In this present day and age in the sport of wakeboarding, dedicated freeriders and wake park riders are commonplace. But skip back a few years and there were only a handful of riders plying their trade that way. Kevin Henshaw has widely been regarded as one of the best rail and obstacle riders on the planet for nearly half a decade. If you’re wondering why you haven’t seen Henshaw in magazines, web videos or standing on podiums, it’s because he’s been strapped into the seat of his Bobcat or a 40-ton excavator in the middle of the Florida jungle instead of his wakeboard. No, Henshaw has not made the switch to blue-collar construction life; he’s been pouring every ounce of energy and sweat into his latest project, Area 52, his own private wakeboarding nirvana. This is the first glimpse of what is sure to become one of the most documented places in all of wakeboarding.
Let’s go back a little bit… what is Permacation and how did it start?
A couple of years ago, Zach Schneider called me up and asked if he could come stay at my house in Clermont and bring his filmer friend Jordan Kelly with him. When I met Jordan, we immediately just clicked and we thought it would be cool to get a project going. He’s really into snowboarding and we always used to watch Torstein Horgmo’s edits when Jordan was staying with me. I wanted to do something of that nature and it just worked out really well with Jordan. He was the one that commented that all of us wakeboarders we’re living a permanent vacation; he couldn’t believe the lifestyle we were living. And Permacation was created. We launched our own website and filmed and produced a whole bunch of web videos. Jordan really pushed me to start doing more videos and was a big part of Permacation.
Where did the motivation come from to locate and buy a piece of property for your very own wake park?
Back in 2008 was the first time I rode the Sesitec System 2.0, and I immediately saw the potential it was bringing to the sport. At that point I wanted my own System, but I didn’t have anywhere to put it. It was great that I could use The Projects for a lot of my ideas to build rails, but to get out there, it can be close to a three-hour round trip. And it’s not my property, so there were always hoops to jump through; it took way more effort to build rails, and there were insurance issues. It came down to me wanting my own property where I could do it my own way.
I searched for the right piece of land for three years until I found the perfect spot. It was actually the first property that I looked at, but I wasn’t sure it was the right place at the time. I would have had to clear the land, and I wasn’t sure there would be water if I started digging, but it was the cheapest. My realtor knows what I do and knew what I was looking for, so we continued to look for another two years. Every piece of property we looked at was way out of my price range, so I eventually came back to here. It was eight months ago that I signed the papers on the original piece of land that I looked at.
Were there any permit or environmental issues you had to deal with when you were looking at buying the property?
There were two months where I was thinking it would never happen. There were definitely a lot of issues I had to work through with the realtor and a lawyer, and it got tied up in litigation. But once it all fell into place and I took possession, I was out there the very next morning at 6 a.m. with a Bobcat starting to clear the land.
A lot of the photos show you operating some impressive machinery. Did you have experience, or did you just jump right in and start working?
I grew up around construction; my dad owns a pile driving company, so I’ve been around Bobcats, cranes and excavators nearly all my life. But there were definitely a few machines I’ve never driven before. We rented a huge six-wheeled articulating dump truck and a big loader. Everything else I’d been driving since I could walk.
You probably can’t just throw your credit card down at the nearest heavy machine rental location and drive a six-wheeled articulating dump truck off the lot. How did you manage to rent those machines?
The local Bobcat dealer also rents a ton of different machines. When I bought my Bobcat, they knew I had experience driving these types of machines. But the biggest issue was having the right insurance and a line of credit to cover you in case anything goes wrong. Luckily, my dad’s company rents this type of equipment in States, as well as Canada, so I was able to put it under his company name. The big bonus was they gave me a deal on the rentals because my dad rents from them all the time. It ended up saving me a ton of money, but paying for that stuff really sucked.
“It was insanity out there for a while. At one point we had three fires going at the same time, each of them with flames over 20 feet in the air. And it was just my dad and I; it was probably something a five- to 10-man crew should have been handling.”
When you took possession, what was the starting point?
That was definitely the hardest part, trying to figure out where everything was going to go. All I really had was a couple of aerial photos. I had walked the property over and over with my dad just to get my bearings of where everything was. In the middle of the property, I couldn’t even see three
feet in front of me; it was basically jungle, just bushes and trees everywhere… it was pretty gnarly. So I bought a Bobcat with a grapple attachment and spent a month and a half out there by myself every day clearing out as much as I could. There were a bunch of big trees I couldn’t push over
with the Bobcat, so my dad came down and we rented a bigger excavator. He would push the big trees over with the excavator, and I would come in with the Bobcat and drag them out. Then we’d cut them up and stack them or burn them. It was insanity out there for a while. At one point we had three fires going at the same time, each of them with flames over 20 feet in the air. And it was just my dad and I; it was probably something a five- to 10-man crew should have been handling. That was the craziest time. But once we got the majority of it cleared, I was able to get the lay off the land and see where the lakes were going to go. That’s when the reality of it all started to kick in.
Once the land was cleared, did you start diggin down to the water table to fill the lake?
As soon as I bought the property, we walked around to dig and drill some test holes to see where the best spot to put the lake would be. There were some high and low points on the property, so we just needed to find the right spot. There are some low spots that could almost be considered swampland, and when it rains the ground gets really wet. As soon as we started digging, we were having to move dirt all over the place. I had my friend, Tyson, come from B.C. and another guy Mike, who works for my dad, and we spent a solid two weeks straight digging the main lake and moving dirt around. They were doing most of the dirt moving, while I was in the Bobcat grading and smoothing the lake. It was quite a process, but with four of us working at once it was amazing how much we got done in a short amount of time.
How much time do you think you spent out there digging and clearing land?
I was keeping track of it for a while. I put 800 hours on the Bobcat in three and a half months, and that was when we had just finished digging, so it’s even more than that now. I can drive a Bobcat better than anybody else; I might as well become a professional Bobcat driver when I retire from wakeboarding. I was obsessed with getting it done. I would be out there working eight to 10 hours a day, seven days a week. I was barely wakeboarding. I might ride once a week to make sure I was still keeping all of my tricks, and then I would go right back to the property. I put up an Instagram post the other day, and that was the six-month anniversary of the project, from starting to clear the land to be able to ride down and back on the main lake. It’s still not completed—we need to put the rails in—but that’s a pretty big feat.
Talk about how the final bi-level lake design came into place.
When we dug the main lake, we moved approximately 100,000 cubic yards of dirt. We figured we moved about 40,000 cubic yards of dirt to build up the upper pool. It’s a huge upper pool; it measures 150 feet long by 80 feet wide, and 12 feet above the lower lake. From what I’ve seen, it’s the biggest upper pool out there in terms of bi-level set-ups. The gap down to the lower lake is 50 feet in length. The lower lake measures 500 feet long by 80 feet wide, and has a depth of 6 feet It’s a big set-up, and I’m close to maxing out the capabilities of what the System 2.0 can handle.
“I designed the lake to not only be a riding dream, but also a building dream for me. A typical park set-up usually has rails that stay in place for a long time, maybe forever, but this place will always be changing and evolving.”
Did you have any other friends come out to help you?
Any time there’s heavy machinery around, it’s almost guaranteed that Reed Hansen shows up; he loves that stuff. [Shawn] Watson came out a bunch, along with Shane [Bonifay] and Clayton [Underwood}. It was pretty hard to get people to come out, because I don’t think they understood what I was trying to do. I think they thought it was just going to be another cable park, but now that they’ve all been out there, they’re saying it’s like nowhere else they’ve ever been. Getting that feedback feels really good, and makes me feel like I done this the right way.
What about the plans for rails… do you have designs in place?
Yeah, too many designs. I think I’ll be building rails, riding them for a month, then taking them done and repeating over and over again until I can’t walk anymore. I have a black book that I keep in my backpack at all times. Whenever I have an idea for a rail, or see something cool in a snowboard
video or even something on the street, I’ll write it and sketch it in the book. Judging by how many designs I have in there, it’s going to take me at least two years to build all of them. The priority for me right now is shooting and filming as much as I can out here. The whole design of the lake makes it easy to build rails. When we were digging the main lake, I took my time with the excavator to really smooth of the bottom of the lake. Instead of posting in rails I’ve made metal sleeves, which I can build right on top of, so I can keep building rails and then pulling them out when I’m done. I think this system is going to allow me to produce a lot of rails in a short amount of time. I designed the lake to not only be a riding dream, but also a building dream for me. A typical park set-up usually has rails that stay in place for a long time, maybe forever, but this place will always be changing and evolving. Every month I want to have something new in there to keep pushing myself and the sport of wakeboarding.
Where are you at right now in terms of completion?
We actually just did the 2015 Liquid Force team shoot out there last week. I have few handrails, a couple of kickers and some other simple stuff. I finished the staircase between the top and bottom pool, and I’mwaiting for the metal handrails to be done, and then it’s fully ready to go. Liquid Force
and Monster have helped out a lot with this project. With me riding for them, I want to keep that relationship as tight as possible, and I think this location is going to be really great for me and for them. It’s something that they’ve needed for a while, so I’m stoked for them to make the most of it.
Where did the name Area 52 come from?
I’ve kept the location under wraps just so I could get the work done. It’s 15 minutes from my house, but that’s all I’m going to say about where it is. We’re going to blindfold people when they come so they don’t know how to get there. Of course, I’m kidding. But when my friend, Tyson, came, he said it’s so remote and hidden it’s even beyond Area 51, that it was like Area 52. I really liked the way he put it, so the name just kind of stuck.