At Stevens Point, the Wisconsin River fans out into a flowage, with branches and channels and swirls and broad, still expanses. On the map, the flowage looks a little like a low, gnarled tree.
Each August for the last 18 years, it’s been the site of PaddleQuest, a fantasy kayak race that is part scavenger hunt, part fantasy role-playing game and part Mardi Gras.
By 9 a.m. on Aug. 10, dozens of kayaks and canoes were spread out in the grass next to the quest’s launch site, and contestants and characters in costume roamed the shore. Here was a shirtless man in a cape and wrestling mask. Here were sprites and sirens, a team of people dressed as Hulk Hogan, a trio of Rockford Peaches from “A League of Their Own.”
By 10:15 a.m., the teams were on the water, raising their paddles as the mayor of Stevens Point fired a cannon. The race was on.
Matt Kirsch, PaddleQuest’s creator, said the whole thing started as a lark.
“It was intended to be a reality game show mockumentary,” Kirsch said. “We had three teams, three camera crews. … It was tongue in cheek, and we didn’t ever intend to do it again.”
But it was so much fun that they were back the next year. With characters, and weird backstories.
“That’s when I introduced Queen Nestra and the wizard, who’s still here, Wizard Kulku,” Kirsch said. “And then it became the game, and then the game grew, and grew from that.”
The mythology of PaddleQuest’s characters, variously wizards and druids, sirens and time-travelers, is extremely baroque if not impenetrable. (“No one really understands it,” jokes Kirsch.) Here’s what’s important: Teams navigate through various stations in the backwaters, hunting for characters, competing in small games and interacting with those they meet, seeking secrets and magical items. They amass cards and points, tokens and statues and amulets. At the end of the day, Kirsch and his team sit at a folding table on the shore and calculate the winning teams.
More than 200 people compete, and Kirsch works with another 50 or so volunteers to bring the whole thing off. The games run on Saturday and Sunday, and many teams begin by camping out Friday night.
“It is the most fun you can have as an adult, period,” said Deanna Linzmeier, a member, with Katie Buttke and Chamomile Nusz, of the “A League of Their Own” team. The team went on to win PaddleQuest 2019: Class A.
“This is like my favorite weekend of the entire year,” Nusz said. “I love to paddle. I love to play games. I love to compete. And I love to hang out with my friends.”
The costumes, the storylines, the mythology — they tell participants that they have come to a different place. They can “take a break from the monotonous reality of the normal day,” was the phrasing of a participant who goes by “Farmer T.”
“There’s this childlike, fantasy aspect,” Linzmeier said. “You get so stuck in adulting, and to come to something like this — it’s like summer camp. It’s magic.”
SONG: “The Mollusk” by Ween