Into the swarm – a microbiologist on assignment in the world’s largest kayak raft

Resident Adirondack photographer Nancy Battaglia flew overhead in a floatplane to get this amazing shot.

A few weeks ago I headed up to the Adirondack mountains in New York on a Saturday to be part of the truly unique One Square Mile of Hope event: a Guinness World Record attempt to create the largest floating kayak complex.  When I heard about this event two days before it happened, I instantly knew I had to drop everything and go.

Why would I need to be one of thousands of kayaks during this seemingly bizarre event (on a rainy day, I might add)?  Well, I do like kayaking. And, I’ll definitely take any excuse to head up to the Adirondacks.  Beyond this, the event raised over $100,000 for breast cancer research – I was certainly happy to contribute.


The movement of E. coli cells within a swarm. Darnton et al. 2010. Dynamics of Bacterial Swarming. Biophysics Journal. Volume 98, Issue 10: 2082–2090. See also: Berg Lab at Harvard University, Rowland Institute.

However, none of these were the number one reason for my participation.  In reality, I was (I can only imagine), the only microbiologist-on-assignment in that swarm of kayaks that day.

One aspect of microbiology that particularly interests me is the development of collective behaviors. When I saw aerial photographs of similar events in the past, I knew that there is probably no better way on the planet to experience what it would be like to be inside a swarm of microbial cells. The kayaks themselves, long and rod-shaped, are like the cells. They aggregate and line-up in a way analogous to micrographs I have seen of swarming bacteria.

Scott Chimileski Swarming Animalcule

Feeling like an individual cell in a swarm of bacteria: the moment when we all raise our paddles as we (hoped at that time to) beat the record!

Like a swarm of bacteria, this kayak raft also moved together. As the assemblage gained in size towards the final count at noon, everyone within the swarm was concerned that we would run adrift into a nearby island. The rules state that every kayak must contact an adjacent boat via hand contact alone, a transient bond not unlike those between swarming bacteria, and that the raft cannot touch the bottom.

Once the count was finished, we could then all raise our paddles at once – creating a collective sail that further accentuated the movement of the swarm.

So, did we beat the record? Yes! Though it was steadily raining and quite cool, there were 3,150 kayaks in that swarm! People came from 31 states and from several foreign countries to surpass the previous record by quite a large margin.

Check out how it is that they counted all these kayaks as well. Someone literally had to sit with an enlarged photo and count them one by one, marking them with tacks! Excellent work by all from the Kiwanis Club of the Central Adirondacks and One Square Mile of Hope who organized the event!

One Square Mile of Hope

More kayak-mounted GoPro photos and time-lapse videos from inside the swarm to follow!