Category Archives: adventure

R2AK_FullCourse_Map

Racing an amphibious Kinetic Sculpture … 750 miles to Alaska?

“Inconvenience is only Adventure Improperly Construed; Adventure is Inconvenience properly construed”. -G.K. Chesterton

I used to think The Grand Championship Kinetic Sculpture Race (GCKSR) in Northern California was the most ambitious and inspiring event I’d heard of,   especially irresistible to type-2-fun loving,   artist-tinkerer-engineer-adventurers.     There, people race over a 50 mile course in human powered vehicles they’ve built themselves,    where the course includes a mile in the Pacific Ocean,    ascending and descending steep sand dunes,   crossing the Eel River,     and – if that weren’t enough –   judging each other on how inspiring and excellent is the ART that they, and their vehicles, comprise.  There’s something irresistible about such an insane specification, with so many conflicting challenges needing to be overcome to build, and propel,  a vehicle over such a course.   Inventors and adventurers (and generally the sorts who delight in problem solving)   thrive on such implausible and difficult tasks.   A tough-mudder for the mind, and body, and workshop, all.      Thinking of Chesterton’s Quote on the kinship of inconvenience and adventure,  the Kinetic Sculpture Race seemed like a perfect way to “Creatively Inconvenience Myself” in the pursuit of adventure and a context in which to invent wonderful things.

“For the Glory” is the tagline of the Kinetic Sculpture Race  –   a cheer and sentiment which inspires years-long passion projects by avid tinkerers.  Such a mantra might well be the rallying cry also of those who do another,  unrelated race: the “Race To Alaska”.    This 750 mile ocean race (often abbreviated as “R2AK”) starts one week after the Kinetic Sculpture Race,   and goes by Inland Passage along the Pacific Coast – by water – 750 miles to Ketchikan AK.    The only rules are that no motors are allowed,  and two waypoints set the rough outline of the course.   First prize is a hefty $10K.   Second prize is a set of steak knives.   I don’t think there’s a third prize, and yet people do this daunting and bold trek in Paddle-boards and Kayaks,   even when the chances of ‘winning’ in such vessels,   where carbon fiber sailing rocket catamarans are competing on equal terms,  are vanishingly small.   Obviously,   this is an opportunity for exploration under the rubrik of a race,  and with the benefit of the camraderie of a few other hardy souls following similar goals,  but which is a fundamentally personal challenge.   These racers know the same Glory spoken of by Kinetic Sculpture Racers.

An idea of outlandish ambition has entered my mind, and taken root.  I am entertaining the delicious engineering challenges of making a vehicle which is light enough to be human propelled over land,   and at the same time be seaworthy and efficient in the water.     The additional constraint is actually helpful for the design,   of an efficient amphibious craft.  The Race I’m building for only begins in Arcata;   it will end in Ketchikan.  To do it, I’ll need to build an amphibious,  human and wind powered, vehicle that can move as efficiently as possible over each of the following terrains:

All Terrain means:

  1.  the Northern Pacific in high winds up to gale force, with tidal currents up to 15 knots and steep waves.
  2.  glass-smooth protected waterways with zero wind
  3.  paved roads
  4.  steep sand dunes and slippery cement boat ramps
  5.  rocky river shores

There have been several times in the past,  where I’ve undertaken things which at the time seemed bold in the context of my comfort zone at the time.    Month-or-two long self supported bicycle tours and hiking trips across deserts in summer and snow-capped high mountain passes, mainly.     Consistently,  each stretch of my sense of what is possible,   what risks endurable,   has quicky become clear as  seminal,   epoch-defining rites of passage;  intensely rewarding in the moment and over much longer views, both.   Intensely rewarding in physical and mental health and vigor.       Each time such trips have begun,  the flood of recognition, of joy, has inspired me to ask:  how did I let it get so long!   Don’t wait so long to do this again!   And it has been a while since my last adventure. This has been a period of incredible growth, and I find myself better poised than ever before to undertake something grand.    My engineering skills have never been greater,  and I’ve recently,   finally,   acquired my own CNC milling machine (a beautiful early 1990’s Bridgeport),  and can make sophisticated and strong parts out of metal in the comfort of my own home, at last.  I have a community of mentors to talk to,  and a recent success at work has granted me more independence and autonomy than previously,  with which to take a month or two for a grand epic adventure.   To the toolkits of a mechanical and electrical engineer I’ve recently added also initial forays into carbon fiber and fiberglass composite construction,   and I’m excited for bringing to bear the full force of my creativity and craft to build a vehicle meeting my needs for these races.

And so I begin here a thread of documentation,  detailing the engineering thinking and progress towards realizing a vehicle capable of both the Kinetic Sculpture Race, and the Race to Alaska,    in May and June of this year,  2019.

Vehicle Specification:

1. Design and build a seaworthy boat which will be transported to the race site in 135 days, May 25th 2019.   This boat will be able to carry me and necessary supplies to live for at least 1 week between resupply points in the coastal wilderness of British Columbia and Alaska

2. The boat will be able to be powered and move as efficiently as possible on both land and water.   Power sources will include sail,   oar,  and pedals.    Motors powered by solar panels are out.   Fuel-burning non-biological engines are out.

3. The boat will Be, and carry, Art.   My best idea of this at present is musical: the boat is a thin shell not unlike a cello body.  It will be sonourous if excited into vibration by strings.     I am an excellent improvisational cellist.  I have performed on sailboats before and been delighted to see the bobbing heads of seals come to visit and listen,   and I would have more of such experiences.    Ideally I will instrument the boat with hydrophones and frequency shifting electronics so that I can maintain a constant awareness of the soundscape of the waters I travel over,    whose inhabitants include whales,  seals, otters, dolphins,  and much more.     At intervals,  I will intersperse the sustained exertion with musical explorations of my mood, and my settings,  and any collaborators I can find to riff with – hopefully including a few marine as well as other terrestrial bipedal mammals.

4. The boat will be able to be propelled up a slime-covered common boat-launch ramp slope of 6% grade under human power without exiting the craft. Reconfiguration, if necessary, must be accomplished in the water.

4.  The boat will be able to be propelled along a level paved road at an average speed of at least 7mph,  and ideally 12mph,  under human power alone. (Sets rolling efficiency and wind resistance maximums.)

5. The boat should weigh less than 300 pounds,  and ideally closer to 200 pounds,   unladen.

6.  The boat should be tough and not brittle, and redundantly buoyant.   The boat should be tested for collision endurance against blunt rocks and submerged logs, and all practical measures taken to increase it’s survivability in such an encounter.

7. The boat will ideally have autopilot when under sail.  (I am a robotics engineer after all).   Autopilot should be able to tack to maintain course in high aspect ratio coastal inlet passages.  Autopilot should self-diagnose all anticipatable failure modes and in particular detect implausible sudden shifts of position that may indicate invalid data due to mountainous interference.

8.   A GPS-enabled physical pointing device will be built as a smart compass.  It can point directly at things.    GPS pointer will be able to  pivot around 3 perpendicular axes of rotation, so that if distances are sufficienty remote,   the pointer will be seen to be pointing below the horizon due to the curvature of the earth.

…   more to come …

A small concert for solo cello, deep inside the Grand Canyon, during a meteor shower.

redwall_sunrise
Sunrise seen from The Coconino Plateau off the North Kaibab trail. This is a beautiful natural promontory and stage, but experiences high winds which, at least during the morning as I hiked past, made it unfit for performance.
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First sighting of my podium, the Redwall Bridge on the North Kaibab trail, 2.8 miles and 2000 vertical feet below the North Kaibab trailhead. The Redwall bridge is seen as a straight line deep in the canyon seen here.

Six years ago,    while hiking rim-to-rim in the Grand Canyon the first time,  I discovered a profoundly spectacular location with interesting acoustics.    A wooden footbridge crossed a chasm,   forming a convenient stage,    with sheer rock walls ascending close together towards the north rim of the canyon,   2000′  overhead.   The Kaibab trail is even, in spots, blasted as a “C” shaped ledge into a sheer-vertical cliff face.  It is the largest and most topographically interesting  space I’ve ever gotten to sing in.

What stood out, to my ears, was the unusual quiet and echo.   It is free of almost any noise,   except the sounds of small ground squirrels or birds traipsing in the underbrush.       But when a sound was made, the echoes were unusually distinct and lively.   Echoes would echo, and echo,  and it seemed you could hear the fourth or fifth reflection of a handclap.    I stopped and whistled  for a few minutes,     and remember thinking to myself,   wistfully:

“If only I had my cello”.  

Six years passed.  A time of incredible growth and flux,    and now I find myself living on the west coast,  theoretically within a day’s drive of this spot.    (13 hours from the San Francisco bay).   The idea is still high among my crowded backlog of adventures / projects / enthusiasms.  And then the news arrives,  that the Perseid meteor shower this year (a regular August occurrence) was expected to be unusually brilliant this year,  “The brightest in a decade” even.        This finally pushed the idea (of revisiting the North Kaibab trail with my Cello) from “A good idea worth doing sometime”  to “A unique opportunity to do now“.    I messaged a few friends to inquire if anyone wanted to go,  and join me in a middle-of-the-night cello recital on a footbridge in the canyon,   beneath the brightest meteor shower of a decade.    Many were interested but could not attend due to prior commitments,  or the extreme driving:hiking ratio (near 2:1).   but the invite met an enthusastic “yes” from a friend who, it turns out,  was more apt a fellow adventurer than I could have known beforehand:  not only a willing impromptu adventurer,  but an aerialist/gymnast/theatrical producer,  with extraordinary insights and ideas about unconventional audience/performer relationships.

Talking to Strangers: Lou Fischer

BuB motorcycle
The BuB streamliner motorcycle, piloted by Chris Carr, reached speeds in excess of 367 mph with a 3 liter, 500 horsepower turbocharged V4 engine on the Bonneville Salt Flats.

I was bicycling by starlight in the middle of the desert at midnight, 20 miles from anywhere in the middle of Goblin Valley Utah,  in late August.   Crossing deserts during the night is necessary when the daytime shade temperature is between 110 and 120F   (but there is no shade) and ground temperatures reach 150F before noon.  But it is also a treasure to ride in the desert at night:   the skies are the clearest of anywhere on the continent.  One day before the August full moon, I was riding by star and moon light alone.  Nobody was on the road. Cars would pass maybe once every half hour or two, and when they did, I could see their headlights ten minutes away, hear their roar minutes away.  I’d been riding this way, solo, for a few hours,   racing towards Moab Utah and Arches NP trying to arrive on my birthday and see the full moon rise over these incredible landscapes,   when I saw a parked car on the side of the road up ahead,  lights off, with it’s trunk open,   and a fellow standing next to it.

I should mention that,  when asking locals about what to expect,  before crossing the 100 miles of open Mojave desert a few weeks back,  from Joshua Tree  to the Colorado river,  multiple independent sources repeated several times “It’s where people go to bury bodies”,  or “Ever seen ‘the Hills have Eyes’?”.

But I saw his camera tripod, and no bodies. I had also benefited previously from a trucker who stopped and shared an ice chest of gatorade with me in the middle of the Mojave desert; here was an opportunity to pay it forward. And I was curious.

He certainly did not expect a jovial Gordon “hello, howdy! Are you okay, need any water?”.      Not when the loudest thing he’d likely experienced for his last hour was the click of his camera shutter,  sand underfoot, and what night creature sounds as occur in August, in the deep sand and sagebrush desert, at midnight. I tried to mitigate his shock by speaking from a respectful safe distance of 50 feet or so.

To say he was “Startled” would be an understatement.  We were in one of the most desolate places in the country, after midnight, in the dark. He’d probably felt himself the only person for miles,  ten seconds prior.  Bicycles riding by starlight are stealthy!  I saw him reassure  himself (discretely) of the location of a bottle of bear-spray on his hip,  his countermeasures.   I had sympathy for this;  I had done similar before hailing him.  We were both assessing each other. And then we talked.

We progressed quickly from threat-assessment  to rapport and shared enthusiasm. Two gearhead adventurers, alone in the middle of the desert at midnight talking under starlight .  We talked for over an hour.  Before I resumed bicycling,   he made me promise to message him before I arrived in Chicago, where he would host me.   He also took this picture of me,  which is one of my favorites of the whole trip:

Gordan
Photo by Lou Fischer. Gordon Kirkwood bicycle crossing Goblin Valley Utah through the night in late August.

Lou is a photography buff and documentary filmmaker, his youtube channel is “Bonneville Stories”.   Some of his work is linked below.   His brother held a land – speed record on motorcycles;  He was in town to document the fastest motorcycle in the world, the BuB streamliner motorcycle,   which reaches in excess of 360MPH  / Mach 0.5.    I often think of this encounter as one of the more rewarding “talk to strangers” lessons in good faith optimism… especially since pessimism could easily have prejudiced this introduction to nonexistence. It would have been easy to make an excuse to pass a car in a desolate area.

This story, from six years ago, came to mind in the context of two especially significant meetings this last week and next, discussing character development and education in science, technology, engineering and math with DARPA,  the Navy,   and a large private philanthropy whose director has honored me by asking for my input.  As I refine my thoughts I’m enjoying revisiting a few of these experiences which in retrospect seem like formative decision points or character building moments.    Stay tuned! 

How to take an evening off when you’re working at the opportunity of a lifetime: go see a beached whale.

copyright gordon C. Kirkwood 2015
The whale, seen from the front, is awesome. Such a huge mouth! This exposure was made by burying tripod legs in sand and collecting light for half a minute, and light-painting it with the small flashlights we had with us.

 

 

The artist residency at Autodesk’s Pier-9 Workshop is  hard to leave at night. It is easy to be workaholic when you love what you are doing and have the priviledge to work in such a space, where so much thought and so many resources have been invested to remove every possible obstacle to progressing from concepts to designs to physical realities.   It is hard to be confronted with both such immense opportunity, and the finiteness of time.   And so leaving becomes difficult,  but last night I had a really good excuse:

My friend Shanee posted on social media a link to a news article describing a dead sperm whale washing ashore:

guys!! guys!! a sperm whale washed up in pacifica!! who knows what beach this is (you can see more in the video)?!! who wants to go check it out with me before those pesky scientists get to it?!

And so,  in the midst of very earnest hard work,  I found myself recognizing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of an even more ephemeral sort than this four-month residency,   and yielding to the call of adventure.   Vehicles were coordinated, and it was agreed that Shanee, Elle, Erika, and Sunny –  coincidentally,  and delightfully,  all extremely brilliant, interesting, and attractive women – would converge on my location at Pier 9 from all over the bay, and progress from there together in Shanee’s car to Pacifica.

For the briefest moment, I almost gave in to fatigue, inertia, and the overwhelming awareness of how much work I have to do to achieve my goals of this artist residency.  It was midnight, after all,  and on a tuesday where,  that friday,  I had my first formal critique of my residency.   Then I remembered that the most magical evenings of my life have consistently  resulted from stepping up in such moments,  and going farther.  I even have a letter my grandfather wrote, attesting to how he was almost ready to go home and get to sleep when, instead,  “I chose music”.  The rest of that letter,  to his mother,  described the series of events that led him falling in love with the young soloist of the night,  who I and all his descendants get to call Grandma.  Staying in rarely opens new chapters.

We parked as near as we could and walked on trails the rest of the way,  and the stars were brilliant overhead on a cloudless clear night. I reflected on the providence that this morning,  for the first time in a month, I had thought to bring my SLR camera to work with me,  and had my tripod under my desk.

copyright gordon C. Kirkwood 2015
From a distance, it wasn’t clear whether we were in the right place. However, with a camera and tripod, I took long exposure photographs and there, in the crux of the cliff, was the whale- ringed in irridescent rings of velella jellyfish.

 

copyright gordon C. Kirkwood 2015
What at first appeared to be tide lines in the sand, on closer inspection turned out to be millions of velella jellyfish.  Also:  adventuring along a beatiful coastline under the stars at 2am with talented, smart, adventurous and attractive women?  Erika, Shanee, and Sunny are respectively a national geographic submarine captain,  a marine biologist, and bioreactor-startup founder.

 

copyright gordon C. Kirkwood 2015
The whale was the largest animal I have ever been so close to, or am ever likely to.

 

 

copyright Gordon C. Kirkwood 2015
Sperm Whale south of Pacifica, CA.