Illustration by Mary Crooks
  • Land Surveyor: Chris Royak

    Real-World Geography: How people use geography and the geographic perspective in their everyday lives and real-world careers.

    Mountain Men
    Chris notes that three of the four figures on Mount Rushmore National Monument in Keystone, South Dakota, were land surveyors in addition to being presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln.

    Chris is the manager for the Survey, Mapping, and Geospatial Technology Group at CH2M HILL’s office in Bellevue, Washington.

    CH2M HILL is a global engineering and design firm based in Englewood, Colorado.


    As a child growing up in San Diego, California, Chris became interested in geography and the outdoors during family road trips in the summer. “We would take trips back east,” he says. “Driving back east and just seeing the wonders that went on outside in the world and stopping at the Grand Canyon, that’s really what got it for me.”

    Chris says a lot of his childhood was spent exploring the open space around his home. The area would later become Mission Trails Regional Park. “As a kid growing up, there was just all kinds of adventures, hiking and playing,” he says. “That developed my love for being outdoors.”

    After graduating from San Diego Mesa College with a degree in electronics technology, Chris was offered a position as a land surveyor at a small engineering company. “Really, I just needed a job,” he says.

    Chris found land surveying to be a refreshing change of pace. “Really what drew me to this was I liked being outside,” he says. “But I also enjoyed the challenge of having to use my brain and think through some of the things of where this project is going. Or what’s the best way to get from Point A to Point B.”


    “It is definitely the different projects that I get to work on,” says Chris, whose work has taken him to far-flung places like Afghanistan and Bahrain. “I get to do some pretty interesting things.”


    Chris says it can be very difficult to complete projects in isolated geographic areas, including mountains and deserts. “Sometimes it can be challenging to just get access to some sites,” he adds.


    “Geography to me would be the study of the lay of the land,” Chris says. “Where are things? How do I get somewhere? How do I get something there? What path am I going to have to take to get from Point A to Point B? How do I get where I need to be and to get accomplished what I need to get accomplished?”


    Chris says geography is an integral part of land surveying. “One of the big things talking about geography is the importance of water as boundaries. . . . Rivers change their course over time, and that means the boundaries of properties change over time,” he says. “So geography and land surveying are incredibly tied together.

    “One of the things that is challenging for us is the geography,” Chris says. Unusual landscapes in remote regions can prevent use of such tools as GPS receivers, which Chris and his team rely on. “Particularly if we are doing a project that is in a valley and we are getting blocked out by the geography in view of the satellite, that makes our work a lot more challenging.”

    Chris had to use geography when working on a storm-drainage plan for Bagram Airfield, a U.S. military installation in Afghanistan. “The most important part of the job is to study where the natural drainage courses are, so we can point the water in those areas . . . and set them up in areas that can be used by the native people out there,” he says. “So it’s not just put it into a ditch and pipe it out. It’s so it can be used by the native Afghanis for farming and agricultural uses.”


    “Geography would be a great place to start,” he says, if you plan to do the mapping side of surveying.

    But Chris notes that being a land surveyor involves having a broad range of knowledge. “We have to know the law, because we get into boundary disputes and things of that nature,” he says. “There’s a strict set of rules that we have to follow when researching property boundaries.”


    Chris says people interested in land surveying should study or follow the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, which traces the route that explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark took during their expedition from 1804 to 1806. “They did so much in the study of how you got from St. Louis all the way to the West Coast,” he says. “They did a lot of mapping.”

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    accomplish Verb

    to succeed or complete a goal.

    agriculture Noun

    the art and science of cultivating the land for growing crops (farming) or raising livestock (ranching).

    Encyclopedic Entry: agriculture
    boundary Noun

    line separating geographical areas.

    Encyclopedic Entry: boundary
    desert Noun

    area of land that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation a year.

    Encyclopedic Entry: desert
    dispute Noun

    debate or argument.

    drain Verb

    to empty.

    electricity Noun

    set of physical phenomena associated with the presence and flow of electric charge.

    engineering Noun

    the art and science of building, maintaining, moving, and demolishing structures.

    expedition Noun

    journey with a specific purpose, such as exploration.

    farming Noun

    the art, science, and business of cultivating the land for growing crops.

    geography Noun

    study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.

    Encyclopedic Entry: geography
    geospatial Adjective

    having to do with geography and location.

    GPS receiver Noun

    device that gets radio signals from satellites in orbit above Earth in order to calculate a precise location.

    Grand Canyon Noun

    large gorge made by the Colorado River in the U.S. state of Arizona.

    integral Adjective

    very important.

    isolate Verb

    to set one thing or organism apart from others.

    Lewis and Clark Expedition Noun

    (1804-1806) first journey by U.S. explorers to the Pacific Coast and back to U.S. territory.

    military Noun

    armed forces.

    mountain Noun

    landmass that forms as tectonic plates interact with each other.

    property Noun

    goods or materials (including land) owned by someone.

    satellite Noun

    object that orbits around something else. Satellites can be natural, like moons, or made by people.

    storm drain Noun

    system to empty streets of excess rainwater. Storm drains flow into local creeks, rivers, or seas.

    strict Adjective

    always or almost always following limits, rules, or regulations.

    survey Noun

    a study or analysis of characteristics of an area or a population.

    surveyor Noun

    person who analyzes the specific boundaries and features of a piece of land using mathematical concepts such as geometry.

    valley Noun

    depression in the Earth between hills.