Do Not Attempt
[Video credit: Paige Reeves]
One year ago today, Robot Rickshaw (AKA “Troy Rogers”) and I piloted an unstable iceberg 500 feet down the Duluth Lakewalk in largely favorable winds, hugging the shore kinda, with a misplaced confidence that if the wind shifted, we’d be able to swim for it. But obviously this was a bad plan, a totally stupid plan, and we set a bad example by risking it. There is no way this level of jackassery can be made safe and every attempt must be made to disavow this irresponsible stunt of doing the totally cool thing.
In fact there was an actual moment of legitimate mortal panic. We’d initially had plans in case of emergency, and one of these idiot plans was to leapfrog iceberg-to-iceberg and step ashore with little consequence. It seemed perfectly feasible at first. But then the wind did shift for a few minutes. And I was like, well I’m dead. We knew this might happen, but we’d judged the odds at like less than 5%. And suddenly it was happening and we would quickly be faced with a very difficult swim to shore in adverse conditions.
I had checked the wind beforehand, and I knew it was forecast to be around 5mph, blowing gently down the shore – certainly less than 10mph. Anything more than 10mph winds and I would not have attempted this. But that aside, with this wind shift, we were not only going in the wrong direction all of a sudden, but had pulled away from any leapfrogging opportunities. So that avenue was cut off, and we both felt it like, “Well that’s not good.” So we started paddling for our lives basically. Too much more of that wind and we would have been out to sea and dead. No question. We would have been stone dead within 20 minutes if we had taken a dunk. That water was like 33 degrees or some shit. And as we found out soon enough, the ice raft was actually unstable AF. The water just off shore in this area quickly deepens to 10 feet plus. It was crystal clear and we could see boulders on the sea floor beneath us. But that ten feet plus would quickly become 30 feet plus and then you’re dealing with real weather.
Keep in mind, and this is no excuse, but Troy and I had been intimate with this ice for weeks during the People’s Free Skate, just prior to this. We had bonded with this ice on a spiritual level. And, it had been the structural foundation of our lives for the previous three weeks of rock n’ roll mayhem. We knew this ice on a deep level. This ice had busted multiple chainsaws not days before.
We did not advertise it in case of the kind of failure that eventually happened, but the hope had been to set a World’s Record Ice Carousel at the Free Skate. Troy had done a boatload of research about it and he is braniac engineer guy and it could have worked. But that bastard ice was too strong, even for the tester carousel. This ice had frozen the entire Lake Superior solid from here to Ontario. Its strength was the problem.
Although the ice sheet had broken up, some of these ice rafts were still 18 inches thick. We could see some candling effect around the edges – an effect of weakening ice, honeycombing with faults into “candles” like ice spikes. But we judged that if we stayed on the thicker middle regions, we’d basically be fine for a short float sesh. The plan was to let the wind blow us down shore, close to shore, although, there was some tussling about those precise margins during our voyage, as I turned out to be the conservative one. I was kind of like, well Troy has instantly gone mad now that we’re out here and he’s this Captain Ahab figure now but I’m also Captain Ahab, just a minutely more sensible one along certain narrow parameters maybe? And we’re both going to die for art. We started making plans like, okay, if the raft falls apart and we take a dunk, we throw our cameras to shore before anything else.
I blamed myself. It had been primarily my impetus. But I knew, that Troy knew, that there’d be one chance at this. The ice was falling apart fast, and one day of wind could sweep it all out to sea tomorrow. I knew, that if he was free and the day presented itself, that we would get this done. We had to. And we knew it was dangerous, but we also knew what we were doing a little bit.
And obviously, we were going to document the whole thing in costume. It’s funny to me how we didn’t even talk about that part. It was just a given that our costumed alter-egos would be the ones to step aboard. So when we met at the shore to do this, the first thing we did was get in costume just completely unspoken.
So we’d figured this light wind would blow us right up onto the Canal Park beach – if the craft was stable enough to get us there. We’d put in below Va Bene. And that initial moment the wind shifted as I say, but it was just an eddy in the breeze after all. We didn’t know that yet and were paddling furiously to get closer to shore, within minutes of having set off. But once the wind fell in line with prediction, we relaxed more and just let it do the work. As the video was taken by Paige Reeves, a happenstance witness, we are sailing in front of Fitger’s, towards the Vietnam Memorial, towards the beach. We’re maybe 25-30 feet from shore and that was quite far enough.
The candling around the edges kept busting apart as other icebergs collided with us in the flow. We had gotten hung up on a submerged boulder just off shore, and the wave action, mild as it was, thumped us on it pretty good like three times. And while it had no discernable, structural effect, the raft did have these little fault lines, and we just didn’t want them to get any bigger. And, things we had not predicted began to occur. This is because we did not know what we were doing. But even with the small swell, water began occasionally washing over the top of our ice raft.
So it wasn’t good. We were taking heavy damage relatively quickly and it was time to find a good stepping stone off this thing. The shore was all rip rap, i.e piled boulders. We artfully swung around on this submerged one and eased back into the flow towards a better spot. Before a few more minutes was up, we had steered it to shore and disembarked with Fitger’s parking ramp in view. I stepped to dry land (boulders), and as soon as Troy had stepped to shore too, the craft completely disintegrated in that very instant and that is not hyperbole, I saw it with my own eyes. It was so instantaneous, Troy didn’t even realize it had happened until I pointed it out. He had stepped off candled ice that felt 100% solid – I had just stepped off it myself – and it immediately disintegrated. There were some larger chunks left of the raft as a whole, but none of the pieces would have supported us. It was truly stupid, and so we are lucky to have timed everything so precisely perfectly almost like we knew what we were doing to an astonishingly accurate degree.
But what we planned for was a 95%+ safe stunt: Iceberg Ride. In the field, every bit of that tolerance evaporated and it became zero percent safe immediately. We were on the ice raft an hour tops. Closer to 45 minutes. Max travel length, 500 feet. Drinks were served under Maritime Law. We left no trace. I regret my actions and I was scared shitless.
The only way to do something like that even remotely safely, would be to do it with proper suits and support craft. But the proposition itself is monstrous.
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