Morgan Simmons was a little startled by the crowd
– nearly 30 people, only a handful related to him, gathered at the dock
on Chautauqua Lake in western New York. Most of the well-wishers had
read in the local paper, The Chautauquan Daily, about the
27-year-old mechanical engineer’s maiden voyage down the Mississippi to
the Gulf of Mexico, and what began as a bit of a lark was looking

When Simmons planned his 2,180-mile, four-month trip, he was really
just searching for an excuse to camp out on his 18-foot hand-built
bicycle-powered pontoon, the Libelula. But now he had Cub
Scouts, news reporters, and elementary-school kids between here and
Louisiana waiting for him to expound on river conservation and
watershed awareness. Simmons gamely tried to smile for the cameras
while navigating the unexpectedly treacherous lake. Large motorboats
were swinging by to check out his strange craft, their wakes thrashing
the Libelula as though it were a toy boat. Then there
were the plastic belts linking the bikes’ drive train to the paddle
wheels, now wet and slipping, preventing him from going any faster than
2 knots.

His plan: beta-test his vessel for a week on the 18-mile-long lake,
then portage it to the Allegheny River, which connects to the
Mississippi via the Ohio.

Thus, on this muggy afternoon, at this inaugural stop, Simmons had
little choice but to pedal toward the dock. His slow approach afforded
the applauding crowd a good view of the Libelula, which
resembles a small white clapboard chapel set afloat. His epic trip may
not be the first time a pontoon has sailed down America’s great
interior waterways, but it’s definitely the first time a solar-powered,
Web-tracked, bicycle-propelled pontoon has been pedaled down Old Man
River by a bass-playing sea captain. He stripped a fishing boat down to
its deck, then built the chapel-like structure to house a small galley,
two bunks, a toilet, and a closet for his upright bass. He also
designed and built the pro­pulsion system: two bikes mounted on a frame
and hooked to paddle wheels made out of plastic trim and old bicycle

By Michael Erard

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