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Show Boaters Six world-class kayakers are plotting an around-the-world trip that's part Endless Summer, part Real World. If they pull it off, they just might redefine reality TV

March 17, 2003
March 17, 2003

Table of Contents
March 17, 2003

Inside Soccer

Show Boaters Six world-class kayakers are plotting an around-the-world trip that's part Endless Summer, part Real World. If they pull it off, they just might redefine reality TV

The scene could go like this. Open on Brad Ludden, handsome young
professional kayaker. It is late afternoon, and a hard diagonal
rain pockmarks the water. Exhausted and cramping from poor
nutrition, he leads a small contingent of paddlers through a
murky river in the jungles of Uganda. (Or is it Zambia? He has
lost track of where he is and, more ominously, who he has
become.) As he rounds a bend, the surface of the river suddenly
erupts. The camera shakes wildly, but the crocodile can still be
seen clearly, its gaping maw threatening to engulf the prow of
the boat.

This is an article from the March 17, 2003 issue

Ludden, however, thrusts past it and leads the group to safety.
Clear of the beast, he turns and smiles at Samantha, the
Maxim-hot, mesquite-tough brunette in the kayak behind him. She
scowls back but the camera lingers, for there is something unsaid
in her eyes. Does she hate Ludden or merely hate herself for
lusting after him? No doubt all will become clear in the cutaway
interviews.

Intrigued? Ludden sure hopes so. While the above scene is
fiction, it is the sort of drama that Ludden promises will unfold
when he leads five elite kayakers and a film crew on a
seven-month, around-the-world journey starting this summer. The
trip is unprecedented not only in its scope--it will cover 54
countries--but also in the method by which Ludden plans to fund
it: by turning the footage into both a feature film and, in what
would be a first for an expedition, a reality TV show complete
with characters, conflict and romance. Says the 21-year-old river
rat from Kalispell, Mont., "I see it as The Eco-Challenge meets
Endless Summer meets Friends."

Of course, many other ideas have been pitched with brio before
flickering out. But if Ludden's project succeeds (and that's a
big if), it will mark not only the next step in the evolution of
adventure sports financing but also in reality television, with
the athletes or characters controlling the situation rather than
the producers. Even if Ludden and his fellow paddlers, who have
yet to sign on sponsors or a network for their August launch,
receive only enough funding for a bare-bones trip, their proposal
represents how far outdoor athletes are willing to go in the name
of the next epic adventure.

"We start here, in Montreal," Ludden says, stabbing a finger on a
map of the world that hangs in his apartment just outside Vail,
Colo. He is wearing his hat backward, a pullover, jeans and trail
shoes, all of which, except the pants, are emblazoned with the
name of his gear sponsor. He is earnest yet easygoing,
reminiscent of the cool kid in high school who was beloved by
both jocks and geeks.

He shifts his finger north and east. "Next is Norway, where we
fly to pick up the rest of the crew. Then--" the finger dives
southeast to the tip of Africa, to Cape Town. He traces a path up
through Swaziland and on to Uganda, where the team will attempt a
section of the White Nile that's been run only once. "There'll be
crocs and snakes and Class V rapids. Hippos attacking our boat.
Guerrilla warfare." Ludden smiles. "So that should be
interesting."

After a first descent on the Blue Nile, the crew continues
through Egypt to Morocco and then through Europe in a couple of
"piece-of-crap cars" the group will buy on-site. After a week on
the Trans-Siberian Railroad, it's on to Tibet, where the kayakers
will put in amid snow and ice high on the Mekong River and paddle
its roiling waters through five countries before reaching the
South China Sea. After a two-week "chill out" in the South
Pacific, it's off to South America, then Central America and
Mexico, and finally back to the States, where, Ludden predicts,
"we'll be kissing the ground." He retracts his finger and steps
back from the map, admiring it. "We will have lived a lifetime in
seven months," he says. "Sometimes I tear up just thinking of
what it'll be like."

Skeptics might say that, given the financing issues and the
inherent dangers--from injury to illness to the risk of being an
American abroad during a potential war or messy postwar
period--thinking about it is as close to finishing the trip as
Ludden will come. Judging by his track record, though, he may
just have the skill, p.r. savvy and ambition to see through this
project. At 21, Ludden has already run rivers in more than 35
countries and launched a successful kayaking camp for children
with cancer (now going on its third year, in Vail and
Chattanooga). In 2000 Nike made him the company's first sponsored
kayaker, for which it pays him a generous salary. "Brad has a
genuineness that everyone relates to," says Trask McFarland, a
maker of kayak films who is accompanying the crew as a cameraman
and producer. "He could sell you anything."

That skill will be tested with this expedition, which Ludden,
McFarland and Ben Selznick, one of Ludden's kayaking buddies,
dreamed up last August. The trio is looking for more than $3
million in funding, though Ludden estimates the group could still
do a "perfect" job with $1 million and could "pull it off" for
roughly $200,000. Aware that rounding up seven figures through
traditional sponsors could be tough, the group hatched the idea
of the film and TV show and put together a proposal under the
umbrella of McFarland's film company, New Rider Productions.

The multimedia plan includes a book, which Ludden hopes to write,
and the movie, which the trio is positioning as more cultural
feature than "kayak porn," as the sport's big-wave highlight
videos are commonly called. Says Ludden, "I expect it to be 10
percent on the water and 90 percent off it. I think this film
could be a landmark for our generation." Ambitions for the TV
show are not quite as highbrow, to say the least. As set out in
the proposal, the cast of characters reads as if it came from
Real World: On the Amazon. World-class kayaker and adventure
racer Samantha Gehring, 29, is touted as "America's extreme
sweetheart" and "about the hottest catch that could be found."
Selznick, 25, is the "Redneck Beefcake," who will "be blunt and
rude to women if he feels they are getting themselves into
danger." The other three team members--accomplished kayakers
Mariann Saether, 22; John Grossman, 23; and Alex Nicks, 30--are
similarly sketched out. As for Ludden, his nickname is Lusty, and
he is "the most well-rounded and naturally gifted kayaker," as
well as the one who "will go out of his way for girls and could
be highly distracted by them." In reference to Gehring, the bio
adds, "Undoubtedly Brad will put his moves on Sam." (When
Ludden's girlfriend, Darcy Zimmerman, is asked what she thinks of
the proposal, Ludden hastily answers for her: "She hasn't seen
it.")

Outdoor purists might see this pitch as sacrilege; there is an
unspoken rule in the adventure community that participants should
not be in it for the fame or the money, but rather just to make
enough to keep doing what they love. Ludden and McFarland,
however, say they're not selling out by setting up their
expedition with a TV series and a film in mind. Says McFarland,
"The reasons are pure; we're not doing it for some million-dollar
prize at the end or something. And we'll have creative control
out there."

Therein lies both the biggest innovation and the biggest
stumbling block of the proposal. Despite its tag, "reality" TV
has always been anything but. Whether it was the contrived
sociality of Real World, the incited suffering of Eco-Challenge
or the combination of the two--as best exemplified by
Survivor--the genre relies on drama invented and largely
controlled by producers. Ludden's brainstorm is to switch the
paradigm and have the players in charge of not only what happens
but also what gets filmed. "It's a great idea and the obvious
next step in reality TV," says professor Robert Thompson,
founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular
Television at Syracuse University. "To date I haven't heard of it
being done."

What are the chances it will see airtime? There is precedent for
the series--in addition to Eco-Challenge, a number of smaller
reality-type adventure events, including Primal Quest and Global
Extremes, have been televised on the Outdoor Life Network. Says
Thompson, "The competition is absolutely fierce for these shows
right now. But people may be tiring of the dating and eating
maggots thing. This has a legitimate sports appeal and a soap
opera element. If it works, and by that I mean if there is
fighting and sex, then I could see it finding a place."

Neil Pilson, a television consultant and the former president of
CBS Sports, isn't as optimistic. "All the reality shows are
pretty carefully controlled," he says. "Simply to agree to take
film from a bunch of kayakers who made the plot line--that might
be pushing the concept too far."

Regardless, the fact that Ludden & Co. are pitching the idea is
novel in itself. No longer is it enough to don a sponsor's
clothes or scarf down its energy bars when cameras are rolling.
Today's young adventure athletes have learned from their elders.
They saw Kelly Slater's video games and Tony Hawk's commercials,
and they took note of the need to "brand" oneself. "It's the
nature of our industry now," says Ludden. "We all do it. Whether
it's promoting a film or basic self-promotion, it's part of the
deal."

As Ludden says this, he sits at a cafe in Vail, stroking his
nascent blond goatee. It seems the perfect contemplative shot to
end on--gotta leave room for the commercials--so we pan to the
ski slopes behind him and fade to black. For now.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFFREY LOWE [INSIDE COVER] AROUND THE WORLD IN 200 DAYS Brad Ludden plots his blockbuster: six kayakers, six continents--with a Hollywood ending THE PRODUCER The 21-year-old Ludden envisions a book, a reality TV show and a film for his expedition.COLOR PHOTO: JEFFREY LOWE (BRAD) BRAD, 21 The expedition leader; in the TV pitch he's dubbed "Lusty" and called the team's "most well-rounded and gifted paddler."COLOR PHOTO: DAN ARMSTRONG/NRP (MARIANN AND BEN) BEN, 25 One of Brad's oldest friends, described in the show proposal as the "Redneck Beefcake," who can be "blunt and rude."COLOR PHOTO: JAMES GROSSMAN (JOHN AND SAM) SAMANTHA, 29 In addition to being a top paddler, she is also an elite adventure racer; deemed a possible love interest of Brad's.COLOR PHOTO: MARC GODDARD (ALEX) ALEX, 30 Filmmaker-kayaker described as "John Cleese meets Hugh Grant, a man for whom humor is a lethal weapon."COLOR PHOTO: DAN ARMSTRONG/NRP (MARIANN AND BEN) MARIANN, 22 Arguably the world's top female paddler, the former synchronized swimmer will join the expedition in her native Norway.COLOR PHOTO: JAMES GROSSMAN (JOHN AND SAM) JOHN, 23 The most laid-back member of the expedition; being counted on to soothe any tension in the group.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BEN SELZNICK HIGH DRAMA Saether (above, in Iceland) will get plenty of airtime over the seven months, both in the water and out of it.COLOR MAP: MAP BY STEVE STANKEWICZ [The Route] --Air travel --Overland/water travel

The ROUTE

Tracing a route that covers 54 countries and nearly 100 rivers,
Brad Ludden and mates will tackle some of the planet's most
perilous whitewater. To bridge the gap between rivers, the group
will travel by car, by train and on foot, frequently dropping in
on the locals. Here are some of the trip's on-the-water
highlights.

NORWAY
Includes descents on some of the world's most beautiful--and
scary--waterfalls.

UGANDA
A harrowing trip on the White Nile, a hub of crocs, snakes and
malaria.

RUSSIA
Will take train across Siberia to Lake Baikal, the world's
deepest lake.

MEKONG RIVER
Will paddle from its headwaters high in the Himalayas through
five countries.

PATAGONIA
"It's known for its climbing," says Ludden, "but it has some sick
water."

"People may be tiring of THE EATING MAGGOTS THING. This has a
legitimate sports appeal and a soap opera element."