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IT'S GOOD TO BE THE KING: Ludden holds court near Vail, Colorado     Photo: Grayson Schaffer

brad ludden

IT'S GOOD TO BE THE KING: Ludden holds court near Vail, Colorado

When kayaking wunderkind Brad Ludden made the cover of Outside in August 2000, the 19-year-old Montanan was having a dream summer—winning free- style events while Kerouacking across the country in a flame- emblazoned Subaru, courtesy of kayak maker Dagger. It was as good as it got in a niche sport that paid its pros in burritos. Fast-forward to 2005: Whitewater paddling has blossomed into a mainstream sport, and Ludden is its most beloved advocate, successfully selling himself through a combination of folksy charisma and savvy self-promotion. Along the way, he's bumped his salary to six figures, bought a half-million-dollar home near Vail, and paddled in some 40 countries, notching first descents on more than 100 rivers, including four gems in Madagascar during a pioneering expedition this past August. (See "Red Island Revival," page 32.) Ludden still gets a free Subaru every year but now prefers to travel in his single- engine Cessna 182, which will play a key role in his spring project: a barnstorming hunt for huckable waterfalls in the Midwest. Says Ludden, "I'll take turbulence over traffic any day."

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