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JOHN VIEHMAN : Blazing New Trails on PBS


If you've ever felt the call of the wild but can barely navigate your way through a freeway interchange, "Trailside: Make Your Own Adventure" may be just for you.

The PBS series, which returned last week for a second season, redefined what an outdoor TV show can be last season by traveling to glorious settings and using a step-by-step approach to demystify such activities as backpacking, kayaking and mountain climbing, while providing sensible tips for tenderfoots.

This season, backcountry skiing in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, mountain biking in Northern California's Redwood Country, solo canoeing through the Florida Everglades and Alpine hiking New Hampshire's Appalachian Trail are among the expeditions on "Trailside," which has been described as "This Old House" for outdoor enthusiasts.

"Trailside's" host and friendly trail guide is John Viehman, executive editor of Backpacker magazine. The Minnesota native calls "Trailside" a video version of his magazine, which teaches readers about various forms of wilderness travel. Times Staff Writer Daniel Cerone caught up with Viehman, 40, by phone at his home in Pennsylvania hours before he boarded a plane to Washington for his latest "Trailside" adventure: scaling the icy 14,410-foot summit of Mt. Ranier.

Who comes up with the "Trailside" adventures?

Typically, it's a group process. But a lot of them are the result of Stephen Samuels, the executive producer, constantly asking me the question, "If you could do any trip, anywhere, what would you do?" So a lot of them--like hiking the Milford Track in New Zealand, or fly-fishing in Wyoming, or white-water canoeing the Missinaibi River in Ontario--are based on ideas that excite me.

That sounds like the perfect job. But is it really all fun and games shooting the episodes?

No, there are moments where I'm thinking, "I can't believe I signed onto this." The whole nature of doing television requires multiple takes. I can think of dog-sledding out on frozen Lake Superior. To get the most dramatic visual setting, we had to film one particular scene right on the most exposed part of an island, where it was 20 degrees below with a 60 below wind chill, and I had to sit there and smile and recite my lines, and then they'd say, "Cut! Let's do it again."

But then there are wonderful unexpected moments. We shot that dog-sledding episode from dawn till dusk. We were dog-sledding back across the lake at night to get to camp, and we had the most incredible display of northern lights I had ever seen in my life. I was on a completely glassy smooth lake being pulled by dogs--all I could hear was their pounding and breathing--and over my head was a shower of northern lights. I couldn't believe where I was or what I was seeing. I'm kind of glad we didn't videotape it, because now it's in my memory. It could never be that good on video. You see some pretty spectacular stuff on the show, but (there's) a lot we can't record.

Trailside has been described as a how-to show. How do you see it?

We don't pretend to be anything more than a how-to show for the outdoors. We use all the resources to our advantage to make sure we're entertaining, but like the magazine, we want people to learn from the show. It's on public television, and we're there for a reason, and that's education. I'd like to see it promote a positive ethic, and enable people to get up off their couch and make this the last television show they ever watch because they'll be so psyched to get to the outdoors.

Do you really provide everything one needs to know to do these things--equipment, costs, phone numbers, maps and general information?

The problem we have with public television restrictions is that we can only offer one bit of information at the end of the show, and it has to be a transcript or something educational. So we offer videotapes (of the first season), which allows us to list a number for more information. The producers are starting up a service called Trailside Travel, so if people want to go on these trips they can. We're just getting it set up. We're also on America Online if you click on the Backpacker icon. As much as we can, we're trying to find ways to get people the information they want. On television itself, there's only so much space for it. So people have to take the next step and pick up the phone.

You have spoken of breaking down stereotypes and misconceptions. How so?

Take rock climbing. You don't have to be some testosterone-charged individual with a death wish to go and have a fun day of climbing. You don't have to begin at the highest level or spend three years in rock-climbing school to understand the basics and enjoy it with your family. This is not high-adrenaline stuff. I'm an average guy. I just turned 40 this year. I'm not superhuman. White-water kayaking does cause an adrenaline rush, but the way we're bringing viewers through should not be frightening. We're not there to impress; we're there to inspire.

What has been your favorite adventure so far?

(Laughs) Life.

"Trailside: Make Your Own Adventure" airs Saturdays at 11:30 a.m. on KPBS, 6:30 p.m. on KCET and 7:30 p.m. on KVCR.

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