Local school teacher documents Ozark panoramas for Google Maps

An adventurer with a Google Trekker documenting Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park

Photo: Jeff Moser, C.C. 2.0,

In his classroom at Bentonville’s Old High Middle School, 6th grade teacher Larry Merriman has adopted the practice of making sure he and his students spend 20 percent of their time working on passion projects.

That roughly 60- to 75-minute period, called “Genius Hour,” is inspired by the practice made famous by Google, where the company allows their employees to dedicate a portion of their work day to their own ideas.

Several teachers at the school have adopted the practice in some form or another in recent years, Merriman said. It’s something that he and his students look forward to.

During a recent Genius Hour session, Merriman and his students discovered another program from the search engine giant, called the Trekker Program, that seeks to document some of the beautiful, but hard-to-reach places around the world. The program allows people to borrow Google’s special panoramic cameras and take them on their own adventures to snap photos for the popular Google Maps application.

Merriman sent in an application to participate in the program to help document the Arkansas Ozarks, and was accepted about a week later. Now, he’s spending more than just his Genius Hour to pursue his passion for the outdoors. In fact, Merriman expects to use most of his weekends for the foreseeable future documenting the region for Google.

Google’s Trekker Loan Program

The Google Trekker Camera in action

Photo: Google Earth Blog

Google has been creating 360-degree views of the world for years now through Street View, which is part of the company’s robust Google Maps platform.

Most of those views have been captured by special cameras mounted to the roofs of cars. The images are then uploaded to Street View, and, thanks to the program, most of the world’s public streets can now be viewed and explored from a computer, tablet, or mobile device.

In 2013, Google officials announced a plan to expand the program by asking tourism boards, non-profits and universities to apply to borrow the Street View cameras, strap them to their backs, and photograph some of the more remote areas of the world.

As a result, users can explore the Everest Base Camp in Nepal, the Colorado River, or take a virtual hike along the Grand Canyon.

And soon, thanks to Merriman’s efforts, you can add several locations in Arkansas to that list.

Local Treks

Merriman received the Trekker camera from Google in mid-April. One of his first missions, he said, was to document a stretch of the Buffalo National River.

After mounting the camera to a canoe, Merriman and a friend floated roughly 10 miles from Ponca to Kyle’s Landing, capturing the water, trees, bluffs, and all the native beauty along the way.

The Trekker, which actually includes 15 cameras bundled together, take photos every two seconds in all directions, and Google’s software stitches them together to create the 360-degree panoramic view that users are accustomed to seeing.

Merriman said the camera weighs about 50 pounds, but was surprisingly stable in the canoe.

“We were a little nervous about having the camera so close to the water,” he said. “But it actually worked out perfectly.”

In addition to his initial voyage down the Buffalo, Merriman said he hopes to explore more of the river and surrounding trails in the coming weekends.

“The Buffalo River is a beautiful resource,” he said. “I really hope what we’re doing helps more people to experience it that maybe otherwise wouldn’t have that opportunity.”

As part of his agreement to borrow the camera, Merriman said he’s expected to send back footage-filled discs every few weeks. He’s not sure how long it will take Google to upload the photos, but said he doesn’t expect it to be too long of a process.

Since he’s had the Trekker, Merriman has also taken it on several other adventures around the region, including Tanyard Creek Nature Trail in Bella Vista, the outdoor art paths surrounding Crystal Bridges, and a few trails near the Ozark Natural Science Center.

He also plans to soon photograph the Razorback Greenway from south Fayetteville to Benton County, and hopes to eventually include the Slaughter Pen trails in Bentonville.

Merriman said while he’s always had a love for the outdoors, the Trekker program provided the push he needed to explore more of the region.

“It seems like I was always finding an excuse not to get out and enjoy the outdoors,” he said. “This has really given me the motivation to experience all the beauty this area has to offer. And I’m having a great time doing it.”

This article is sponsored by First Security Bank. For more great stories of Arkansas food, travel, sports, music and more, visit onlyinark.com.