Monitoring the Canoe

I have been too busy working on this project to actually document it. That’s my issue with blogging in general. But these photos give a good idea of the steps we have taken to get the monitors into the canoe.

Pouya the "glue-ya" Emami.

The first thing we had to do was crack open the very nice Acer 27″ touch-screen monitors purchased for the project. I started cracking one open myself and just couldn’t go through with it. The controls seemed to be glued into the bezel (monitor frame), and I figured we would have to do some sawing. So I handed this destructive task off to Pouya, who had no problem with the job since he, after all, didn’t have to pay for the monitors! Pouya managed to find the magic tab that released the bezel, so no sawing was required in the end. Once they were cracked open and the bezels were off, we had to glue the interior pieces together so they wouldn’t jiggle around (see above).

Monitor arm ready to go.

We secured three pieces of plywood to the floor of the canoe, where we could attach the monitor arms. The arms themselves are designed for TV’s. Off the shelf at Best Buy. My very generous neighbour Peter tried to set me up with the fanciest monitor arms in the world, but they proved to be overkill for this project. We only needed to raise monitors about 8 inches from the base of the canoe.

Monitors and plumbline.

Getting the monitors lined up was no easy task. We ended up using a plumbline, which worked quite well. We had to shim up each monitor with added pieces of 2×3. Another snag. And speaking of snags, the next post will describe the fishing line adventure. All 12 kilometres of it.

Here’s a shot of the fishing-line-on-monitor test, which yielded great results.

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Pouya’s Back End

I failed to mention that months ago, Pouya the CML lab-tech came up with a great tool to power the back-end of the project. What we need is an interface that will essentially “push” information back and forth between the canoe in the gallery and people who visit the steersman web site. As explained here already, the web interface will allow people to virtually run their hands along the screens in the gallery. What this means is that the canoe can come to life at any time, even if there is no one physically touching it.

The back-end tool we’ll be using is APE (Ajax Push Engine). Pouya has set up a demo at the site below. To see it in action, open the link in two separate browsers, and watch them interact.

Happy pushing.

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Rockin’ the Cradle

A crucial step in working on the canoe has been the design of a cradle. The canoe has to rest on something in the gallery, after all. It is such an important component of the project that it took me months to properly conceptualize and build a prototype. A major breakthrough was stumbling upon a birch bark canoe on display at Kitchener City Hall.

Birch Bark Canoe, Kitchener City Hall

Birch Bark Canoe on display at Kitchener City Hall

The cradle is designed so that the canoe interior is the focus of the display, which is precisely the design needed for “Myth of the Steersman.” The angle of the canoe also suggests a possible capsizing, which is also an effect I am trying to achieve with the project.

Canoe cradle, side angle.

A side view of the cradle.

This side view reveals the basic design for the cradle, which provides a surprisingly solid grasp on the canoe. Of course, in a gallery setting, where people are being invited to touch the canoe, we will need a more secure method of tethering the canoe to the cradle.

My first plan was to simply build a prototype based on the photograph above, but with the help of Cheryl York at the City of Kitchener, I managed to get in touch with the designer of the cradle, Mike Proksch. As luck would have it, Mike still had the form he used to design the cradle, and he was generous enough to lend it to me. This led to the easy creation of a prototype, with a slightly different angle.

Canoe Cradle Prototype.

Cradle prototype for "Myth of the Steersman."

After months of agonizing, it all came down to a 2×4 and a half-sheet of plywood. Thanks, Mike! Of course, the final version will have to stand 18 inches taller, look a whole lot prettier than this prototype, and include a storage box for the computers that make the project work. But Mike’s canoe cradle was a gigantic step.

Canoe Stand Prototype with Canoe.

Here is the prototype doing its job in the shop at THEMUSEUM.

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Article in The Record

Robert Reid write a fine article about the project for The Record:
UW prof wins award for project probing the mystery of Tom Thomson’s canoe

He showed up for our meeting in an Alogonquin Park hat, so I knew it was going to be a serious interview. Here’s a sample form the article:

O’Gorman contends that Thomson viewed his canoe as a canvas, not unlike the panels and canvases on which he painted his landscapes. In the process, Thomson’s canoe became a moveable landscape within a landscape.

I didn’t say the part about “a landscape within a landscape.” Rob did. Nice.

There article also featured a photo of the portage downtown with Pouya. Pouya, by the way, has been working away on the backend for the interface. More on that later.


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On Sunday I gathered a courageous crew, and we portaged from my house to Victoria Park for a video shoot.

Headed down Schneider Ave with Pouya "the canoe-ya!" Emami.

The purpose was to capture some images of the inside of the canoe while it was rocking gently in the water. These will be used in the interface for the project — if they turn out.

I have never seen a boat on this small lake. May have something to do with the 10 metres of goose "sludge" beneath the surface.

It was windier than expected. At first, we tried shooting from a bridge, looking down into Victoria Park Lake. But there was too much current and too much canoe movement to get the right shots.

Should we hang $30000 worth of equipment over the edge of this bridge?

Maybe not.

We headed upstream to a calm and shady location. Pouya and Kevin, wearing goose-dung-resistant clothing, reached out and held the canoe in place while I messed around with the tripods and cameras, angling them precariously over the bank of the river. The rest of the story is not very interesting since it involved taking the same shots over and over for a couple of hours. But what was interesting was the 1 km portage from Victoria Park to THEMUSEUM on King Street.

No beaver dams in sight.

Press that button and they will bring you pemmican.

Phew, a transition area.

The mayor's new yacht.

Our final destination at last. No more dirty looks -- not that we could see them.

It was difficult locking the canoe away, all by itself in the bowels of THEMUSEUM, which happens to be hosting a major exhibition of artifacts from the Titanic. But next week we’ll start dressing it up for its own show, which will be of less titanic proportions.

Nice shot, Sophia. A titanic shot, really.

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Reid This

In Saturday’s issue of The Record, Robert Reid reviewed Northern Light by Roy Macgregor and Defiant Spirits by Ross King. Very different approaches to Thomson, both designed to breathe fire into the “myth and mystery.” Smart writing all around, including the review.

While you’re at it, check out Reid’s piece on the Tom Thomson show forthcoming at THEMUSEUM.

Up next, a portage from Schneider Avenue to THEMUSEUM, via the City Hall reflection pool. Here’s a preview:

Tom was here.

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A Break in the Case?

Over the past couple of weeks, the Globe and Mail has featured stories about the Thomson mystery, inspired primarily by the release of Roy MacGregor’s book Northern Light: The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thomson. Naturally, the most substantial story is provided by MacGregor himself, who writes about recent forensic work that provides proof that… well, it doesn’t provide proof of much. MacGregor documents the “CSI-style” work of a dentist, orthodontist, and archaeologist, who based their investigation on a previously undisclosed image of what is purported to be Tom’s skull (dug up in 1956). Read all about it here, but don’t expect to get any answers about how Tom died, and don’t expect to see any cool CSI-inspired visualizations of Tom’s reconstructed head with a hole in it.

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Ghost Canoe

Near Wapomeo Island on Canoe Lake.

After a night of holding our breath while bears tramped around the camp site, we awoke at dawn and headed to Canoe Lake for a photo shoot. Perfect morning of mixed clouds, and the sun was just emerging as we hit the water.

Kevin abandoned me on a rock so I could get this towing shot.

After several attempts to decipher the maps and instructions we had printed from the web (including some very unreliable navigational concoctions), we managed to paddle our way to the area between Wapomeo Island and Little Wapomeo Island, which is where Thomson’s canoe was found overturned before his body was discovered. This is where we decided to do the shooting.

Approaching Little Wapomeo Island.

This shooting session can only be described as “eerie.” Our task, after all, was to attempt a recreation of the discovery of Tom’s overturned canoe. We seemed to be alone on a deserted lake, and we found ourselves whispering, in spite of the fact that the we weren’t planning to record audio.

I have left the sound in the video below to give a better sense of what we experienced. As if it wasn’t bad enough to recreate this scene once, I had Kevin paddle in circles around the overturned canoe at least a dozen times before we got the right shot. With each time around, we seemed to spin deeper and deeper into mystery of Tom’s death. Of course, we did not get any closer to the truth.

We cappped off the morning with a trip to Thomson’s cairn at Hayhurst Point. We were impressed by the short, rocky climb from the dock to the memorial place, which made getting to the cairn a small adventure in itself. It’s easy to see why Tom used to enjoy camping out here.

The dock at Hayhurst Point, leading to Tom Thomson's Cairn.

Tom Thomson's cairn

The cairn.

But somehow, the trip to the cairn seemed anti-climactic after the ghost canoe experience. This pile of rocks, as hallowed as it is, doesn’t seem to capture the spirit of Tom like a cedar and canvas canoe, skimming across Canoe Lake at sunrise.

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Christening: Testing the Waters

Easy does it.

Last Sunday my neighbour Kevin and I packed the canoe onto his pickup and headed to Algonquin Park for the “christening.” We were paranoiacally careful with the tie-down, using thick towels beneath the straps and a foam pads all around. Kevin was generous enough to use his own truck, and a new hitch attachment that now allows him to justify the purchase of a canoe.

When we arrived at Algonquin Park, we went directly to the Portage Store. Our goal was to unstrap the canoe, put it in the water, and see what happens. This would, at the very least, be a quick christening before the canoe is (perhaps brutally) transformed into an installation. We parked at the Portage Store and went to see the manager. She seemed perplexed by our proposal.

Us: “We want to put a cedar and canvas canoe in the water and see if it floats.”
Her: “Ok. Where is your park pass?”
Us: “Well, we’re going to camp, so we plan to get one there. We’re also going to rent a kevlar canoe so that we can tow our cedar one around.”
Her: “Did you pay for parking? You’ll get a ticket.”
Us: “Oh.”
Her: “So you boys just want to play around in the water?”
Us: “Time for a team meeting.”

That last humiliating comment was good for a laugh, and is one of the funniest memories of the trip, along with Kevin’s attempts to catch a chipmunk with a stick, a Tupperware container, and a length of rope. We decided to check in at the campground first.

When we returned to Canoe Lake, I asked to speak to the manager again. I gave her my card and explained the project. Maybe I should have tried this approach earlier. She was generous enough to give us a place to store the canoe overnight, and she offered her assistance with navigating the Tom Thomson hotspots in the park.

By this time, the sun was setting, most of the tour buses had cleared out, and the lake was incredibly calm. We eased the canoe off a dock and into the water. No leaks after a few minutes of shooting photos.

Picture perfect conditions.

With our confidence up, we rented paddles and jackets, and climbed into the vessel. It was an incredible experience to lower myself into the belly of this beast and hear her creaking and moaning. She held up very well. At first. So we set out onto Canoe Lake for a test ride. After only a minute or so of paddling, Kevin noticed a puddle under his seat, and sadly, it couldn’t be blamed on Tim Hortons. Shortly after, I watched as the water started bleeding in through the bow. Time to head back.

The christening is official.

We pulled the canoe out of the water and stored her in the parking place reserved for us by the generous manager. Then we rented an ultralight kevlar canoe, a very distant cousin to the cedar and canvas animal we had just ridden moments before. But it got us out onto the lake in safety, and we scoped out the next day’s photo shoot. More about that in the next post.

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I forgot to mention a thrilling event that took place during the painting process. I was nearly finished sanding the canoe, working my way from the stern to the bow, when I noticed an off-coloured smudge adjacent to the copper trim that caps off the bow.

Can you see it?

You can imagine my first impression when I stood back to observe the smudge. Had I sanded down to a remnant of gray-blue paint? Is this classic green hue hiding an entire dove gray canvas? Is it possible that this is not a Prospector after all, but a Cruiser purchased in, say, 1915?  This fantasy raced through my mind in about 1.5 seconds and left me shivering. Then I was struck by the obvious: duct tape. At some point, someone must have duct-taped the bow to prevent a leak, and they missed a small piece when they removed it; further evidence that this baby might not be happy in the water. This very brief event would make for an excellent start to a mystery novel. Next project, maybe.

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