Scaling the Heights: Concrete Canoe Team Prepped for 2018 Regionals

11 young men and women with canoe paddles and two canoes stand on the beach by the water
11 young men and women with canoe paddles and two canoes stand on the beach by the water
Four young people paddle two canoes on a waterway with green hills and autumn colors on the horizon
Michigan Tech's 2017-18 Concrete Canoe Team practiced on the Keweenaw Waterway right up until Thanksgiving.

The 2017-18 Michigan Technological University Concrete Canoe Team scored a big win before it even arrived at regional competition this weekend. Maneuvering a 20-foot vessel through a 10-foot hatch with scaffolding and a ceiling crane is in and of itself a reason to celebrate, says co-captain Liz Adams.

Regionals begin today as part of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) North Central Conference hosted by Western Michigan University and run through Sunday in conjunction with the steel bridge competition.

The concrete canoe team's new space in a basement workshop in Dillman Hall has its perks. It's on campus, and unlike the pole building off Garnet Street in Houghton, where the group worked in previous years, there's running water. But there's no way the canoe Backcountry will fit up the stairs. This is an innovative group, however, so no worries. The team formulated a plan that included building a ramp to drag the boat out. Adams, who had at first joked that she did not want to look —"just tell me when it's over"—says the team got the canoe out of the basement without a hitch. No ramp needed. "We physically handed the boat out through the 10-foot hole. I watched and helped."

a young man with a glue gun in a basement work area glues sticks together to make a bunkbed
The artistic touch: students crafted bunk beds to hold concrete samples in their display.

About Backcountry: each year, teams participating in the ASCE-sponsored Concrete Canoe National Competition are tasked to come up with an entry theme. The Michigan Tech team meets at the beginning of each academic year to hear member proposals. This year's choice, Backcountry, is a ski motif that pays homage to the specific characteristics of the Huskies connection to skiing on the Keweenaw Peninsula. In addition to Michigan Tech’s own ski hill, Mont Ripley, the oldest ski hill in Michigan, the University is in close proximity to Mount Bohemia, an advanced back-country ski hill that has been steadily gaining in national stature. The comprehensive theme is carried throughout the display, from the interior and exterior of the canoe to a lodge and yurt display area. Cylinders of the concrete mixes used to devise this year's canoe rest on miniature bunk beds.   

blue and white wooden stands that look like mountains in a basement work area
Backcountry's stands represent mountains, with the boat in between.

Papers, Presentations and Paddling

The 27-member team played upbeat music to set the mood while running several active workstations on a Sunday afternoon. The union of art and engineering, often in practice on the Michigan Tech campus, was evident in the intricate stone-laying of the lodge and other small details. Aesthetics are an important judging criterion. Nearby, a cross-section of the canoe material, another important component of the exhibit, awaited troweling. "This year we experimented with innovation for better performance," Adams explained. "We changed from five-millimeter basalt mesh to a fiberglass mesh."

A young woman stands by a concrete molded boat
The canoe rests on workstands in Dillman Hall basement. Her interior was painted at this point, but work was still being done on the exterior of the hull.

Competition components include a five-minute technical presentation that covers project management, hull design, structural analysis, research and design for mix and reinforcement, construction and finishing/aesthetics.

There are also five race categories, encompassing sprints and endurance runs. The team practices with prototypes on the Keweenaw waterway weekly right up to Thanksgiving break, then shifts to the indoor pool at the Student Development Complex. Following spring break in early March, the team once again took to open water, in nearby Baraga, Michigan. "We want to get the distance in," Adams says.

 Canoes are submerged in tanks prior to the competition to ensure they'll rise back to the surface. If you're wondering how concrete can float, it's because unlike traditional cement, water, sand and gravel mixes, student innovators substitute lighter, smaller spheres—like recycled hollowed glass or ceramic—for the gravel.   

students in shorts on the water by a beach paddling in two canoes
Michigan Tech's Concrete Canoe Team practices in prototype vessels last fall.

The canoe races are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, April 7 in Ramona Park in Portage, Michigan. The forecast calls for mostly sunny weather with a high of 40 degrees. Better conditions than some in recent history; two years ago, blustery downstate conditions forced organizers to call off the races.

A Winning Tradition

Not to put the canoe before the horse, but Michigan Tech typically qualifies for nationals, and has placed first in regionals 16 out of the past 22 years. If the team performs well again this year, it heads to California and the June 23-25 finals hosted by San Diego State University. Check out the Michigan Tech Concrete Canoe Team Facebook page for updates.

"There are high expectations and a lot of pressure."Liz Adams, Concrete Canoe Team Co-captain

The interdisciplinary team is based out of civil engineering but includes students from eight majors. Members are:

Liz Adams, 2019; Danny Jones, 2019; Emily Gamm, 2018, 2019; Leah DeSimpelare, 2019; Mary Kinney, 2020; Derrick Sullivan, 2021; Ryan Olsen, 2019; Mickala Kohtz, 2021; Charlie Hill, 2020; Cole Schilling, 2020; Amanda Bink, 2019; Conner Reed, 2020; Connor Green, 2019; Zeke Marchel, 2020; Sophie Steinbrueck, 2020; Nick Hoffbeck, 2020; Lauren Bowling, 2021; Nick Kippenhan, 2021; Joey Switala, 2020; Eric Sabourin, 2020; Jake Boecker, 2019; Karl Heindlmeyer, 2020; Allison Dagesse, 2020; Olivia Vargo, 2021; Jakob Janquart, 2018; Danielle Lautenbach, 2020; and Brock Hoffman, 2018.

Michigan Tech's Steel Bridge Team is also at regionals this weekend. Qualifiers from the regional contest will proceed to nationals at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign May 25-26. Follow their progress on the Steel Bridge Team Facebook page.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.