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May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, August 2000 Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

There's nothing more all-American than a long summer road trip—except maybe a long summer road trip sponsored by a kayak company. Meet the hard-drivin', trick-huckin', heart-throbbin' river punks that may just turn freestyle kayaking into whitewater's answer to snowboarding.

By Cristina Opdahl
Photographed for Outside by John Goodman

Two for the rodeo: Freestylers Brad Ludden (right) and Steven Byrd embody kayaking's new school.
John Goodman (2)

THE SUBY, AS THE BOYS CALL IT, looks like a giant Hot Wheels, a big toy with a roof rack bristling with kayaks. The shiny black Subaru Outback Limited is "loved by cops and women both," according to the champion freestyle paddler who's usually in the driver's seat, a sardonic 19-year-old from Bigfork, Montana, named Brad Ludden. Freshly minted from the factory, the wagon's a shade upmarket for the task at hand. It smells of its cush leather seats—"the stupidest thing I've ever seen in a boater vehicle," says Ludden's pal, his buff and reticent copilot Steven Byrd, 18, a former wrestler from Martin City, Montana, who's out on the freestyle circuit for the first time. Although he's only a year older, Ludden is already a four-year veteran of the six-month-long freestyle kayaking circuit and the winner of a silver medal at the 1999 Freestyle World Championships. He won the medal in the junior class and is breaking into the senior pro level this year.

Ludden needs a haircut, and he has a nasty cold he caught in Morocco last week, but he's still excitable about the Suby. He and Byrd are on a two-week stint, crammed in the car along with wet neoprene, PFDs, helmets, sleeping bags, Eminem CDs, a beer-and-babes magazine, boat bags, paddles, alarm clocks, a laptop, Airwalks, and a few Big Gulps (some empty, some full), as well as a third passenger, Chris Emerick, who's making a video featuring Ludden and two other pro freestylers. A 28-year-old from Parkersburg, West Virginia, Emerick, who has done this tour four times, quit competing last year in favor of making kayaking videos. Despite the age difference, the former Alta ski bum jibes well with Ludden and Byrd.

Cramped as it is, the Suby is a young athlete's dream car. It's a freebie loaner from Dagger, one of the world's largest kayak manufacturers, based in Harriman, Tennessee. Dagger hopes that Ludden represents the Next Big Thing. Also known as rodeo kayaking, playboating, surfing, and cartwheeling, freestyle kayaking involves launching your boat into agro tricks on river waves, rocks, and holes—the latter being swirling pockets filled with turbulent whitewater. Maybe, the marketing team at Dagger figures, freestyle will be to whitewater what snowboarding has been to the slopes—the catalyst for a cultural shift in the self-serious world of kayaking, the agent of a classic new school/old school rift that has already transformed rivers all over the United States into a series of holes, also known as hydraulics, with lines 20 kayakers deep. To goose the new school into a high-growth market, Dagger and two other top kayak makers, Wave Sport and Perception, are dangling some amazingly sweet perks in front of the most promising talent.

It's not a bad business bet. Even though it hasn't made it into the X-Games yet, the sport draws hundreds of spectators to competitions in places like Durango, Colorado, and Kernville, California, as well as Switzerland, Norway, and Japan. There's a world championship every two years and a "PreWorlds" on off years, both administered by the UK-based International Freestyle Committee. (The next Worlds will be held in Spain in 2001.) Aside from the competitions, there are also scores of Web sites and e-zines about where to huck ends around the globe.

Ludden's Suby is just one more harbinger of the shock of the new. The first time I set eyes on the vehicle, it's perched at the top of a steep trail leading to the Caney Fork River in Rock Island State Park, about a hundred miles or so east of Nashville, Tennessee. The Caney boasts the plushest hole in the East: the Rock Island wave. Ludden, Byrd, and 108 other paddlers are here for the first of three competitions to be held on three consecutive weekends, a new series sponsored by kayak clothing manufacturer Immersion Research—hence the name, the Immersion Research Triple Crown. The Rock Island wave has been the site of the U.S. Freestyle Team Worlds and PreWorlds selections for two years running. (This year's trials were held at Smiley's, a man-made hydraulic in Tennessee's Ocoee River, about a hundred miles southeast of Rock Island State Park.) But this weekend's event is also notable for the cash prize—the biggest yet in the U.S.

True, the $5,000 purse isn't huge money, especially when you realize that the five grand gets divvied up among the top three finishers in four classes. Still, it suggests that this niche sport is having a season of the sort that snowboarding had in 1988, when, after several years of championships that nobody attended, the fever took hold. Freestyle kayaking probably won't have it that easy; the United States has approximately one tenth as many car-accessible hydraulics as it has ski resorts. But if you stage 40 kayak rodeos, as sponsors are doing in the United States this year, and you stir in the ambitions of several hundred aspiring stars, there's no telling what could happen.

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