This story originally appeared in Rolling Stone
Matt Kirsch surveys the crowd of amateur adventurers gathered outside Con & Bob’s Lakeside Bar and smiles. On any other Saturday, he is a 36-year-old father of two who produces insurance videos for a living; but on this August morning, as the sun hangs low over the water in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, he is “Cap’n Matt,” supreme commander and master of ceremonies of PaddleQuest, a “fantasy paddling adventure” he founded in 2002. And he clearly revels in his responsibilities.
“This is the 14th year of PaddleQuest. We started this off once upon a time with Lord Houlihan and King Mike to keep the river safe from various evils,” he says into a microphone. “From here it gets pretty complicated.”
He’s not kidding.
“King Mike became ‘Lakeside Mike’ once he got rid of the monarchy thing and started working down here at Lakeside tending bar. So he’s now trying to reclaim control — with Lord Houlihan — over the Backwaters, because Bear, as you know, was leader of the Backwaters in the past, and he went into the portal and disappeared,” Kirsch continues. “Lakeside Mike also happens to be a totem master, so he has totem clues. The totems are circular, oak-log cookies. They are chained up out there on the water. You don’t need to go tromping through the woods. Find the other two totem masters and ask them, ‘Are you a totem master?’ If they are, they will say yes, but you have to be persistent, because they may have forgotten.”
If none of that makes sense, don’t worry, it’s not supposed to. Even those who participate in PaddleQuest have a hard time trying to explain it. Officially, it’s a canoe and kayak race. But it’s also a narrative story experience, an improvisational community theater experiment and a treasure hunt. It’s live-action role-playing, Woodstock on the water, an outdoor, all-day drunkfest, but you still have to keep your shit together — there’s a maze of islands to navigate in the Backwaters, which is tough to do with a buzz, especially when you’ve got Bog Demons lurking around every turn.
Some questers compete for glory, some for adventure and finding clues. For others, it’s a chance to camp out for the weekend next to a north-woods bar, pound beers with some interesting folks, and occasionally take to the water. In some instances, winners receive a five-foot-tall homemade trophy and are deemed “Protectors of the Backwaters.” Of course, you can also take home a bag of coffee beans for your efforts. Not that it really matters.
“I think it’s a perfect game. There is competition, but it rewards cooperation. Everybody get to play, nobody gets eliminated,” says Zachary Baldus, an artist and member of team Chica Chic Caw. “The first year I played, I was in the B-class, which is two-person teams, and we won and I don’t think I could have been more excited if I had just won an Academy Award. It was a peak moment, man.”
After paddling the Backwaters, a quester competes in a checkpoint challenge. James Card
Kirsch inadvertently started all this in 2002, while he was finishing up college at Loyola University and made a mockumentary of a canoe race. He rounded up some buddies to pull it off and filmed it around his home waters of Stevens Point on the Wisconsin River. It was so fun they did it again the next year. A storyline developed, one of fantasy and adventure. People took on roles and became characters. They called it PaddleQuest. It became an annual tradition among friends — who, in turn, brought in friends of their own. A website was made and the cult following grew. Kirsch and his volunteers took it to other waterways and held quests in Milwaukee and Minneapolis, but the one in Stevens Point is considered the best.
Kirsch doesn’t make any money off the event, just enough to cover the expenses, and he has incorporated it into a nonprofit organization that is teamed with the Community Foundation of Central Wisconsin. He even got a grant this year that allowed him to do a little marketing. He has made plenty of friends in the process and also met his wife, Brittney, at a PaddleQuest, where sudden romantic relationships are not uncommon.
“It’s like the last day at adult summer camp,” he confides to me later.
But right now, he is all about the semi-serious business at hand: Officially beginning PaddleQuest 2015. He surveys the crowd of some 200 paddle-clutching questers and attempts to offer some last-minute advice.
“I see a lot of new teams out here today, so if you’re a little confused, don’t worry, just ask somebody for some information. They will probably lie to you. Beware of misinformation, new questers. Misinformation is very prevalent at PaddleQuest,” he says. “Do not believe everything you hear, especially if it comes out of the mouth of one of the veteran teams who are eyeing the prize. They will try to trade you some river rocks for your magic cape. Don’t do it! Keep your cape. Keep your helm, and you might get a Bi-Force. You need to get the cape and the helm before you can get the Bi-Force. Once you get the P, then you can get the Q. I hope that is clear. Clear as mud.”
The crowd cheers. But before the race begins, the mayor of Stevens Point has to fire his cannon. Not many mayors have their own wheeled cannon, but Mike Wiza does. A buddy made it for him. “We’re not going to shoot a projectile from it — just going to wad it up,” he says as he looks over the lake. “It should echo pretty good out here.” He lights the fuse and the blackpowder blast is strong enough to rattle the boat dock.
The questers dig in their paddles and launch an armada of watercraft: Colemans, Pelicans, Wenonahs, Mad Rivers, Old Towns, Sedas, Sea Eagles, Alumacrafts, and other canoes and kayaks of uncertain, garage-made origins.
The field of participants is just as diverse. There are lawyers, laborers, engineers, artists, and cooks; there are stoners and businessmen; high-functioning alcoholics and body-as-temple athletes; backwoods rednecks and big city refugees from Chicago and Minneapolis. There are twentysomethings and graybeards and adorable little kids running around wearing wings (they are playing the role of river fairies, you see), plus a good amount of wet dogs with soggy tennis balls in their mouths.
Founder Kirsch (in cowboy hat) and his crew head out to the Backwaters. James Card
The closest place to go is Bear Island. Some questers head there first, while others aim for the further reaches of the Backwaters. Upon landfall at Bear Island, questers are met by a giant wall of tree roots the size of a small house. Beyond the massive upturned tree and through the foliage, there is a painted sign that reads, “Bear Island Path.” From here, it gets weird.
Along the trailside are odd sticks, a Blair Witch–inspired fence and voodoo masks dangling from tree branches. There is another painted sign: “MEDICINE MAN CHALLENGE. FIND THEN ACT OUT THE 4 SOUNDS OF LIFE 2 ADVANCE.” The trail leads to a primitive campsite with a ragged teepee and a lean-to abode, the home of Booger, the Prophet Champion. He wears a purple robe.
His real name is James Maher, and he’s Matt’s old college roommate. In the 14 years of PaddleQuest, he’s only missed one. (“It grows on people,” he explains, “They really like it.”) Questers begin making their way down the path while whistling, laughing, howling, and yodeling. They are making the four sounds of life. Booger rounds them up and explains the next challenge, a kind of verbal tag-you’re-it game.
“You stand in a circle and you jump and clap and then you say the correct word clearly. The first person says ‘zip,’ like a zipper; then ‘zap,’ like a ray gun; then ‘zot,’ like ‘zulu-omaha-tango,’ not ‘zop.’ And that’s it. It’s largely about the enunciation,” Booger says. “We’re not trying to be pricks and rule anybody out, but that’s, like, the whole game. It has to be clear who you’re marking, and whomever screws up is eliminated and the circle closes.”
A flap of the teepee opens and the Medicine Man emerges waving a wrapped husk of burning sage. His appearance is hideous, a cross between Skeletor and woodland shaman. “The pirates have taken over so much of the backwaters. The pirates have attacked this island mercilessly,” he says. The Medicine Man then issues another challenge: He demands driftwood be brought to him — presumably to make more spooky woodcraft creations. Questers are ordered down another trail to a shallow bay where driftwood tends to collect. But a clue also lurks down there: Chained to a tree with a bike lock is a puck of wood painted with the words “RAH MA.”
Like the sign says, swim at your own risk. James Card
Questers keep paddling, past overgrown islands and through shortcut channels, until they reach the Pirates at the Red Bridge.
There is a booming voice across the water with a buccaneer accent: “Arrgh! Questers! What team are you? Now, questers, may I ask ya: Are you simple in the head? Cannot you not see our power? The Pirates and Marauders have been fighting for years and now we have finally come aligned to keep the Backwaters safe. You questers must choose wisely. Our faction grows more powerful by the hour.”
It’s the voice of Matt Valtman, a burly fellow wearing a black shirt, black shorts, and a black bandana. He wields a tactical tomahawk.
He points to a wooden chest that is packed with dirt and rocks. Buried inside are gold-colored stones, and finding one will get you a Power Stamp. Power Stamps get you points, and that’s important. Then, another challenge: Knock an empty beer can off a signpost with a Frisbee. If the questers screw up or cannot achieve any of these tasks, then they can redeem themselves by “walking the plank,” as in climbing up over the guardrail of Red Bridge and jumping into the water. In previous years, the Pirates forced women to do topless cartwheels (and to be fair, pantless ones for the guys), but Kirsch has asked the volunteer heroes and characters to tone the craziness down, as he wants PaddleQuest to become a more family-friendly event.
It’s also become an eco-focused adventure, with questers earning points for picking up trash from the waterways. The problem this year is that the preceding years have been so successful that there isn’t much garbage to pick up. Now you have to hunt for litter; once you find some, you take it to the Cosmic Hoarder. He is stationed on a skinny sandbar and overlooks a small pile of trash. He wears a gold cape, a gold spray-painted hardhat, and a shop apron. He sips on a beer and smokes a cigarette. He is Matt Worzinski, 34, and grew up knowing the Kirsch family. He was part of the original quest and was pilot of the pontoon boat for a number of years before becoming the Cosmic Hoarder.
“The Cosmic Hoarder is here to help the questers. He is not good or evil, but he’s on the side of the questers,” he says. “I’m here to collect trash and turn it into treasure — and I can craft magical items for the teams.”
Past him, down a river channel, a boat dock appears that leads to a grassy backyard. It’s the home of Kirsch’s parents and it’s called Kirsch Camp. Here are the kids wearing the fairy wings. “Hello questers!” they holler as they scamper barefoot along the shoreline. Behind them is a fellow wearing a magenta bathrobe, a tuxedo T-shirt, and a bamboo hat. He waves around a ribbon wand. His name is Shawn Welch, and he directs the questers to complete a croquet course filled with obstacles. After that, it’s basketball in the Hoop Garden. Ben Nusz serves as the referee and part-time player. He’s dressed like a 1970s dodgeball star and he acts the part. He hams it up as he explains the rules, of which there are few.
It’s the most confusing basketball game invented, as there are three hoops and backboards nailed up in the trees. Two balls are in play, and they bounce erratically on the grass. The court area in the Kirsch backyard has a slight uphill incline, and the only time you get a break from the chaos is when a ball rolls out of bounds into the blackberry briars. It is not immediately clear who wins. Again, not that it matters all that much.
Pirates Matt Valtman and Captain Joe Jack explain their challenges. James Card
The second day is a departure from past PaddleQuests. Previously, the madness would simply continue, with questers scavenging for more treasures and clues. But this year, Day Two will feature a battle royal between the teams. Alliances will be tested. Kirsch, wearing a sombrero, wades out into the shallows and barks at the assembled questers with a megaphone. He lays out the rules for Bubble Ball, which is vaguely similar to football, in the sense that there are end zones — but the ball is bigger than a normal beach ball and made of a condom-like material, which later pops. Kickballs are substituted in subsequent games.
Nearby, Joe Nowinski referees a game of Medieval Castle. He growls at the questers in a slurred Cajun accent. Separated by a thin strip of sand, the questers face off in a version of dodgeball played in ankle-deep water. They are armed with pool noodles that can only be thrown underhand. Cardboard bunkers are erected to provide cover from the noodle fire. Nowinski, also called Dr. Chip, waves a sword and berates the people nailed by a noodle.
John Pearson watches the play while sipping on a beer. Yesterday he was Johan P. Hero, the captain of Alpha Station, but most days he’s a carpenter by trade. The Alpha Station is a pontoon boat that acts as a mobile checkpoint that questers must intercept. One challenge on the boat was Giant Jenga, but instead of small wooden blocks, questers made towers with slabs of two-by-fours.
“Normally we’d be making laps and running into characters in different places, but we couldn’t even leave,” Pearson says. “There was never a time when there weren’t people on the boat. We never encountered that before.”
He’s right: This year’s PaddleQuest features 72 teams, almost twice as many as last year. That kind of growth was probably inevitable — and it doesn’t show signs of slowing down any time soon.
“It will be interesting to see how it shakes out in the next couple years,” Pearson says. “Today I was driving the Discover Wisconsin TV crew around. I used to do video work and I did a lot of boring shit; there is no way to hide that you’re really bored by something, but they were fucking stoked. Like, ‘This is the best thing!’ I think the interviewer is going to quest next year.”
On this second day, that spirit of camaraderie is everywhere. Here on the island, everyone is gathered together, instead of scattered across miles of the Backwaters. Beer coolers, life jackets, and paddles bob in the shallows. By midafternoon, questers make their way back to Con & Bob’s Lakeside Bar for the final scoring and the awards ceremony. They turn in their Power Stamps, totems, and other magic items such as the Ebola Gnome — a bloody, puke-colored statue — and the Rainbow Duck, a mallard decoy blasted with various spray paints. They also turn in their deciphering of the cryptic words like the ones found on the “RAH MA” chant totem.
Kirsch stands on the patio deck and addresses the questers seated in the grass among the canoes and kayaks. He thanks the sponsors, the volunteers, his wife for enduring all those PaddleQuests, and his father for helping build the massive Alpha Station pontoon boat. Then, he announces the winners. A guy named The Drunken Gypsy takes first place in the single-paddler “Lone Star” category, and a two-woman team called A League of Their Own wins the Class B category (and also “Best Costume”). But there is drama in the biggest category, the three-paddler Class A, something that has only happened once in PaddleQuest history: A tie atop the standings.
“We’ve got a paddling challenge,” Kirsch declares. “We need one paddler from each team in one canoe. And the teams are the Great Blue Herons and the Flyin’ Sleuths. One paddler per team. One on one.”
The Great Blue Herons, winners of PaddleQuest. James Card
Two canoes of similar size and make are rounded up. David Klesig climbs into a canoe to paddle for the Flyin’ Sleuths. Harlow MacBeth of the Great Blue Herons kneels into the other canoe. They are tasked with paddling about 100 yards offshore, making a circle around a guy on a stand-up paddleboard and making it back to shore.
Over the speakers, “Promentory” from the Last of the Mohicans soundtrack fills the air with a sense of finality. The start is called and both men dig into the water. For the past two days their arms have paddled an estimated 16 miles on the quest course, not counting any backtracking or side routes. Their arms are used to slogging away, but this is a sprint. To make it more hellish, Hog Status, the guy acting as the stand-up paddleboard roundabout, decides to paddle away from the shore as soon as they’re off. Eventually they hook around him and it is there that Harlow of the Great Blue Herons takes the lead and holds it. He beats the Flyin’ Sleuths paddler by a little more than one canoe length. He holds his paddle up in victory and then his burning shoulders drop down into a shrug of exhaustion.
His wife, Lorelei MacBeth, and their paddle partner, Shannon Houlihan, rush down to hug him. They are now the “Protectors of the Backwaters.” They make their way to the patio deck to receive a monstrous trophy decorated with carvings and graffiti. It is so large that it is mounted on an oxygen tank dolly. Their oversized reward for the weekend. As he wheels the trophy over to them, Kirsch asks the Herons if there is anything they want so say. Shannon Houlihan takes the microphone and addresses his fellow questers.
“Just a little reminder,” he says. “We’ve got core values. Beauty. Friendship. Stewardship. Competition. Gamesmanship. Glory!”