GIS: Geographic Information System or "God, I'm Stupid"

For my independent project in Digital Public History, I chose to make a digital story map using ArcGIS’ Story Map software of the natural and man-made history of Lake Superior Provincial Park. When trying to decide what to do for this project, I will admit that I was completely clueless from where to begin. I had always considered national/provincial parks a part of public history in some form or another, even though I’ve heard the contrary from a few people. Being a person who loves all things parks related (not just the national historic site side of it), I was trying to figure out a way to link this independent project to the natural history side of things. Enter October’s GIS workshop, which gave me the tools I needed to connect my interests to the project at hand.

Lake Superior Provincial Park: Background and Goals

Lake Superior Provincial Park is located 150 km north of Sault Ste. Marie, ON and 15km south of Wawa, ON, and covers more than 1550 square kilometers of land and shoreline. It was established in 1944 to protect the shoreline from further development. At the time the park was founded, there was no road access. The only way to access parts of the park was either by logging road or by boat, which made it inaccessible to a large portion of the population. This was mitigated by the construction of the Trans-Canada Highway 17, which officially opened to the public in 1962. From this point onwards, visitors had relatively easy access to the park and its many beaches, trails, and views.

Long before the land’s establishment as a park, it has been the traditional lands and territory of many Anishinaabe groups. For over 2000 years, the land was used for hunting and fishing grounds. Batchewana First Nation still has fishing territory within in the park’s borders, specifically at Gargantua Harbour. Some of the most famous evidence of indigenous presence in the park is the Agawa Pictographs, located within the park. These are visual representations of historical and legendary figures, and date from anywhere between the 1500s to the 1800s. The most famous one is a particularly large pictograph of Mishipeshu, “the great lynx” who is the spirit and guardian of Lake Superior.

In recent years, Ontario Parks has been subject to a series of budget cuts, resulting in reduced conservation efforts and services across the Ontario Parks system, but Lake Superior Provincial Park was hit with the closure of a campsite as well as reduced staffing opportunities. While this has changed the day to day operations of the park, Lake Superior Provincial Park has maintained its status as a champion of conserving the natural shoreline and history of the land and its use, as well as working with the indigenous population to preserve their history and traditional territories.

The goal of this project is similar to that of the goals of Ontario Parks; to conserve and educate people on the natural and manmade history of Lake Superior Provincial Park. I wanted to create a digital research that allows people to experience the park in a way that you only can by physically being there, or at least make it as close as possible. I also wanted to make it more history based rather than environment based, even though the environmental history of the park is a huge part of it. By using Story Maps, I hoped creative an informative and immersive depiction of the park.

Learning the Program

My first experience with anything online map related that wasn’t either using Google Maps to offset my terrible sense of direction or playing around with Google Earth to look at random places was this GIS workshop at Western’s Map and Data Centre. I knew it wouldn’t be something overly simple, but I really wasn’t expecting it to be as difficult as I found it. Maybe it was because I missed the first fifteen minutes of the class because I was late, or maybe it’s just because I’m not map-minded, but I was completely and utterly lost through about 80% of the class.

A disproportionately large portion of the time I spent working on this project was spent teaching myself the intricacies of the ArcGIS’ web maps program, and then trying to translate this map into a story map that you can actually follow. Before diving into the final version of my project, I decided to make a practice map so I wouldn’t have to undo and redo everything multiple times before creating a final version, i.e. I wouldn’t have to delete a bunch of random failures from my final map. I found that the workshop was a good jumping off point.

From there, I knew I had to make a spreadsheet that contained something (what exactly that something is eluded me for a bit due to my shoddy note taking abilities), and then export it as a .CSV file, upload it as a layer to ArcGIS, and then points would appear on the map – in theory. At the beginning point of this project, this part of the process might as well have been black magic, because I understood none of it and could not make it work for the life of me. I knew well enough that I had to make a list of places I wanted to include and put their names in an Excel doc, and then get the coordinates for these places from Google Earth. I made the rookie mistake of not converting the coordinates in Google Earth from the time format to the decimal format, so my first attempt at uploading the file was met with a barrage of error messages. I then remembered having to switch it in the workshop, so I fumbled through the settings until I found the correct coordinate format. After I tried to upload this version of the spreadsheet, I got another set of error messages. This time, it was my own fault, as I didn’t separate the latitude and longitude into different columns of the sheet and instead had dumped them into the same one. ArcGIS had no idea what to make of this, so nothing appeared on my map. On my next attempt (third time’s the charm?), I finally managed to get my locations to populate on the map, and luckily, they were in the right places!

My second spreadsheet attempt, which was a failure. Note how I have both the latitude and longitude in the same column, which is evidently a no-no.

A screenshot of the spreadsheet that actually ended up working, with the descriptions cut off for space saving purposes.


A lot of my research for this project came from the Lake Superior Provincial Park website, travel blogs, and from visiting the park itself. The interpretive panels at the sites around the park as well as in the Agawa Bay visitor’s centre tell the story of the park pretty well. I had some background research done already that ultimately did not make it into the final version of the story map, regarding E.F. Wilson of the Shingwauk Residential School and his trip with students up Lake Superior and into Lake Nipigon. I hope to include that in a later edition of this map, but for the sake of handing this in on time, I had to make the decision to cut it from this version.

Some of my other research involved physically visiting the park and taking the majority of the pictures myself. One skill I do have that applies to digital public history is photography. I am by no means a professional, but I do know my way around a camera and various Adobe editing software. Over reading week, I coerced another photographer friend of mine (@nicholaslarmond) to make the trip up north with me and technically break the law by trespassing on the park property, that technically closed on October 27th. Technically. The career path to public historian is apparently littered in petty crime. We spent the day driving to various locations throughout the park and photographing them, which in the end, made citations much easier. There were some locations we couldn’t get to due to the amount of snow there was, but I had some photos from previous visits in the summer and made use of Wikimedia Commons to fill the gaps.

There’s a lot of research that didn’t make it into this version of the project, as mentioned above. This is mostly due to time constraints/lack of time management on my part, but hopefully when I find the time will make it into a later version of this story map. I have an entire section on the natural history of some of the flora and fauna found exclusively within the park, but I couldn’t figure out a way to make it fit with what little narrative I had in the first place so I ultimately had to cut it.

Me, standing at the base of Pinguisibi. The rocks were very slippery, and it was very cold. Bonus points for risking my life, perhaps? photo by @nicholaslarmond

Story Mapping, Or How I Drove Myself Insane

My initial plan for this project was a comprehensive map featuring information about the natural, indigenous, and development history of each individual site I chose to feature, with photographs, video, and other media to immerse the viewer in the park without actually being there. I realize now that this was a lofty (impossible) goal with the timeline I gave myself, as well as with my skills using the story mapping software itself. What it ended up being is a barebones, somewhat drab map with some of the information I wanted to disseminate sporadically placed throughout. Essentially, a very fancy blog post, but I digress.

My main issue with the story map started with the “new” version of the Story Map web builder. For the life of me, I could not figure out how to work it. Every time I got the title page up, typed it in, and uploaded an image, it worked fine. I could get the map I prepared to appear below, but I couldn’t figure out how to do anything else with it. Every time I’d make progress with it, I’d screw it up in some other way, get incredibly frustrated, and vow to start over. I think I tried using the current version of Story Maps four different times before I reconciled with the fact that it was not the software that was the problem, it was me. I remembered from the workshop (and also from Tom talking about it in class) that you could still access the “old” version of Story Map, and use the map journal function, so I decided to give that a shot, and it was like I had struck gold.

The remnants of one of my failed attempts at using the new Story Maps. Note how it is painfully blank.

I found this user interface far easier to work with in comparison to the new version. Sure, the new one is prettier to look at, with its minimalistic style and mysterious “+” button that doesn’t exactly tell you what you’re adding, but there’s something to be said for a web builder that lets you know exactly what you’re doing as you’re doing it. My Story Map came together in record time. The ability to add, delete, and reorganize the appearance of sections is incredibly useful, and I found the map journal version more pertinent to my project as a whole, and just a better user experience in general.

I started by creating a section for each of the locations I put on the original map, and then situated the main screen to show these places when you scrolled to the side write up. I eventually realized I was in way over my head, and deleted the pieces that had weak (partial, at the time) writeups. In hindsight, I should have waited until I finished the writeups before I made this call, but what’s done is done. The writeups were supposed to feature first: the natural history, the indigenous history, and then the development history of the park. I eventually realized how much work this would actually take, and then cut it to whatever I found most interesting about the particular site. This is completely on me and my inability to manage time well, as well as having far more faith in my abilities than I should have.

Some of the features I found really useful was the ability to create in-text links to other photos, videos, or websites pertinent to the information you were presenting from the map. I also found it neat that you could redirect the map to go to other points that you may have touched in previously in the map journal, but that was not entirely useful to my particular project. In short, the “old” format map journal seems way more user friendly to me than the new story map, as you have direction on what you’re trying to do. I might have been overcomplicating the new story maps minimalism (in fact, I think I probably was) but I find it easier to have everything laid out in front of me, especially when trying something new.

The Map Itself

One of the key features of the idea of Story Maps is the underlying base map that the story is based on. After I got through my issues with the coordinates and getting the most basic of information to populate, I started to try and get more complicated. I changed the individual dots on the map to the image of Lake Superior Provincial Park’s logo and added descriptions of the site I chose to feature to the map pop-up. I may have gotten too confident in my abilities, as my next idea was to try and add photos to the map pop-ups. I successfully managed to upload my photos into ArcGIS’ content section and obtain the public link, but when I tried to add it to the pop-up, I could not get one photo to show up in each section. Instead, the same image populated in every single pop-up, no matter if I deleted it completely and tried to change it, the exact same picture would show up. I did the classic “turn it off and on again” trick, and it did not want to reset itself. Either I somehow managed to break the system entirely, or it was a weird glitch, but I eventually just got frustrated enough (which seems to be the theme of this project) and gave up on the idea.

After my failure in adding photos to the map, I got ambitious in another sense. On the Ontario government’s writeup of the Lake Superior Provincial Park Management Plan, there is a copy of a map of the park that shows “civil development zones” (ie. Public roads), “heritage zones” (ie. The shoreline of Superior itself), and then areas that need to be designated, all colour coded. I thought it would be neat to mimic some of the zone designations using the map notes feature. ArcGIS is neat in that it has a “parks and recreation” default setting available in map notes, but unfortunately it did not have what I needed to make this work, so I decided to freehand it. This was good in a “learning experience” way, not so much in an aesthetically pleasing way. My heritage zone is sloppy and haphazardly done, but a limitation I had is that I do not own a mouse and was very delicately attempting to use my laptop’s trackpad, which is no easy feat. This is demonstrated by the green shapes along the shoreline of my map. It does outline pretty well the park’s “heritage zone”, though it absolutely could be better. My next attempt was to hollow highway 17 through the park using the freehand line drawing tool. Again, no amount of steady hand, zooming in, and cursing under your breath can help you perfectly trace something while using a trackpad, but I tried my best. When zoomed out, this line appears to follow the route of the highway, but when zoomed in you can see my abysmal attempt. I tried to fix it, but this was something that required precision tools that I do not have access to. In a later version of this map, I would hopefully obtain a mouse, or a stylus, or someone with more manual dexterity than I to clean up this portion.

The map available from the Lake Superior Provincial Park Management plan that I tried and failed to mimic.

What my map actually ended up looking like

To Wrap It Up

The theory behind the use of story maps for a national/provincial park in a public history setting is novel one. Some parks like these are inaccessible to people, whether it be due to cost/distance away/physical impairments, so being able to create an interactive and immersive experience like what this was intended to be provides access to the public who might not otherwise be able to experience this. It could also put geographical history into perspective for those who may not consider the magnitude of one of these parks, as sometimes they’re so large that you might not get to see it all in one visit. Historic comparisons using old photos and new photos via the story maps application can help provide context to how things have changed over the years, or even just create conversation about the park itself. All in all, interactive maps like these have definite public history applications if used properly.

To put it gently, I definitely am not pleased with the current state of this project, and would love to be able to do more work on it in the future to clean it up and make it be what I envisioned it to be in my head. Ideally, pictures would populate correctly in the map, all of my sites would be included in the story portion, and all of the natural, indigenous, and park development history would be included for each section where it’s applicable. Like I said somewhere above this paragraph, the map currently reads as a very fancy blog post, and I would like it to be more interactive and comprehensive. On a personal reflection note, my project time management absolutely needs improvement, and I would give myself more time to put my research into written form before making any decisions about the project as a whole. In short, my project absolutely could have been worse, but it also absolutely could have been better.

If you'd like to view my map, you can do so here.

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