The Outdoor Channel’s newest reality show puts 10 strangers in a voyageur-style canoe and sends them on a 750-mile journey across some of North America’s most rugged and beautiful terrain. The Brigade: Race to the Hudson debuts Monday evening, which means that you’re probably going to be fielding questions in the break room Tuesday morning. “Hey, I saw this show last night about canoeing. Isn’t that what you do?”
The show’s basic premise is whether a group of complete strangers can come together to retrace one of history’s most epic journeys, says the show’s Executive Producer, Alan Bishop. But it’s not a reenactment. The cast doesn’t dress up in period clothing, paddle birch canoes or survive on pemmican and pea soup.
“The big question is can these 10 people come together and complete these amazing adventure,” he says. “History creates the narrative.”
For paddlers, there’s another dimension. How would we fare? How would our experiences running whitewater in plastic kayaks and portaging Kevlar canoes prepare us for the challenges faced by the voyageurs?
Those water-cooler folks are going to have questions. So do we. Let’s get started.
When The Brigade was first announced a year ago we turned the first thought that came to our minds into a headline: Ain’t Nobody Going To Win The Million Dollars on ‘The Brigade.’
We didn’t put much analysis into that conclusion. After all, the plan was to have a made-for-TV cast retrace the York Factory Express canoe route from Oregon to the Hudson Bay in just 10 weeks. Considering it took the voyageurs themselves about 14 weeks to cover the distance, we went out on a limb and said nobody would take home the prize money.
Producers soon came to the same conclusion we did, and shortened the course. It still follows the historic York Factory Express route, but instead of covering the full 2,600-mile distance it’s now split into two sections totaling 750 miles. And instead of 10 weeks, the cast has 28 days to complete the journey, resupplying at seven caches along the way — if they can find them.
Navigation is part of the challenge, and judging by the Episode 1 screener we saw, it’s going to be a problem all the way to York Factory, or wherever they end up. The team uses a set of electronic maps on a tablet, only because carrying enough paper maps at the scale required wasn’t feasible, Bishop says. There’s no GPS. The cast has that tablet, a compass and their wits to find their way. If they miss a food cache they go hungry. If they pass a portage trail they have to backtrack.
This is no Bear Grylls special. Nobody’s grimacing for the camera by day and sleeping in hotels at night. “You have to craft a story, but the cast, the production team, the network — all of us want to make this as utterly real as possible,” Bishop says. “Every single person on the cast was pushed to the breaking point and there was definitely drama on the show.”
It sounds like great television, and just a little sadistic. It also seems like something the cast will be able to pull off, though our prediction about the million still holds true simply because the prize purse was reduced to $500,000, to be split evenly among everyone who reaches the finish. The realest thing about reality TV these days is that budgets are limited. The Brigade production had 35 people in the field, filming the cast’s adventures and providing logistics and safety. Covering the entire route, or shelling out $1 million in prize money, just didn’t pencil out.
The route nonetheless promises a varied set of challenges, not unlike what the voyageurs faced during the Express’s 19th century heyday. The first stretch from Castlegar, British Columbia to Jasper House includes a long upstream slog on the Columbia River, then a tough climb over the Rockies to the glacier-fed Whirlpool River, and finally down the Athabasca River to the historic fur trade depot in Jasper National Park.
The second section follows the Nelson, Hayes and Fox rivers across Manitoba. It starts in Norway House and finishes in York Factory, the Hudson Bay post that once served as headquarters for the Hudson Bay Company’s sprawling network of trade routes.
The two stretches clock in at about 375 miles each, and promise the full smorgasbord of canoe-trip challenges: Long distances, tough portages, powerful rapids and, it goes without saying, bugs.
The show’s breakout star might just be the 29-foot voyageur-style Clipper Langley canoe that carried the cast through hundreds of miles of Canadian wilderness, when they weren’t carrying it over gnarly portages.
The cast used Kokopelli Mirage packrafts on the Whirlpool River and spent some time in Pelican tandem canoes on the Athabasca, but did the bulk of the distance in the big canoe. It’s a fitting craft, not only for its similarity to historic voyageur canoes (though made of fiberglass rather than spruce and birch) but because it put the entire cast literally in the same boat. The Brigade is the unusual reality show that doesn’t pit contestants against each other. To reach York Factory and collect the prize they have to work together.
That was especially true when the team began running rapids in the 29-foot canoe. On paper at least, the team had the right mix of talent to drive the big canoe through anything. Vincent Coulcombe is a voyageur canoe guide who brought a wealth of experience and scholarly knowledge. Matt Aird is a longtime raft guide and Class V kayaker from British Columbia, and bearded Texan Austin Metheny is an all-around waterman at home guiding paddle rafts on the Ocoee or kayak fishing in the Gulf of Mexico.
In the whitewater, Austin and Matt worked together, one in the bow serving as lookout and the other steering in the stern.
“I sort of figured it was going to work like a big raft, but it was completely different,” says Matt, a 12-year raft guide and safety boater.
Before they tackled any rapids, the team had more than 100 miles of hard flatwater paddling to get used to the boat, upstream on the Columbia in 90-degree heat.
“We didn’t just jump into the whitewater with it and start rodeoin’ it instantly. There’s definitely some different paddle moves, but I was highly surprised by how smooth she went once we figured it out,” Austin says. Still, the system never got completely dialed. Austin and Matt weren’t at liberty to say how many times the big canoe went bottoms up, but the show’s trailer offers a sneak peak at the carnage from at least one such incident.
They ran a lot of rapids, in part because portaging a 29-foot voyageur canoe is a lot of work. The team came up with various methods to move the behemoth canoe, none of them fully satisfactory. A set of improvised slings was effective on broad paths, but there weren’t many of those. When the trail was rocky or overgrown, they just had to heave the canoe a yard or two at a time. That wasn’t pretty either.
The team did better in the packrafts, Austin says. “We had a lot of fun and it was a great learning opportunity for a lot of the more novice cast members to get confident on the whitewater,” he says. The tandem canoes proved more challenging.
So did they wreck too?
“You’re just going to have to tune in to be entertained.”
The key to any good reality show is an interesting cast, and the Brigade’s team of five Americans and five Canadians seems to fit the bill. There’s the retired Navy SEAL, Don. The surfer girl Carley, a registered nurse. Leroy is a firefighter and member of the Chippewa First Nation. Tracyn is a Spartan Race competitor with a set of arms that wouldn’t have looked out of place at Thermopylae. The youngest cast member, Dylan, is the son of a disgraced Montreal mayor. Traci is a veteran who hopes racing across Canada will help her heal.
It’s a pretty standard formula: Bring together an interesting group of people from different backgrounds. Give the audience someone to pull for. Quirkiness is a plus: Kaleb is a rodeo cowboy from Oklahoma who bonded with Austin over their shared love of noodling (catching giant catfish by ramming your fist down their throats).
The pair didn’t find much use for the technique in the rivers and lakes of Canada. “Everything up there’s too toothy,” Austin says. “But I fished my ass off. Everybody liked to fish and we really needed those extra calories.”
There was hunger and hardship. We’ll see beautiful rivers and country, inspiring teamwork and probably some personal conflict. As Bishop says, you have to craft a story. But Matt wants people to know that it was a great trip.
“It was just the funnest trip. I hope they get that across in the show, because being a TV show they want to focus on the struggles and the drama of it all. Fair enough, but even on the hard days it was so fun and the best part was the crew we had.” So do they make it?
You’re just going to have to tune in to be entertained.
The Brigade debuts Monday, April 22 on the Outdoor Channel.
The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak
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