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Mountain Home Magazine

Professor Higbee's Lost Streams

Apr 01, 2021 10:45AM ● By Lilace Mellin Guignard

We’ve all heard about treasure maps, but sometimes the map is the lost treasure. This is the story of a map created in 1965 by Penn State Professor Howard Higbee. After three decades of drawing 86,000 miles of streams onto a 33x55-inch map of Pennsylvania, a printing company reproduced 70,000 copies. Several years later they went out of business, trashing the original drawing and printing plates. Thus the legend of the “Lost Stream Map” was born.

Then in his seventies, soils scientist Professor Higbee saw thirty years of his work vanish. It had been painstaking work. Starting with many large topographic maps and aerial photographs, he reduced them again and again, drawing in each stream under high magnification. Then, to check distances, he modified his car’s odometer to measure miles in 500ths. That the map made it into people’s hands was wonderful. That it was lost to future fisherman, conservationists, foresters, and others with a stake in the great outdoors was heartbreaking.

Back then, it was impossible to make new plates from the reproductions because they’d been printed in non-photographic blue. Retired and caring for his wife who had Parkinson’s disease, Professor Higbee couldn’t start from scratch. He declined an offer to sell his last copy for $400, and believed his labor of love was lost forever.

Jim Weaver, retired Tioga County Planner and avid fisherman, recalls how during his college days at Penn State in the early ’70s you couldn’t buy a copy. “We lusted over it when we could look at it. Some of the university fishery guys had originals hanging on their office walls. We tried to find mistakes in the areas we were familiar with and used it to plot devious schemes to find brook trout water. The scale and lack of other features made it challenging to find those waters on the ground, but it made for a good chase and wayfinding.”

The map is all about water. Main roads are pale orange and float behind the vivid blue veins almost as an afterthought. For this reason, people who use the map to find secret less-fished streams cross-reference it with a state forest map or gazetteer to find the back roads that will get them closest. “Now that it’s available again it’s just good to hold it, read it, marvel at Higbee’s perseverance, and take in the wondrous water resources of this state,” says Jim. “It’s a well-watered country.”

Two fishermen are responsible for the map becoming available again in 1991. Larry Seaman and Karl Ings, of Vivid Publishing Company in Williamsport, were loaned a copy of “an old first edition stream map,” which they kept in their office. “Customers would stop to study it and ask where they could get one,” Larry recounts. “That was a light bulb moment! Karl said, ‘We could sell a lot of these.’”

Howard Higbee’s name was on the map, so Karl picked up the phone and called Penn State. But they wouldn’t give Karl the retired professor’s phone number. Larry went to the library reference room and looked it up in the State College phone directory. When Howard heard what Karl wanted to do he said, “Well, Sonny, if you’re interested in the stream map you had better get here fast because I’m ninety-one. At this stage of my life there isn’t much I really want or need. But seeing the Stream Map available to the public again is one thing that would make me happy. But you better hurry—I’m not going to be around much longer.” They visited him the same day. It was April 4, 1991. In October 1991, they printed 10,000 copies.

Though it happened fast, it did not come easy. They weren’t mapmakers. They made how-to videos back when VCRs sat beside every TV. They were like YouTube before the Internet. When Howard told them the plates had been lost, Larry and Karl asked Penn State to give them the rights if they could figure a way to reprint. Because Penn State had already tried, with no luck, they agreed. “At first, we were stymied.” Larry says they looked into duplicating the original process of drawing the streams “resembling capillaries in the human circulatory system.” But they didn’t have the money or the patience that would require.

Even National Geographic told them it couldn’t be done. They thought of going to the landfill and searching for the plates. Then they heard about emerging technology that claimed to be able to reproduce non-photographic blue. They located a company called Complete Pre-Press with one of the first drum scanners, but the drum wasn’t big enough.

“We held our breath and cut one of the few remaining ones into six sections,” explains Larry. They were prepared to be disappointed but the results were better than expected. “All the details were there, crisp and clear,” according to Karl. “We knew at that moment that Howard Higbee might actually see his wish fulfilled.”

They printed 10,000 maps for $10,000, in time for Christmas. The first thing they did was a direct mailing to the 6,000 members of Trout Unlimited. The paper map, rolled or folded to 8x10 inches, sold for $19.95. The 33x55-inch laminated one to pin on your wall was $39.95. “The printer said, ‘I think you’re printing too many,’ but 23 percent of Trout Unlimited members bought them from that first mailing. And it took off after that,” Larry chuckles.

Professor Higbee lived to see his map back in circulation, and, before he died at the age of ninety-three, the new map had won rave reviews and the thanks of thousands of outdoor enthusiasts. “He told us we were like a couple of coon dogs,” Larry says. To date they’ve printed over 110,000.

Why is this map so popular that a husband and wife argued over who got their copy in the divorce? (Both anglers, she won custody of it.) Or that a couple had to replace theirs when the people buying their home insisted the map come with it? And how popular is it now that they’re available again?

Don Kelly, who owns the Tackle Shack in Wellsboro, offers one explanation.

“Twenty years ago maps were so important,” he says. “They were all we had. These days we have digital resources and map apps to use in the field.” But nothing will replace the experience of a large map, like the stream map hanging in his cabin, for staring at and finding new areas to explore. “You can’t see things at that scale on the screen. Maybe you’ve heard that Pennsylvania has more streams than any other state except Alaska, and that sounds pretty cool. But you don’t get it until you see it all on one map,” says Don.

I’d asked Kathleen Lavelle, who’s been working with Trout Unlimited since 2014, if she knew about the lost stream map. While I stand in her living room greeting her dogs, she admits, “When you emailed, I immediately searched online because I hadn’t heard of it.” Kathleen has been working at home during the winter of COVID. Her computer sits on a table among maps and charts. “When I saw it on my screen, I turned to look over my left shoulder at the wall.” She points behind me and I turn. There, framed by weathered branches, is a laminated copy above their couch. We laugh.

“I first saw the map on the wall of a bar Alan [that’s Alan Dakin, her partner] took me to on an early date. I must’ve spent a lot of time looking at it because he got me this copy during our first year together.” She immediately knew she wanted to hang it prominently, so searched for the right branches from Little Pine Creek, near their home. “One of the things I like about it is that Pittsburgh doesn’t look any busier than Clearfield County.”

And that’s the thing about maps. They always tell a story, but maps of the same place can tell different stories. For instance, if you type Pennsylvania into Google maps, what comes up first is an outline of the state with highways and main cities. That map is a story of how to get around, making it look like there are few ways to reach the north-central part of the state. The yellow lines, especially where they intersect, tell the story of populations and commerce, and the places included seem like the desirable places to go. Whereas, a map of light pollution tells anyone looking for dark skies that north-central Pennsylvania is a preferable destination.

Cartographers know that what is left out is as important as what’s included, and getting all the streams and their names on the map was a higher priority for Professor Higbee than including all the roads. If everything were included, the map would be unusable.

A map of Pennsylvania’s waters tells the story of a state in which water is a major force. Seeing the rivers, streams, and creeks squiggle across my kitchen wall where I’ve tacked the map tells me the story of land that provides lots of clean drinking water, water for crops and livestock, and a variety of aquatic recreation opportunities.

But as the field coordinator working on the Pennsylvania Coldwater Habitat Program, Kathleen can also read in it the stories of ecosystems. “Recently a priority for TU is identifying areas where there are barriers to aquatic organism passage.” She knows many of these streams that appear unimpeded actually have culverts that are too small to allow trout and other organisms to follow the lines that flow so freely on the map. “In my job we refer to streams by a six digit code, so this map is how I learn their names.”

Where this map really shines for Kathleen is in terms of education, especially when she needs to explain to interns about watershed size, boundaries, and connectivity. In addition to the blue of water, dark green lines show minor and major watersheds—areas where all water drains to a common outlet. I stand in front of her map, trying to name the six main river sheds, where the thickest outlines follow the land ridges that determine into which river waters flow. (I did okay, but didn’t know the Genesee and called the Ohio by it’s tributary, the Allegheny.)

The educational possibilities are endless and ageless. Jennifer McCarthy posted the map in her classroom when she taught fifth grade science at Liberty Elementary. “My students loved to trace the connection between their neighborhood streams, the West Branch of the Susquehanna, and on to the Chesapeake Bay,” she recalls. She retired in 2015 and brought one of the maps home.

Tired of talking indoors on a sunny day, Kathleen and I take her dog, Atlas, for a walk on the rail trail where Little Pine Creek flows into Pine Creek. “We call it Big Pine here, or the Big, to keep them straight,” she tells me as we pause on the bridge. Below us I watch the water from Little Pine head to the Pine Creek, running briskly past banks that are still snow-covered on its way to the Chesapeake Bay. Naked sycamores stretch silver arms to each other. Atlas pulls us onward.

A small warehouse in Williamsport is home to Vivid Publishing. It’s an open space crowded with tables layered with maps and some machinery. On the back wall are wide shelves with stacks of inventory, and near the door are a couple of desks. When I stick my head through, Larry motions me in and quickly puts on a dusky purple facemask. Larry was born and raised in Williamsport but traveled for work after college, then came home and started the publishing company. Now he lives on Lycoming Creek, a mile upstream of where he lived as a boy.

Larry’s the writer and numbers guy; Karl’s the salesman. The two met through college friends in Florida, and when Karl stopped to visit on his way through, he liked the area enough to accept a job. Soon he married a Pennsylvania girl and had some kids. Larry leans back in his chair. “Back then, our how-to videos were mostly hunting and fishing,” he muses. Now maps and accompanying materials, including a book on fly-fishing, are their focus.

“It looks like Karl’s son Ryan might take over the business,” says Larry, who is seventy-two. “He fishes too, and was always in here with his dad when he was little. I think we brainwashed him.”

Before his death, Professor Higbee passed on his unique map-making methods and his blessing to Larry and Karl when they told him they’d like to map the streams of other states. “We’d made many visits to his home near the Penn State campus,” Larry says. “He’d be prepared for each visit with notes on 3x5 cards, as if he were giving a lecture.” Larry and Karl were good students, apparently, because they were able to combine the professor’s methods with new computer technology and a team of cartographers to create maps for New York, Colorado, Michigan, West Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland, Delaware, Oregon, Ohio, Wisconsin, Northern California, Washington, Montana, Missouri, New England, New Jersey, and Illinois. They choose states based on the number of fishing licenses sold. “To honor him, all the maps we create will carry his name. The drawing of Howard bent over his drafting tale is there to constantly remind us to accept nothing less than the Professor’s high standards for detail, accuracy, and quality,” Larry says.

I wander over to a map of pastel pinks and greens. The label says Land Resource Map of Pennsylvania by Howard Wm. Higbee 1967. “That’s his original soils map,” Larry explains. “This was his main project, and he didn’t finish till two years after he retired. He said people always asked him why he bothered going to so much detail with the streams, and he’d say, ‘Because water affects soil.’”

We wind between tables to a back corner that has their newest printer. Gone are the days of having to print 10,000 at a time, which resulted in an inventory that got harder to store as they added states. Now all map printing is done in-house, as needed. He punches a few numbers into their HP Pagewide printer and leans against it as the large format maps slide out the other side. “It takes forty-inch paper on rolls, and we can print on demand up to 5,000 a day,” he says.

They also have a new website at streamsmaps.com that makes ordering easy (and there’s free standard shipping). Each comes with three PDF download bonuses. The “Explorer’s Guide to Hidden Streams & Lakes” indexes the main waters of interest to fishermen (more than 1,000 for the Keystone Sate) and gives map coordinates. The other two are useful to folks new to fishing: “Finding Secret Fishing Spots” and “How Anglers Stalk and Catch Record Fish.” My laminated map cost $39.95—same as in 1991.

Vivid Publishing’s latest project is the Limestone Stream & Lake Map of Pennsylvania. It includes south-central and south-eastern sections of the state, overlaying just the limestone areas of the soils map onto the stream map. This map tells the story of happy, healthy trout. Limestone water is less acidic, acting like a natural buffer against acid mine drainage, an ongoing issue in Pennsylvania.

“If flowing from underground they also tend to have a steady temperature which is cooler in summer and warmer in winter,” Larry says. “We hope this map will encourage people to explore with a pH water tester and water thermometer and find some overlooked limestone gems containing big trout.”

These maps do excel at encouraging exploration. Scott Greevy, a ranger at Michaux State Forest in the south-central part of the state, remembers showing a classified ad for some “secret stream fishing map,” AKA a Higbee map, to his father. “I was fourteen or sixteen and my old man got it for me. I don’t remember the exact wording of the ad,” he says, “but it made it sound like if you had this secret map you could go fishing anywhere. Mapping is a language. When I look at this map I don’t see a flat piece of paper.” He gave his paper one to his brother and upgraded to a laminated one that hangs in his garage.

“I’ve stared at that map a lot,” Scott continues. He’s pulled by what he calls the mystique of it. “It makes it seem like you could go somewhere no one’s ever been before.” It’s the first filter he looks at when planning a fishing trip. “So many trips have come out of that map,” he grins. “If you stare at that thing long enough, you’re gonna go fishing.”