The People Behind the PCTA: Galen Keily, GIS Specialist

For Galen Keily, PCTA’s first full-time staff geographic information systems specialist, connection is a prominent theme. Once an enthusiast for high-adrenaline sports like mountaineering and mountain biking, Galen now appreciates a calmer presence in the outdoors.

“I just like being outside,” he said. “It’s a time for reflection. I think about the botany and ecology of the places where I am and try to learn and deepen my connection to those places.”

Galen in a golden hour camp kitchen in California’s White Mountains.

A musician who plays guitar, Galen says connections between artists and with audiences create something larger than the individuals. The outdoors has a similar effect on Galen.

“The outdoors puts you in that connective state, almost a meditation where you let go of regular life,” he said. “In the woods, you’re just another animal or temporarily a part of the ecosystem surrounding you. And everything in that landscape is coming together to form something more than the sum of its parts.”

Born in Maine and raised in Wisconsin with summer road trips to Western states, Galen spent plenty of time outdoors camping and canoeing with his family. From an early age, Galen was a bit of a map geek.

“I was always looking through the DeLorme Atlases on family road trips,” Galen said.  “I liked seeing what the place names were and thinking about the mountain ranges and trying to see what I was seeing out the window on the map. And I still love doing that to this day.”

Galen near Snoqualmie Pass, Washington during his 2019 thru-hike.

At the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, Galen took computer science classes and had a work-study job doing web design when he discovered the world of geographic information systems.

“I realized that GIS could be a kind of bridge between IT work and the real world,” he said. “I was already passionate about the outdoors and conservation, and GIS seemed like a great way to bring the two together.”

After college, Galen moved to Redding, California, for a Student Conservation Association internship with the Bureau of Land Management that deepened his connection to northern California’s wild places. After the internship, Galen remained in Redding doing GIS consulting work.

When his partner at the time decided to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail, Galen thought he might join her for a week or so when she made it to northern California. “I didn’t really know I would quit my job and do a long-distance hike myself until visiting some friends in Agua Dulce, California, and realized I wanted to be outdoors and not sitting at my desk.”

Galen started his 1,000-mile trek at Cottonwood Pass in the southern Sierra Nevada. “I’m pretty sure Mount Whitney was my third day on trail,” he said.  “It was a tough start, but it felt really great to be out there.”

When a friend who worked for the Washington Trails Association shared the job opening at the PCTA in late 2020, Galen jumped at the chance. “It was a dream job for me, and shifting from consulting work to conservation around the PCT was the move I wanted to make.”

Galen and partner Keely at the summit of Clouds Rest in Yosemite National Park.

Today, Galen’s map-based projects are helping PCTA learn more about the trail. Galen also likes developing maps for the public and he uses his talents to contribute to this magazine and other PCTA outreach materials.

“GIS is such a data-intensive field that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that our work is in service to people, and people are more than just data points,” he said. “So, I remind myself that if we over-rely on data we can lose the nuance and human aspect of people’s real-world stories.”

Author: Scott Wilkinson

Scott Wilkinson is the PCTA’s Content Development Director. A former professional musician, Scott has 20+ years of experience in almost every marketing role. Before joining the PCTA he was a marketing/creative director at West Virginia University and the University of Oregon. A serious outdoor addict, Scott is an experienced whitewater paddler, hang glider pilot, flyfisher, mountain biker, and (of course) hiker and backpacker.