Sunday, September 29, 2013

My "Friday" Venture - Interlude

I have not yet penned Part Two of my canoe-toting venture. I have had to suspend the project for time being because I was on vacation in Italy. Curiously though, while staying in the small Tuscan town of Montecattini Terme, I found a connection to the quirky project described in my prior post (see My "Friday" Venture - Part One). Montecattini Terme is a smallish tourist town, about 50 km to the west of Florence. During our stay here, my wife and I ventured into a municipal building to find out some information about the ICU World Championship bike race that was being held in Tuscany at the very time of our arrival. This event is a really big deal to the citizens of this community. The city was awash in bike-themed displays everywhere you went. Bikes were used as props in store windows to sell everything from purses to bakery goods. A cake shop covered a real bike with decorative, multi-colored icing (much to the delight of the many wasps that took a sudden interest in cycling). One building had even sculptured a hedge in the shape of a cyclist on a road bike.

Horto-sculpture Bike

Of course this is surprising to no one given the passion that Italians have for cycling. However, we were astounded by what we saw when we entered the municipal building.  There in the foyer of this grand piece of architecture was a 'foldie' decked out like the famous raft the Kontiki that once carried Thor Heyerdahl safely across the Pacific. The designer used recycled water bottles glued together and lashed to bamboo poles to form a floating, bike-propelled, pontoon-style boat. The folding-bike was suspended, somewhat crudely I might add, in the middle of the apparatus. You can't see it in the photo but small plastic fins were attached to a few of the spokes on the back wheel to provide propulsion.
Bike-powered raft in Montecattini Terme Tuscany
Overcome by a strong sense of kinship to the object's creator, I became flushed with the notion that I was no longer alone. Alas! There were others like me! It was very gratifying to realize that the architect of this creation and I, although probably quite separate in out linguistic abilities, were united in a way that transcended verbal communication. As I stood there taking in the contraption's quirky features, I pondered the creator's thinking process and compared it to my own. What was he or she trying to accomplish here? Was the raft a project in re-purposing water bottles or was there a pragmatic goal in mind? Perhaps the designer had to cross a waterway to get to work and needed an amphibious vehicle that could handle both roadways and waterways? Maybe its creator was overcome with a surge of artistic expression, this being the birthplace of many masters of the renaissance and all? Or quite simply, maybe the exhibit was winner of a quirky-bike contest that was being run by the organizers of the bike race? Who knows? The essential point is that this person and I shared something in our DNA that spurred us both to apply some ingenuity, however primitive, for the sole purpose of expanding access to the less-accessible features of our surroundings. Through the common quest of modifying objects designed for a singular purpose and then transforming them into altered objects that could be useful for other purposes, we were united. For me the experience was like Robinson Crusoe seeing Friday's footprint in the sand for the first time. (there's that footprint metaphor again). Let me be clear though. I am not placing myself and my like-minded Italian tinkerer among the great minds of the day, but there is something in the spirit of the creative problem-solving process that is common to all of us. Our ability to adapt to our surroundings sets us apart from other species and this should be celebrated.

Blogging is a lot like putting a message in a bottle and setting it adrift in the hope that some curious beachcomber will stumble upon it. Perhaps my Italian soul-mate will stumble upon this post and feel the same connection I did.

Friday, September 13, 2013

"Friday" Venture - Part One

            Recently I have found myself in the grip of a relentless obsession. To many, this obsession may border on lunacy and I must admit, I can offer only a feeble retort to assuage my critics differently. This fool-hearty venture I am involved in is eccentric in the extreme, seemingly without an obvious purpose. Yet I persist at it, a slave to the allure of achieving something that is both elegant and primitive but gradually coming to recognizing that the core objective may be slipping away from me. I fear that I have created something that is more primitive than elegant. At this point I find myself somewhere between raising the white flag of surrender and abandoning the project all together or, stubbornly proceeding with what has surely become more of a comical curiosity than a masterpiece of amateurish ingenuity.
            I’ll chronicle this venture for you in the hope that someone will take pity on the musings of a retired man with quite probably, an excess of time on his hands. I'll begin with the title. You will notice that word Friday is deliberately placed in quotation marks. I wanted to point out that Friday is used differently than the day that marks the end of a typical work-week. Rather, Friday is in reference to Robinson Crusoe’s companion Friday in Defoe’s famous sixteenth century novel. As the story goes, Crusoe was astonished to discover a singular footprint on the beach of the deserted island where he had found himself stranded. Although the Crusoe tale was largely allegorical, I don’t think Defoe intended much symbolism from Friday’s footprint. It was more of an event than a symbol. However, the footprint image has become exceedingly popular as a modern metaphor in contemporary parlance. Architects often discuss the size of a proposed building’s footprint.  Ecologists refer to the  carbon footprint  created subsequent to a manufacturing process with the connotation that a smaller carbon footprint is better than a larger one. So it is in this sense that I link Defoe’s character Friday to the metaphor of footprint  and the modest pursuit of making one’s large footprint smaller and hopefully, somewhat more delible. A noble undertaking, yes? Read on.
Back to my obsession. The seed of this compulsion was sewn about a year ago when my cousin and her husband shared their curious new folding bicycles with me. These bicycles were manufactured by the Bike Friday Company out of Oregon. Now you see where the Friday comes in, right? I didn’t make the Crusoe connection at first. I just thought it was an odd name for a bike but eventually, as I came to know this category of bicycle better, the association to Friday’s footprint  became more obvious to me. Folding bikes make small footprints and that is a good thing. Far better than a large footprint wouldn't you agree. I had never encountered folding bikes before. This one even came in a suitcase! A quick demonstration of the origami-like folding characteristics, spawned much intrigue in me. I am not sure if it was the novelty of the bike’s design or the ‘nano-thing’ -- making something larger much smaller without altering its functionality -- that took root but regardless, I was hooked.
I won’t go into detail about how I eventually ended up with my folding bike because it would reveal too much of my obsessive/compulsive personality.  Let’s just say that by the time I went to the bike shop to make my eventual purchase, I knew more about the bike than they did and leave it at that. It was the easiest sale the guy ever made. This six-month web-browsing journey acquainted me with virtually every conceivable design for the folding bike category. And there are quite literally hundreds of them. Some were exotic like the Birdy, folding in mere seconds. Others were legendary like the UK-made Brompton. Some were cheap like the Citizen ($169) and some were very expensive like the Dahon Mu 30th Anniversary limited edition ($5000). That’s right. Four zeros. Count them. All however, were dedicated to the goal of maintaining the characteristics of what makes a bicycle a bicycle while at the same time, allowing it to fold into the smallest and lightest package possible so that it can be carried and stored easily. You might say, creating a smaller footprint.
Purchasing my bike (a Dahon Mu P8 by the way) is not the end of my story but rather  much closer to the beginning of it. After my purchase instead of shrinking, my obsession began to grow other branches. I became transfixed on the utilitarian advantage one gains from transforming larger things into smaller things, without compromising their intended purpose. The marriage of biking, canoeing and fishing into one seamless activity seemed a natural to me since I enjoy all three and I live relatively close to water. So I took to the task of designing a folding canoe caddy that could carry my canoe and some gear as well as be trailed safely and efficiently behind my folding bike. Also, since I was going to need to stow both my bike and the caddy in my smallish solo canoe, I also needed to have some added stability woven into the concept lest I find myself swimming along side the scattered bits of my creation, strewn about in thrift-sale fashion for the singular amusement of the various ducks and geese that inhabit the river. My canoe needed more stuff. You guessed it! A folding outrigger. With the help of the internet, I came up with a suitable design. I might add that pleased to find that I was not the only nut out there. In fact, I may be one of the saner ones. None of this tinkering was easy of course. There was lots of going-back-to-the-drawing-board . What seemed enticingly simple at first became, at least for me, extraordinarily complex. I’m not going to lie. There were failures which led to mission-fatigue and commitment-wavering. Suffering the indignity encountered because of a structural snaffoo in the middle of a busy street while trailing the whole shebang behind me was more than just disappointing. It was down right embarrassing. I mean I was kind of out there, my eccentricity fully exposed for all to see, giving those who would mock me, ample fodder to fuel their snickering. On those occasions, I was mildly inclined to leave the pile on the road like some child’s half-finished Lincoln Log project and limp away with my tail between my legs. Defeated but not yet beaten, I was able to make the changes that seemed called for and eventually I got everything to work the way it was supposed to. Well ... more-or-less. You see the solution to each problem seem to create an aesthetic compromise, another barnacle if you will, detracting from its …well…elegance. Elegance had to go. It its place was function. If it worked, it was good enough. The result is here before you. You be the judge.

The picture to the left shows the canoe on the caddy while attached to the bike using a self-designed travois made from pcv pipe. The travois is very important as it allows some flex to the apparatus. Since there is no shock absorption on the caddy, it was important to have some sponginess while attached to the bike. I won’t go into detail about the “design features” of the apparatus but I did want to display the finished product so readers could get the general idea. The picture also shows a large duffel-bag. This bag contains the stabilizing equipment, foldable seat, life jacket, small anchor and some ropes. 

The next set of pictures show the canoe as it will look when floating. You can see the stabilizing ‘out rigger’ attachment lashed to the gunwales, the folding seat and the collapsible canoe caddy in the bow. The other picture shows the bike folded and lashed into position in the stern of the canoe, just behind the seat.

You may have noticed that none of these pictures show me actually in the canoe, on the water, fishing pole in hand, with all the paraphernalia  secured neatly to the gunwales. That’s because I haven’t actually tried it. At this stage I am what you might call, small-c confident. I feel I may have over-capacitated the boat, and it might not handle well enough to manage the river that it is intended for. That is important because, in addition to floating in this rig, I also want to go ten miles downstream to where the bike path intersects with the river. At this time of year the river moves slow enough but there are many twists and turns that create eddies and back currents that might challenge the equipment beyond its capabilities. If all goes well, I will reassemble the canoe caddy, unfold the bike and hook it all up for the ride back home. Cool eh? Well maybe not. I told  you it was fool-hearty. Part two of this account will follow. Whether the project succeeds or fails, will make for good writing. Keeping checking in for updates.