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Show Boaters

Brad Ludden plots his blockbuster: six kayakers, six continents -- with a Hollywood ending

By Chris Ballard

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The 21-year-old Ludden envisions a book, a reality TV show and a film for his expedition.  Jeffery Lowe
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.

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 café 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.

Issue date: March 17, 2003

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