Photo: Kristian

Photo: Kristian

Kristian Gustavson has managed to chisel a burgeoning career out of exploring waterways. His current, long-term project for his organization Below the Surface, is called Riverview. The plan is to make something akin to Google Streetview for America's rivers. It's all part of his mission to save the waterways.

Canoe & Kayak contributor David Hanson talked to Gustavson as he floated down the Apalachicola River in a Voyageur canoe with John Ruskey of Quapaw Canoe Company.

What is Riverview and how does it work?
Kristian Gustavson: The purpose of Riverview is to build a cyber infrastructure of waterway data. We want to enhance recreational use of rivers and also help the scientific community share their work. The basic Riverview maps we're creating will lay a foundation for scientists and others to layer data like water quality, stream gauge, campsites, paddle trails, etc. There's not really a consistent source for that on rivers right now. So we're working with USGS, EPA, Google, and others to make it happen.

So how do you make that happen? How do you go from a Voyageur canoe to a river-length, 360-degree video panorama of a river?
We're using a tripod-mounted camera with four wide-angle lenses to capture the 360 degrees. It can shoot at 15 frames per second, but we've notched it down significantly to save on data storage. It's high-def. We can stitch the images together and make video that you can move around. From there we can layer in a lot of information like you see on Streetview or Google Earth.

We're shooting constantly as we go down and syncing with GPS so we can tie each frame to the GPS coordinate. That's how we'll eventually connect the searchable geographic location with the Riverview video.

Sounds like a ton of work. 107 miles of non-stop video mapping?
Yeah. This is our pilot project on the Apalachicola so we're doing most of that post-production work ourselves. But our next river will be the Sacramento in California. By then, Google will be more directly tied in with equipment and post-production. They are the experts in that sense, and in getting the technology out there. Going forward, we'll basically plan the expedition and provide Google with the data and instruction on how we want to see it.

So where are you right now?
We're paddling down the Chipola Cut of the Apalachicola River. We're going to stop and resupply at the landing and then explore a bit of the Dead Lakes before getting back on the Apalachicola River.


So this is a crazy combination: Ruskey's hand-carved Voyageur canoe that dates back centuries and your high-tech camera equipment and Internet software. What does that look like on the river?
It's pretty epic. We've got Pelican cases and dry bags everywhere. The camera's mounted on an improvised tri-pod about eight feet above the water. We definitely get some looks from people in boats or fishing from the banks, and that helps us know how this is perceived. Some people might see it as intrusive, especially out here with folks living on houseboats or staying in hunting camps beside the river.

We don't want people to think we're "The Man" coming around with cameras. The whole goal of this project is to enhance the level of protection afforded to waterways by aggregating information and giving the users of these waterways more of a voice. I firmly believe in the Use it or lose it philosophy, and this is a way to help showcase that by showing who is out here using these waterways.

So your goal is ten major rivers in the next three years and thirty in the next six. What's next?
After the Apalachicola and then the Sacramento River, we're looking at the Chicago-Illinois River system, which is where I'm from. Then going out to either the Cuyahoga, or Potomac or Hudson, then back to the Chattahoochee-Apalachicola. By then we'll be bringing in even more technology like more dynamic water quality testing and laser imaging, which is a great tool for understanding erosion or accretion.

So down the road, is it possible for, say, Terry in North Dakota, to hear about the project and get some basic equipment to paddle and make a 360-degree video of the river in his backyard for Riverview?
It's certainly possible. We've rolled out a mobile App called Riverview. It's available for most iPod and Androids. By the time we've launched the Sacramento Riverview project, we hope to have that App capable of sharing information for river users. So people can take a picture – the good, the bad, and the ugly – of the river they are on and share that. It's not just for aesthetics. The EPA, who's partnered with us, can actually quantify the number of people and the types of activities on a river. So this can become a powerful sort of crowd-sourcing tool to help shape water policy by providing real-time data on waterway users and what they encounter on their rivers.

So what is it about rivers for you? You grew up in Illinois. Is it that All-American Huck Finn attraction?
I've always been in the water as a kid. But I didn't really understand the value of rivers until I started surfing. I moved to San Diego in 2004. Every now and then I'd get sick or my friends would get sick and we'd realized that it had rained a few days before. We'd see trash floating through the lineup and eventually you realize it's washing down from the rivers. That led to the bigger connection of me growing up in the Midwest, so I came back full circle.

In undergrad at UC San Diego, I did an independent study on the Mississippi River's impact into the Gulf of Mexico. That led to my trip down the lower Mississippi, using the same old Grumman canoe my uncles used for the same river float in 1966. That adventure just kept growing into my research and post-grad work at Scripps and now this Riverview project.

So when you get to Apalachicola Bay, how do you like your oysters?
Just raw. Crack 'em open, suck 'em down. No lime, no Tabasco. I like to taste the ocean, the freshwater. It's like good whiskey. You don't want to throw in soda or ice. Just take it like it is.