The word “expedition” comes with a lot of baggage. And I don’t mean the two tons of lightest-gear-known-to-man that invariably accompanies each team member in the form of loaded duffles, camera equipment and paddling gear.
What I’m talking about is that increasingly cloudy distinction between going for a nice paddle somewhere and mounting an “expedition.” What exactly are the key ingredients that launch paddling from one place to another into the realm of expeditioning?
What separates an expedition from a simple paddling trip?
In the old days, going on an expedition meant doing things the hard way in order to complete a trip that was so ambitious, so outrageous in scope that the paddling world simply had to sit up and take notice. But that approach is really tiring—and scary too! Just ask Paul Caffyn what it was like to paddle around Australia in 360 days through shark- and snake-infested waters. Or quiz Ed Gillet on how much fun it was to paddle alone from California to Hawaii for 63 days, running out of food and losing 25 pounds along the way. These guys are so tough that their trips are just plain nutty! That’s not for the likes of you and me.
Marketing makes it real
Nowadays, the only real difference between a paddling trip and a true expedition is marketing, which comes in the form of sponsorship and media coverage.
If you’re not sponsored, it’s not an expedition. I don’t care how far you paddle or how much you suffer. You must have stickers on your kayak and get all of your gear for free. Without sponsorship, you’re just going for a paddle like everybody else, and what’s special about that?
Once you’re properly wallpapered with corporate logos, you need media coverage—reportage.* If your expedition doesn’t generate any hype, it’s all over. You might as well do nothing at all.
It’s just like the proverbial tree in the forest. You know, if a tree falls in a forest and there’s nobody there to see it, did it really happen? And if you round Cape Horn and…. You get the idea. Your sponsors won’t be happy. You might even have to pay for all that free gear, just like every other schmo who dips a paddle in the sea. Lame!
Imagine, however, that the tree falling in the forest is sponsored. It’s all covered in the Coca-Cola swirl and Microsoft stickers, and there’s a tie-in to Extreme Tree Falling Week on TSN hosted by Paris Hilton and Prudential Insurance. A scrum of reporters and photographers are on the ground while the NBC news chopper circles overhead. FOX has nailed a killer crane shot for the live feed and Geraldo Rivera is working his TV magic. The tree sways, the crowd goes quiet, the Olsen Twins hold their breath…. Now that’s the right way for a tree to fall in the forest if it wants to get noticed.
This trip brought to you by…
These days when all the big trips have been done and the good destinations used up, marketing is the next frontier. Anybody can launch a kayak and try to paddle to Hawaii—again (although if you want to survive, you should definitely try to get Ed to come along). But it will take a real adventurous soul to push the boundaries of expedition marketing, to go beyond the limits of sponsorship from mere manufacturers of paddling equipment, those small, struggling Mom and Pop enterprises with limited budgets and no international media leverage. The really big dreamers will tap into the unexplored reaches of the Dow Jones companies and mega-media conglomerates like Pfizer, Philip Morris and Disney.
Imagine the Viagra-Marlborough-Jack Daniels Sea Kayak Expedition, bringing the message of “life-enhancing drugs, a smooth smoke and mellow Tennessee bourbon” to small communities up and down our great, unspoiled coasts. Think of the possibilities. And think of the free product. Now that’s an expedition I’d want to be part of!
*For any canoeist reading this, “reportage” does not mean to carry your boat to the same location twice.
Alex Matthews’ first story appeared in the Fall 2002 issue of Adventure Kayak. His Rock the Boat column has prompted plenty of letters to our editors over the years.
Feature photo: Michael Jadrich Ortiz/Unsplash