Vail Curious Nature column: Can technology help us better connect to nature? | VailDaily.com

Vail Curious Nature column: Can technology help us better connect to nature?

Last June, I returned to my home in Eagle to find two figures lurking beyond the garage. Oddly, the strangers were looking straight down at handheld smartphones while walking my way. Turns out, they were friends playing Pokemon Go, an augmented reality application for their smartphones.

For those of you who missed the fad, Pokemon Go brought the science-fiction story of wild-caught, genetically engineered pets to life. Throngs of gamers left their indoor systems behind to explore their neighborhoods with one aim: to catch them all.

Believe it or not, while it may seem superficial, Pokemon Go is an app that, while slightly controversial, actually helped people get out into the natural world.

Arguably, staring down at a smartphone when outdoors isn't really a connection with nature. It is more like exposure to nature. As ecologist Aldo Leopold suggested, begin "reappraising things unnatural, tame and confined in terms of things natural, wild and free" ("A Sand County Almanac," 1949). Before your next hike, consider how unnatural even pocketing a phone is in comparison to packing say, a snack, pen and journal. Nonetheless, aren't there some apps that truly do bridge a natural connection?

Take a giant leap and imagine you are an explorer from the Starship Enterprise. Everything you need to describe your alien surroundings is fundamental in your device, so "boldly go where no human has gone before," and take pictures on your next adventure with a whole new purpose. A smartphone is a convenient field tool, with online and offline resources that can help us connect with nature.

Whether you are simply getting into the outdoors or you're a seasoned traveler, here are some amazing apps to help you discover new routes:

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• Mountain Project: Catalogs climbing routes; has directions, route names and difficulty ratings and images of the route.

• All Trails: Catalogs hiking trails; has directions, photos, route names and trail maps.

• MTB Project: Catalogs mountain bike trails; has directions, photos, route names and trail maps.

• Merlin, a free bird identification app that has a photo identification program for initiate birders. Shoot a photo and learn about all kinds of birds.

• GPS Kit, which allows you to catalog your own trails and geocache sites anywhere, even offline. Athletes, you can track and record your distances, elevations and speeds. As a field ecologist, I found the offline maps and GPS coordinates extremely useful and user friendly.

• Star Chart, a digital map of constellations and planets. Familiarize yourself with the universe by pointing your smartphone at unknown objects in the night sky.

Returning to the story of my friends playing Pokemon Go in the public lands around Eagle: This may seem like an odd way to connect to nature, but maybe we just need to change our perspective a little. If they weren't out hunting Pokemon, then would they simply be sitting on their couch playing something more sedentary?

But once you're out there, don't limit yourself, hunt for real creatures; use your smartphone as a tool for discovery instead of a distraction from the real, beautiful world around us. We now represent a new kind of scientific explorer, with tools of endless potential at our disposal. It is up to us to use them wisely.

Sage Smith is a STEM instructor for Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon, where he gets to share his knowledge about technology with middle school kids throughout the Vail Valley.