Google and its Trekker camera are making a virtual tour of the Charles

Evan Bradley , with the Charles River Conservancy, photographs the Charles River.
Evan Bradley , with the Charles River Conservancy, photographs the Charles River.

Tom McNichol has been boating on the Charles about four days a week for 12 years, picking up trash on his refurbished fishing boat as founder of the Charles River Clean Up Boat. But on Wednesday morning, he had a rather unusual call to make as he approached the Zakim Bridge.

“We are filming the Charles to put it on Google Earth,” he told the bridge operator in Tower A. “What we’d like to do is go through the bridge, make a quick swing around and then come right back. Can you accommodate us?”

The operator could: A few moments later, the commuter rail bridge ahead went up and McNichol steered his boat and cargo through.

It’s official: The Charles River is going virtual. For two weeks this month, Google has loaned out its famous “Trekker” camera to the Charles River Conservancy, a nonprofit, to take a panoramic portrait of the river from the Watertown Dam to the Boston Harbor.

The camera had a decidedly low-tech carrier: Part-time conservancy employee Evan Bradley, a 22-year-old graduate of Northeastern University who sat on a black trunk at the front of McNichol’s boat through the trip, with the Trekker hoisted on his back.

The business end of the contraption contains 15 lenses facing in different directions and looks like a soccer ball awkwardly welded to a boxy backpack. Every few seconds it takes a panoramic shot of its surroundings and stores the images in a built-in hard drive.

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It is most  famous for perching atop Google cars and capturing images for Google’s Street View project, but the Trekker has had off-road adventures of its own. Strapped to the back of hikers, it has provided a virtual tour of the Grand Canyon.

A camel named Raffia carried it through desert and sand dunes through the desert near Abu Dhabi, and it’s ziplined solo through the Amazon forest.

Back on the Charles, Bradley had been carrying the 40-pound camera for about two hours by the time the boat turned and started upriver. Google had sent him directions to put together the camera and control it with an attached smartphone. “How we film is up to us,” he said.

In the days before, he had carried the Trekker and travelled on the back bed of a maintenance vehicle along the paths by the Charles. Earlier in the day, he had boated upstream, allowing the Trekker to take in the woody banks near the Watertown Dam. Boat was easier than the cart, Bradley said: “At least I don’t have to dodge trees.”

When the tour is finished, the Trekker and all the images will return to Google. A team will stitch the photos together to provide a seamless, continuous view, so that a virtual visitor can step off Memorial Drive and float down the river in a matter of seconds, said Deanna Yick, a program manager at the Street View team at Google. The completed view will be available in the coming months.

“It’s certainly been drawing attention,” said Bradley, after students in a passing Duck Boat stared and waved. “People are used to seeing the cars all over for Google Street View but this is a bit of an anomaly for sure.”

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at
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