We’re With Google: What I Learned as a Russian (River) Spy

"Don't mind us. Just passing through."

By Frederick Reimers
Photos by Brian Kelley/The Freshwater Trust

California's Russian River is definitely the trashiest place the Google Trekker has visited. The Trekker is the portable version of Google's Street View camera, the lens-studded orb that trolls the world's roadways capturing 360-degree images of everything in sight. It's visited some of the world's most iconic spots, but on this August day it's lashed to a tiny cataraft of the sort most at home on stocked bass ponds. I'm at the oars, feeling a bit smug, like a fanboy flying the Millennium Falcon. But so far, Google's microprocessors have stored images of a huge rusted boiler half-buried in a sandbar, crushed 1970s sedans stacked on the riverbank to prevent erosion, and throngs of half-naked citizens tottering around the shallows like featherless ducks.

Playing laptop river runner is a far cry from floating through the Grand Canyon with the sun on your back, to say nothing of the honest-to-God thrill of punching the V-wave at Lava Falls.

"You with the military?" one guy asks with a knowing look.

"We're with Google," I say. He nods, confused, but impressed.

Since 2012, the Trekker has been hiked to Everest Base Camp, carried through the ruins of Ankor Wat, and hauled across the Arabian desert atop a camel. It's also been rowed down the Grand Canyon, where every 2.5 seconds, the 15-lens sphere captured digital images in every direction but straight down. On Google maps you can play laptop river runner anytime you like, clicking through chunks of the canyon and spinning your field of view left, right and straight up. Not that you'd really want to. The experience is clunky and tedious—a far cry from floating through the canyon with the sun on your back, to say nothing of the honest-to-God thrill of punching the V-wave at Lava Falls.

Has this gone too far? Should we really be promulgating this sedentary, online life at the expense of getting people outdoors? Americans are disconnected enough from nature without removing yet another reason to step out the front door and see the world for themselves. Besides, Google's plans to map the entire earth from every conceivable angle is just plain creepy. German citizens protested Street View so vehemently that Google stopped shooting there in 2011.

Privacy issues aside, shouldn't some places remain shrouded in mystery?

This thing won't drive itself . . . yet. The author at the oars of the Google raft.
This thing won't drive itself . . . yet. The author at the oars of the Google raft.

Those considerations are far from my mind as I pilot the Google orb down the Russian River. This mission is about more than virtual tourism; the Trekker is a powerful conservation tool. Sure, the curious dude I met on the river will be able log onto Google any day now and see his blurred-out face staring agape at the camera.

We've Got Our Eyes on You: Each of the Trekker's 15 lenses captures a high-resolution image every 2.5 seconds.
We've Got Our Eyes on You: Each of the Trekker's 15 lenses captures a high-resolution image every 2.5 seconds.

But he and anyone else with an internet connection should also be able to spot the coho salmon flitting through redwood- shaded pools. The Russian contains a stubborn vestige population of endangered salmon and steelhead, which is why Google has partnered with Oregon nonprofit The Freshwater Trust (TFT) to launch a conservation project here. The Trekker is the indispensible key to TFTs new program to map the entire watershed in order to optimize conservation efforts there.

TFT has already used satellite images, USGS soils data, NOAA climate data, and a half-dozen other inputs to create a detailed picture. Along with instruments to measure water temps, dissolved oxygen, and phosphorus levels, the Trekker's imagery will provide the final pieces of the data puzzle. TFT's scientists can use the pictures to model how much shade the river gets, 365 days a year. That info is crucial for the temperature-sensitive salmon that spend their summers in the Russian's drought-stricken pools. Trekker shots can also pinpoint which spots need habitat restoration work. (Hello, junk cars.)

We are already spending billions on water quality fixes—$6 billion per year in the Farm Bill alone. "We're just not spending it effectively. This mapping should change that," says TFT's Joe Whitworth.

The Trekker program, along with Google's computing muscle, will allow scientists to map watersheds in a matter of days rather than years. Google has loaned its cameras out to more than 200 organizations, ranging from tourism agencies to the Nature Conservancy, though TFT's program is the most scientific.

For a company whose motto was once "Don't be evil," Google is as cutthroat as they come—most of us can't even begin to suspect how they'll monetize all the data they're gathering worldwide. For now, though, I'm happy to learn about the Trekker loan program, and that there's real hope for, as Whitworth puts it, "leveraging technology for conservation." It seems right that a company worth $400 billion should pitch in. Especially if I can play with their toys.

— This feature first appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Canoe & Kayak.

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