Bluetooth short-range wireless network. In an open field, it can send a signal up to 5 miles.

"Up here in the tuleys, we reach 1 to 2 miles," Branham said. Tree cover hampers coverage.

If markers are missing, sometimes the surveyors can find "bearing trees," actual trees with directions to re-establish the missing points. But 150 years after the initial survey was conducted, few bearing trees remain standing.

Miller and Branham are making slow, steady progress. They're resetting on average 100 missing monuments a year.

The necessity of taking on the wild and wooly Schoolcraft area came from township officers. The surveyors had been concentrating on the more densely populated areas, along the bigger lakes.

When a township requests a survey, it usually foots the bill. The Schoolcraft area was unique, as home to a state game refuge that is shared by many county residents and the public, so the township won't have to pay the cost.

Residents in the region, especially along the township's lakes and river, were unable to sell their property without a survey.

The cost to hire private surveyors was prohibitive and in most cases, exceeded the cost of the property.

"To even put a couple corners in up there would cost thousands of dollars," said surveyor Tom Miller, owner of Arro land surveyors.

And while the county won't survey private land, it can set up the monuments enabling private surveyors to do the lot-by-lot measurements that define private property boundaries.

The county surveyors now spend about 50 percent of their time working for state forestry projects.

"We have a lot of private cabins encroaching on county and state land," Branham said. Some are unintentional; many are not.

It used to be something overlooked. But land values dictate that government agencies correct the records now.

If landowners are encroaching on land that is deemed public, the governmental body that owns it will either enter into a lease arrangement or sell it outright to the property owner.

In the case of the Schoolcraft Game Refuge, good news awaits some adjoining property owners there. Branham and Miller found 400 extra feet of property that will belong to private owners once the survey records are certified and entered into the county recording system.

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