Tuesday, August 10, 2010

An Amphibian is Born

An obsessive compulsion or compulsive obsession — which one is it again?

Last winter, a crazy idea popped into my head. After years of cycle touring and doing kayak camping trips, I wanted to find a way to combine the two outdoor activities I love most. I have been towing my kayak with my bike all over town for the past two years, the best way to get to the to the Ottawa River from my house:

The other part of the equation had to be figured out: how do I get the bike and the cart on the kayak so I can do a contiguous journey, and somehow paddle safely? Obviously the kayak I had was not right for this purpose, so I did some researching to find a boat that would fit the bill.  I wanted something "unsinkable" so I would not lose the bike and be able to easily climb back in if I ever capsized. I convinced myself that the best boat (from specs and reviews) would be a Mad River Synergy 14, (now discontinued) which is sort of a hybrid sit-on-top kayak and  solo canoe. 

In a fit of obsession and blind faith, I drove down deep into the hills of upstate New York on a frigid January morning, to a store which posted on the internet that they had one on clearance sale for half the price I could get it in the city. Surrounded by knee-deep snow and covered with winter grunge, the bright red boat sat outside like a cherry on top of a sundae. Actually, more like blood to a shark on a feeding frenzy, there was no turning back, I got the credit card out. The store had closed by the time I secured it on to the roof rack, the early winter night settling into the Adirondack mountains. "What have I done?" I thought — I didn't even test paddle it, and there was really no way I could have, unless I planned on sliding it across the frozen Moose River like a toboggan. I didn't even know how this thing handled, more so with a bike loaded onto it. Memories of my first bike tour in Ireland on an ill-equipped heavy clunky bicycle in 1993 flashed through my head as I drove the icy highway back to Canada. Despite my complete lack of experience I loved that trip, it was one of the turning points in my life — a "paradigm shift" as was trendy to say back then. Maybe this crazy idea in some way will open up a hidden horizon.

The boat spent the rest of the winter indoors, within sight of my bed when I woke up every morning. I bought a rudder kit and spent a very stressful time fishing the cables through the interior cavity and rigging up the pedals. Sometimes I would sit on the boat, pretending the carpet was liquid, a rather silly thing for a grown man to admit doing, but nobody was looking. Let's keep that between us, OK?

The icy banks of the Ottawa River in late February
Spring came early and I was out on the river with my regular kayak by late February, among the bits of ice that come crumbling off the frozen banks. I was wary to try the new boat until it got warmer. When I finally did there was a slight tinge of regret: compared to my old kayak, it definitely was a heavy tank and moved like one. Its wider flat bottom, however, gave it a solid, stable feel. I was also paddling it unloaded so it sat high in the water — this thing was designed for big burly fishermen and their coolers filled with ice and beer. I felt like Goldilocks sitting in the Papa Bear's chair.

The new kayak all hitched up
Step Two: Getting a bike on board. I spent a good two weeks mulling how I was going to secure a bicycle to the boat. The hesitation came from the fact that I would have to make permanent modifications. The thought of drilling into the plastic and instantly degrading the boat's resale value made me go out and buy almost every fastener and mount I could think of, mentally assembling it on the deck. Final choice was a Yakima fork block, attached behind the seat using Well-Nuts. Yikes, big holes!

Part of me was embarrassed to go out on the river beach to go try out the set-up if there was a crowd there. Nothing like tipping over like an idiot, bike and all, in front of an audience. I picked a cool morning and went to the far corner obscured by some bushes to assemble my weird cargo. I had taken along my urban bike — probably the heaviest of my stable of seven bikes — because it had the hitch attached to it. Everything fit into it fine, and with several bungy cords, et voilà!, everything was in and tied down.

Even on the beach it was sort of listing

OK, I'm trying to smile here to hide my slight disappointment

I got on the boat and everything stayed afloat but part of my heart sank. This is not how I thought it would feel. The load was definitely too top-heavy. The Well-Nuts had a squishy hold and there was definitely some unpleasant side-to-side momentum, enough to cause some concern. Determined to make the most of it and testing my ability to compensate for the tall load, I managed  a decent 8 kilometre paddle. Workable but not pleasant. I felt deflated, ready to give up on the whole idea. I left the red whale untouched for a good month.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

For the past few years a group of friends and I go and do a long paddling trip and this year in June we committed to doing an eleven day, 250 km trip on the Trent-Severn Waterway, from its Lake Huron terminus at Port Severn to past its midpoint at Peterborough. I had wanted this set-up to work so badly for this trip, as I envisioned driving out and paddling with the bike on board and then biking back to the car each day to retrieve it, moving it gradually along our route. This would automatically give us a support vehicle without an additional driver, and at the end of the trip I could just conveniently pack up and go home.

So back to testing. One of my bikes is a folding Bike Friday and in the back of my mind it was the right bike to take along. I didn't use it for the first test because it is a rather expensive bike to lose in case of failure, and in the larger scheme, I somewhat doubted its ability to tow the kayak with its smaller wheels.

"...there was this sale on 20-inch wheels :) "
OK, how wrong I was. After putting the hitch on the Bike Friday and hooking up the trailer, I realized how awkwardly right they were for each other. The wheels were even all the same size, so I'd only need one kind of spare tube if I were to do a multi-day trip. The handling was much the same as my regular bike.

I could tell the load was well balanced right away
Got a few odd looks from fellow kayakers on the beach, but what else is new?
Load 'er up and Bingo! With the small wheels, detachable handle bars and folding seat mast, the centre of gravity was so much lower compared to the full-sized bike. I got on the boat and, oh yeah, I knew the rig was good enough for the upcoming trip. Trent-Severn, here I come!

That trip was great fun for me, and to avoid duplicating another blog, you can find a brief account of it here. On a few large lakes, I was forced to reckon with very choppy water and high winds, but it gradually stretched the limits of my comfort level and in the end gave me confidence with the whole set-up.

So the next step is the whole kit and kaboodle, and my intention is to do the Erie Canal from Buffalo to Albany, paddling the interesting parts of the canal and towing the boat on the tow paths when I want to do longer distances in between. 

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