I always keep a little book that I write my thoughts and my dreams in. It’s full of game ideas. When I was a middle schooler, I was really into Dungeons and Dragons, board games and video games and made a lot of home movies.

Matt Kirsch | Stevens Point, WI

As kids, my brother Michael and I made up all kinds of different games. It’s good to have that in life—some kind of project or outlet for your imagination. I definitely love dreaming up new ideas.

I grew up on the river in Stevens Point, but I didn’t really spend that much time on it as a kid. I did a lot of canoeing in the boundary waters at summer camp at Camp Warren and it had a big impact on me. I really wanted to combine my interests in the water, filmmaking, and my love for games and exploration. I went to college in Chicago to study communication. Post graduation, I was sitting around on break in a bar I worked at in Chicago. I had just come back from visiting my home in Wisconsin. The bar was slow and paddling on the river came up. I had a big sketch pad with me, which I still have, and I realized I wanted to do a game show, sort of making fun of Survivor a little bit, poking fun at reality TV. The original concept was based around my friend Brody Welch being the star of the show. The original title was Cannonball canoe racing. In high school, we made “space cruising” videos and Brody was cannonball. After some brainstorming, PaddleQuest emerged.

PaddleQuest is a paddling-based eco-adventure fantasy contest held annually in Stevens Point on the Wisconsin River. There are teams of three, and each team is given a different route. Teams paddle to checkpoints to complete challenges, like blind volleyball, canoe battleship, or some type of brainbuster. All our volunteers, we call them heroes, participate in the storyline, and their characters advance you in the race. So during the quest, paddlers seek out ‘Totem Masters’ who may be a pirate, a castaway or an island hermit. If you find these characters you can obtain maps, magical items or hear a secret chant that you can recite at scoring tables.  Teams score points for magical items and completing challenges. The team with the most points at the end is named, ‘The Protector.’ And the protectors take home the traveling trophy.

The storylines evolve with the participants each year. It began like this: ‘King and Lord Houlihan started PaddleQuest to find a crew to protect the lands of The Backwaters against danger.’  I’ve always had an interest in theater, and I’ve always wanted to make movies. So, our ‘heroes’ dress up like shamans, wizards or bears. My family members were my first characters. My sister, Lorelei, was Queen Nestra, and my cousin Greg, who has never missed a year since then, was Wizard Kulku. Greg is a very good performer, and he’s played that same role pretty much every year. It’s hard to be a character while you’re also trying to direct the event, but I was an island hermit named Skevitch up in Minocqua one year.  

My dad has, over the years, enthusiastically supported PaddleQuest, helping out by making banners and artwork and helping with props. At one point, he built a 16 by 24-foot pontoon boat that connected in the middle. There were two separate boats with separate engines that connected in the middle. He made it all and engineered it himself. It was called ‘The Bistro.’ We would ferry the teams out to this Bistro, which could fit about forty people! It was wild.

After a few years, we did ask ourselves, ‘What are we achieving here?’ It’s all about having fun, but then we thought, ‘We should have this message of stewardship and cleaning up the river.’  So we brought in the Cosmic Hoarders who are trash collectors from another dimension that take trash and turn it into treasure. Matt Wrzinski, our Cosmic Hoarder, had a can of gold spray paint and would collect the paddlers’ river trash and spray paint it gold. In Milwaukee, the trash collection element got interesting as we found way more than we could obviously manage to collect. ‘Trash for Treasure,’ we say, and the paddlers earn points for their stewardship. Now, when I see trash when I’m out and about, I’m always like, ‘Oh, pick it up for points.’

I’m not the best business person, but I am a great storyteller, and I love inventing games and being creative. I lived in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York for a minute, and all the while I kept thinking, ‘Am I going to move back to Stevens Point? And here I am. I’ve always been drawn back to this community. I love the community here, and I love the river.

Matt’s story was produced by Rebecca Bloedorn. You can learn more about PaddleQuest here. 

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Scenes from Paddlequest

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