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Vancouver Sun article

A meeting of lines

With high-tech GPS unit in hand, a new breed of explorer hunts the confluence of latitude and longitude

Andrew Findlay, Vancouver Sun

David Patton is standing at what appears to be a totally arbitrary spot 14 kilometres outside Ladysmith on Vancouver Island. An observer would note the following: the spot is more or less indistinguishable from the surrounding monotonous quilt of second-growth forest and clearcuts. So why would anyone navigate a maze of logging roads and bushwhack through waist-deep brush and slash to get there? The pat answer -- "Because it's there" -- falls short because, well, there is nothing there.

But if you're a confluence hunter like Patton, that's not the point. The Vancouver computer consultant is a seeker of the abstract in the physical landscape. When he looks at a map of the world he instinctively superimposes an invisible matrix of longitude and latitude -- and sees a bounty of arbitrary points waiting to be captured. The target of the hunt is confluence, or a "divine stash," if you prefer its more mystical-sounding name. It's the place on the ground where a line of latitude intersects a line of longitude. The point of Patton's mission is simply to get to it -- and take a picture to document the find.

Bizarre though his mission may sound, he isn't the only one pursuing it. Patton is Canadian coordinator for the Degree Confluence Project, a loosely organized international effort to locate all the land-based confluences on Earth.

"It's kind of like mushroom hunting for adults," says Patton, who has 15 confluences to his credit. "Most of the fun is in the challenge of getting there."

In the hills around Ladysmith, he thinks he may have scored a hit. But after patiently waiting while his hand-held Global Positioning System unit tracks satellites and distills his location from a jumble of raw signals, Patton confirms that the confluence he is after (49N 124W) is across a ravine, just beyond reach. With fading light there's no time left to bag his nebulous quarry.

He snaps a few pictures from various angles, scribbles down some notes and trudges back to his vehicle. For now he will have to be content with an "attempt," the confluence-hunter's term for a near miss. Plenty of factors may contribute to a miss: remoteness, difficult terrain, intermittent satellite signals, fatigue or approaching darkness.

But that's fine with the hunters, because the journey is the adventure.

Back in 1996 Alex Jarrett, an American from New Hampshire, had just purchased his first GPS unit, but he needed a reason to use it. That's when, in a flash of inspiration, he conjured up a raison d'être for his new toy.

"I had bought a GPS out of curiosity, and noticed that I lived about 10 miles from an intersection of whole degrees of latitude and longitude, 43N 72W. I decided to see what was there, and made a personal Web page of my visit. Very slowly people found out about it, and started visiting confluences on their own," Jarrett says.

Since then this obscure pastime has snowballed into the Degree Confluence Project. Visits have been recorded in 74 countries and recently the last unclaimed confluences in both Hungary and Ireland fell. At the time of this writing, 138 of a potential 1,016 confluences in Canada (not including those underwater) had been visited. Just nine of 105 in B.C. have seen action so far.

For fastidious readers who dust off their atlases and notice that there are more than 105 confluences in British Columbia, an explanation is in order. The distance between lines of latitude is a constant 111 km. However the distance between lines of longitude varies, diminishing from 111 km at the equator to about two km at 89 degrees north or south. As you get closer to the poles, the confluences become closer together.

To avoid skewing toward the poles, Jarrett made the arbitrary decision to skip every third confluence north of the 49th parallel, and after the 64th parallel every other confluence. The ones left behind have been dubbed primary confluences -- the cream of the crop for those into the game.

Confluence hunting has a pointless appeal, sort of like climbing frozen waterfalls with metal spikes on the soles of your boots. But from a geographer's point of view, the quest has some interesting benefits. By locating confluences, hunters are surreptitiously documenting the surface of the earth through a random sampling of topography and landscape. Consider it an excuse to embark on a path of discovery -- the hunter, like some geographical Don Quixote, travelling to places that don't obey the laws of tourism as defined by the Chamber of Commerce or Lonely Planet.

The beauty of it lies in its mundane simplicity. Confluences may be found on a mountainside, the bottom of a lake, Bob Smith's front yard, a cornfield or an obscure patch of forest like where Patton stood near Ladysmith trying to hone in on 49N 124 W.

Jarrett's Web site ( is the cyber meeting place for confluence hunters across the world. This polished, well-designed site allows anyone to post a visit complete with a narrative and photos describing the journey. Some people schedule their holidays around confluence visits. Others are one-timers who bag a visit because it happens to dovetail nicely with prearranged travel plans. On the site, visits are categorized by country, but you can also conduct a search by typing in coordinates to find out if anyone has visited that confluence.

Confluence hunter Tim Vasquez waxes philosophical about the pursuit.

"It goes far beyond a silly quest for invisible manmade boundaries. The confluence latticework is an open defiance of the order our culture imposes on us, which frowns on tourists who abandon the traveled roads," Vasquez says, with an anarchic, almost revolutionary zeal.

Some confluence visits are downright dull, but others can an exercise in subversion. Brody Culpepper and friends were accosted by Military Police while they snooped around for a confluence adjacent to the Concord Naval Weapons Station, a storage facility for nuclear armaments in California.

"If you wander around a military zone with cameras and a Global Positioning System unit, I guess you should expect the military police to take notice," Culpepper deadpans in his account of the quest for 30 N 122 W.

They can also be a punishing exercise in endurance. Brian Butler and a companion drove 422 km on a gravel road across the Canadian Shield, flew for 232 km in a De Havilland Beaver float plane, boated for two km and walked for an hour through muskeg and clouds of mosquitoes; all this to stand with a GPS unit next to a one-metre tall aluminum obelisk planted in the granite bedrock at the exact spot where Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories meet -- Canada's "four corners."

Some keeners will suffer no end of indignity to achieve their goal. Take the so-called "confluence dance," performed by hunters once they have narrowed down their search to within a few square metres. The dance is a comical side-to-side shuffle aimed at prompting the GPS unit to display a perfect whole integer of latitude and longitude (for example, 49 00 00 N 124 00 00 W) so that the hunter can snap a picture of the screen and verify the conquest.

In some countries -- like China, which recently recorded its first confluence visit -- there is debate about whether or not it is legal for civilians to even use GPS units, adding a subversive element to the pursuit.

In a way, confluence hunting is so obvious that in this shrinking globe of disappearing adventure opportunities it's a marvel the pursuit isn't more popular. It's not surprising that we humans, forever restless and goal-oriented -- no matter how pointless the goal --seek to give physical meaning to one of our most abstract creations: the coordinate system of meridians (longitude) and parallels (latitude) that enables us to locate ourselves on the earth's surface.

As for Patton and the elusive 49N 124 W near Ladysmith, let's just say he'll be back. And after he bags that confluence, there's a surfeit of un-visited confluences in Canada that would occupy several lifetimes of long weekends.

"It will take a very long time to complete Canada. Nunavut has 273 confluences and none of them have been done," Patton says happily.

Andrew Findlay's last work for Mix was a review of The River Trilogy, by Jono Lineen.

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