Surveying Survival School

by Bart Benne

Being new to civil engineering, there is admittedly a lot to learn. Water projects. Road projects. Building projects. Sewage projects. Yup, some projects are better than others (or at least cleaner) when you’re the new man on the crew.

But, being in the marketing department, I usually learn about civil engineering work, project-by-project, from the comfort and safety of my office chair as I develop project proposals.


But, my new boss is innovative. She wanted me to get away from the computer, go out into the field, and see what engineering projects are like from the ground up, literally. So, she talked to the crew chief and arranged for me to join a team the following week.

This was a good thing.

First off; before graduating from college, I worked many physical jobs. I’m a big, strong guy and love being outside working with my hands. I guess the crew chief wondered how much of a desk jockey I was, though. To test my resolve, there was a lot of talk of snakes up front. That didn’t rattle me, however, because I’m not afraid of much. I just needed a new pair of work boots that went up over the ankle, and I’d be fine (that’s where most snake bites occur).

Second; being a writer with journalist’s instincts, I know information garnered in the field is immersive and invaluable and the best way to learn. So, I was excited about being outside.

Third; as I’ve already said, I had a lot to learn. Getting out there and hands on with other people in the company I didn’t know yet is good. I can see projects from a completely different vantage point. My boss knew, before I did, that this would stoke the literary fires in my mind.

Fourth, of course; is beautiful scenery.

You see, our firm, Vaughn & Melton (V&M), has offices in multiple states including Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina, and my state, North Carolina. I am in the Asheville office in the western part of the state, nestled in the Smoky Mountains among some of the best National Parks and forests in America. And in Western North Carolina (WNC), the views are extremely pretty all year ‘round, especially on the cusp of Spring such as it was before the leaves popped and blocked the scenery. So, no matter what job site I would be at, it would have breathtaking views.

And finally, fifth; location, location, location.

You know, as in the real estate expression denoting value. Because Asheville is home to the world’s largest private residence, the Biltmore mansion. And V&M does work at Asheville’s most notable attraction. Even better- survey crews were due to be somewhere on that prime property that Monday.

Of course, the Biltmore estate is a huge piece of property, more than 13 square miles in fact. It’s so big, rivers and highways run through it for miles. So, work on the land may not even be in sight of the mansion. Still, I’ve never been on the property, so I was excited at the prospect.

Spoiler alert- we didn’t go there. We went somewhere even more memorable, up a seven-degree grade covered by blankets of dormant kudzu vines that covered even wilder briar thickets. But, the day didn’t actually start in that woolly place. It started where surveyors often do, on the side of a road.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

So, to back up a bit, I want to add one last cool thing about my outing with the survey crew- the fashion. Gotta say I love me some orange and silver reflective gear and stylish hard hat action. My lips purse like a Kardashian just thinking about it (haha). So, when I got sized for a safety vest and protective head gear, I was stoked.

What else did I need?

Well, fortunately, V&M has experts at every level to keep me safe. And they take the safety of their crews very seriously too. I had to take additional training courses the weekend before just to make sure I knew all the different types of gloves, gear and the defensive driving techniques that keep crews safe.

So, I did my due diligence in anticipation of the following week. Then, Monday finally arrived. It was an early day that started with a large Surveyor’s meeting at 6:30 a.m. And, while I am an early riser, nothing wakes you up faster than a review of fatality rates and the jobs that face them. Of course, surveying crews encounter the number one and two fatality spots on that list; getting squished, and falling from height.


To illustrate this point, the Office Leader at the head of the meeting called attention to the vehicle in the parking lot. Thanks to some civilian’s distracted driving, this new crew truck was in the process of being totaled. It had been struck while being parked on the side of the road. And not only on the side of the road, but 28 feet away from the white line denoting the edge of the highway.

Twenty-eight feet!  That’s more than two whole road lanes of drift! That’s longer than a London double-decker bus!

But while parked at such a distance from traffic, someone texting and driving swerved so far out of bounds, they were able to crack the rear axle and destroy a perfectly good vehicle. Fortunately, the crew was off in the woods doing their job. But if anyone had been in the vehicle or even near the vehicle, I would not be able to say the same thing the same way.

So, drive safely people. What was just property damage could just as easily have been a fatality. And that reminds me- National Work Zone Awareness Week is April 8-12. Remember to drive around road crews like they are family- because they are to someone.

Fortunately, the crew I was going out with knew how to stay safe. Watching out for one another is critical when you work on a survey or road construction crew.

Bonnie, the only woman surveyor in the Asheville office, said she would watch out for me as well as her seasoned partner too. Newbie or veteran, she said, accidents can happen anywhere to anyone. Even to her boss, aptly named Hunter.


He is a burly mountain man whose ancestors predated the Vanderbilt’s in WNC by more than 150 years. In addition to all things surveying, he knew everything I asked about the region including every species of tree, what individual animal prints were, and, most importantly, how to swing a bush ax.

You read that right. A bush ax. This is an ax handle with a long, curved blade mounted on the end. Sharpened on both sides, it’s used to cut through dense brush when venturing into the wilderness without a path. But it has a greater utility than bush whacking too, like banging in geospatial nails used to mark location, as well as cut and dig like a shovel when looking for existing markers covered by topsoil or brush.

So, what are these geospatial markers? Well, these man-made landmarks, called North Carolina Geodetic Survey (NCGS) markers or NCDOT Baseline Monuments, can vary in size and shape. However, all of them mark permanent GPS positions. The NCGS markers we were looking for were brass discs, like big, thick coins several inches across. Each one has a unique name and its coordinates engraved as identification.

Geodetic and Baseline markers are created by the issuing state, hence the “NC” in the title of the WNC markers. The NCGS disks and NCDOT markers we sought were each permanently mounted onto about two feet of rebar, and driven into the earth with sledgehammers like massive nails.

Markers are semi-permanent (I say “semi,” because the first marker we found, an NCDOT Baseline Monument, was actually pulled out of the ground in some Herculean effort). Sometimes markers are easily located at the surface of the ground, but often they have and inch or more of grass and topsoil covering them depending on where they are located and how long they have been there.

One cool note: there is a whole subset of serious geocachers, outside of the surveying world, who find these markers too. Geocaching is something I have done with my kids for years. Basically, it’s looking for items hidden in public places identified by GPS coordinates. The kid-friendly version of geocaching is usually on public lands like parks, and often contain give-away items as “treasure” to keep the kids interested. But the hard core landmark hunters looking for NCGS markers (called “benchmarks” in the geocaching community) don’t have anything to do with survey crews!

NCDOT Baseline Monument (destroyed)

Perhaps geodetic survey markers are sought by civilians because they are becoming more rare. According to Hunter, now that electronic GPS is becoming more common (and accurate), physical markers are becoming a thing of the past. Still, survey crews “shoot” NCGS markers if they are within 2,000 feet as a reference.

For professionals though, once a geodetic survey disk is found, the mark is used to set up the surveyor’s tripod mount. This marker ensures the rest of the triangulated measurements can be completely accurate. This is important whether on street sides with dangerous traffic or wild mountainsides rife with unsure footpaths potentially treading upon any number of unsuspecting and dangerous animals.

So, it’s important to have an idea of where you are going as not to wander aimlessly, potentially traipsing more easily into unnecessary trouble. This is especially true when the crew leader says, “Straight up that mountainside overgrown with brambles should be an old cart path. We have to find it. You know how to use a machete?”

So knowing where you are going, especially in adverse conditions like rain and landslide conditions, is key to successfully surviving surveying. And it all starts with markers.

So how do surveyors use the geodetic disk as a starting point? They use a scope mounted atop an industrial strength tripod. This instrument is called a “total station.” It’s a viewfinder that sits directly atop the NCGS markers, and can then accurately scope another (usually handheld) device down the road, called a retroreflector. Surveyors use digital total systems too that are basically robotic measuring devices. Manual total systems are still used too depending on the circumstances.

Basically, these tools allow for accurate measurement of vertical and horizontal angles through triangulated calculations. This is how the edges of property lines are located, changes in elevation, as well as determining important utilities like buried water lines and electrical utilities.

And there are other types of markers too such as the two-foot concrete blocks called “corners,” used as right-of-way property line boundaries. These markers were what Hunter and Bonnie so surefootedly tracked down on that steep mountainside-next-to-landslide slope. I was there too, although admittedly a couple of minutes behind because I was too often too out of breath to swing the bush ax.

So, while today’s total stations are completely digital, automatically determining and recording waypoints, many surveyors still prefer to make the measurements themselves. This is because they have a wealth of experience, keen minds for calculations, and the ability to go where machines can’t- into the bush. Sometimes it’s because of line-of-site issues keeping computerized systems at bay. But, surveying will always require experts like Hunter and Bonnie because nothing can rival the adaptability of the human brain.

It’s the human experience that my boss brought me on board to highlight. After walking miles in the work boots of such pros, I now know why. It’s the people using the tools, not the tools themselves, that actually make the mark. Now I know that the best surveying happens because of the instincts of experts.

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