Woodstock on the Water: PaddleQuest, an Adventure Race for the Rest of Us
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.”
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