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Fall Guy Kayaker Tao Berman redefines his sport with daunting drops

May 31, 2004
May 31, 2004

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May 31, 2004

NBA Playoffs

Fall Guy Kayaker Tao Berman redefines his sport with daunting drops

While sublimely beautiful, Lacy Falls would never strike most
people as a navigable waterway. A five-foot-wide stream
ricochets out of the bright tangle of British Columbia rain
forest and spills onto a 300-foot-tall granite face. The
whitewater cascades from shelf to shelf, eventually spreading
into a four-inch-deep curtain that rushes 200 feet down the
face, slotting neatly into the Pacific Ocean. It's a photo
opportunity that has caught the attention of many a wandering
boater. (The falls recently appeared on the cover of a boating
magazine.) The fact that on this late April day there is a
kayaker poised two thirds of the way up the falls preparing to
merge with the torrent is startling; that the kayaker is Tao
Berman suddenly brings the extraordinary picture into clear
focus.

This is an article from the May 31, 2004 issue

The 25-year-old Berman has made a career out of steering his
plastic kayak down cascades that conventional wisdom relegates to
scenic attractions. Case in point: his 1999 descent of Upper
Johnston Canyon Falls, the first of three extreme kayaking world
records that Berman has set over the past five years. Upper
Johnston is a 98-foot-high gash set in a gorge in Canada's Banff
National Park. Because the falls are an easy 1.5-mile hike from
the road, they are one of the park's most popular attractions.
When Berman floated to the brink in his kayak on that August
afternoon, prepared to plunge through the eight-foot-wide plume
into the pool far below, he was surprised by the size of the
crowd that had gathered. More than 100 alarmed hikers stared at
him from the observation decks across the gorge.

"Several women in the crowd were weeping because they assumed Tao
was going to kill himself," says videographer Eric Link, who
captured the stunt for his kayaking video Twitch 2000. Though his
paddle snapped in half at the bottom, Berman penciled into the
pool perfectly, then "rolled up with half a paddle in one hand
and the world record in the other," Link says.

Berman has more than 50 first descents to his credit, many of
them, like Upper Johnston, never attempted by anyone since.
What's more impressive is this: He has never been to the
emergency room as the result of a paddling accident. "I did
hobble around on a tweaked ankle for six days once," he admits
when pressed, referring to a souvenir from a botched 20-foot
drop.

It's a good thing Berman has a knack for staying healthy because
he spends the vast majority of his time far from hospitals in
remote spots like Lacy Falls, which is an hour's Zodiac ride from
the nearest marina, on Vancouver Island. His home phone number is
his cellphone, because while Berman maintains an apartment in
Seattle, he spends most of his time on the road, paddling,
competing and making appearances at his sponsors' events. Strange
homes are nothing new for Berman, whose parents were
back-to-the-land proponents who raised Tao and his younger
brother in a converted barn in northeastern Washington. Berman
started paddling at 14 when his mother, Silver Moon, who is a
massage therapist, began trading bodywork to local paddlers in
exchange for their taking her rambunctious son on adventures. "It
took him about two years to pass most of us up," says Paul Hodge,
one of those early mentors.

Berman has just kept going. Thanks to Link's video series and
television spots--the Lacy run is being filmed for NBC's Jeep
World of Adventure Sports and footage from his Johnston run
appeared on Dateline and Fox News--Berman is the best-known
kayaker on the planet. And, in a sport in which most pros are
lucky to scrape together $20,000 annually in winnings and
endorsements, the kayaking huckster from Monroe, Wash., cleared
six figures last year.

With acclaim, however, has come controversy. Many in the pro
kayaking community turn sour at the mention of Berman, whose
self-promotion would fit right in in Hollywood but is sorely out
of place in the laid-back kayaking counterculture. "I think he
enjoys the business side of it as much as the paddling," admits
his sometimes kayaking partner James Mole.

Berman knows that if he can pull off running Lacy Falls on
national television, it will be very good for business. Before
that can happen, however, on this spring day, he has a problem to
solve--the tide is out.

While photographers were setting up and Berman was planning his
run, the tide receded from the base of the falls, exposing
barnacle-encrusted rocks and leaving the landing zone a mere
three feet deep. The obvious solution: Wait for the tide to rise.
The descent should take all of 10 seconds, after all, and this
far north in late April daylight lasts until 8 p.m. So Berman
waits, is interviewed and further scouts his line with friend and
adviser Josh Bechtel.

Then, in the late afternoon, a call comes over the radio from the
base of the falls. The photographers are concerned that they'll
lose their light. They want Berman to make a test run from
partway up so they can get sharp photos. Because video can be
shot in lower light, they say, he can save the complete descent
for when the tide comes in. Berman agrees, confident that he can
manage the landing even in shallow water. He plans to nose his
kayak into the ocean at a 45-degree angle. Landing too flat could
crush his vertebrae. Landing too steeply could slam his chest
into the water's surface, breaking his ribs and his sternum and
even severing his aorta. He could also hit the bottom and
fracture his femur. It's a bit like planning a car wreck.

If anyone can pull it off with a degree of certainty, rather than
luck, it's Berman. In addition to 98-footers, he is known for
paddling long, cascading slides like Lacy, staircases of broken
rock that few others would dare to attempt. "Tao Berman really
raised the bar," says world champion freestyle kayaker Jay
Kincaid. "For a while he was running things harder than anyone
else." Kincaid points to Berman's competitive drive and
unshakable confidence as secrets to his success, a sentiment
echoed by women's champ Brooke Winger, who notes that with few
exceptions "[Berman]'s never really screwed up a big drop, so his
confidence has never been challenged."

Berman's confidence and competitive drive have helped him silence
his critics, who earlier in his career charged that he was a
one-dimensional kayaker, capable only of risk-taking. In response
he trained for three years at freestyle paddling, eventually
beating Kincaid at the 2002 Pre-World Freestyle Championships.
It's a discipline he has since dropped.

He'll need every skill he can muster to survive Lacy, though, and
is probably feeling some pressure to get it done. Kincaid notes
that Berman hasn't "done anything lately that has separated him
from the crowd." In Berman's line of work, that simply won't do.

So an hour before the tide turns, an assistant, who is tied by
the waist to a tree, holds Berman's kayak in place while he
climbs into the cockpit 180 feet above the sea. He needs a shove
to make it out into the falls, and he and the assistant agree on
the proper force so he'll miss the rocks to either side of the
landing zone. Without a hitch in his voice, Berman counts down
from three and is shoved into the current. He slides over a lip
and out of sight like a skier on a precipitous downhill course.

When Berman reappears below the hump, it's as if someone has sped
up the film. He's halfway down the falls and accelerating, a
rooster tail pitching behind him. To keep the kayak straight, he
chops at the rock behind him with paddle thrusts fast enough to
impress Jackie Chan. Suddenly, 30 feet from the bottom, he is
airborne.

It may be the first time in his life that Berman is uncomfortable
with speed. He has said that if he weren't a kayaker, he would be
a rally car driver, and he brags about the tickets he talks his
way out of, including "an 85-in-a-35 where the cop walked up, my
radar detector was going off and there was a copy of the book How
to Beat Speeding Tickets on the passenger seat." But here, near
the base of Lacy Falls, he's going much faster than he
anticipated.

"When I hit the depression in the rock," Berman will say
afterward, "I felt the kayak load up under me and accelerate."
The kayak launches, and the tail kicks around so it is flying
sideways, like a flicked cigar. It lands, at the desired angle,
30 feet away from the falls in shallow rocky water. A plume of
water lashes the air, and the kayak stops with alarming
suddenness.

Because its side has caved in, the boat tips over, but Berman
rights it instinctively. He capsizes again, and again rights
himself. While the entire entourage holds its breath, he sits
stunned in his kayak, his sunglasses knocked askew beneath his
helmet. After a full minute he makes his way over to the video
crew on shore.

"It was great," he says, typically buoyant. He admits, however,
that he may have made a mistake. "I may have been taking a risk
there," he says, referring to running such a steep slide with so
little water to control his descent. "I was really hoping there'd
be a higher flow." Almost anyone but Berman, whose tight
wrestler's build of 5'5" and 155 pounds is ideally suited for
taking such shocks, would have broken something. There will be no
run from the top.

Still, the television people are happy. "Great TV," they say,
packing their cameras for the boat ride home. So Berman is happy.
He is not satisfied, however. What's next? Berman plans to
continue his extreme campaign all summer, filming for Link's
upcoming Twitch V, which will include footage of first-run steep
creeks in Idaho, Washington and Canada. Berman also has scouts
searching the world for his next big falls. "I'd like to run a
vertical drop over 100 feet," he says, noting that no kayaker has
landed a drop of that height. He won't divulge where his scouts
are looking, but next time you're checking out a towering scenic
falls, don't be surprised if you see Berman at the brink.

THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOCK BRADLEY/RIPPIN PRODUCTIONS LAUNCH SITE Berman hit a speed of nearly 40 mph during his first descent of the 180-foot Lacy Falls in British Columbia.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOCK BRADLEY/RIPPIN PRODUCTIONSCOLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOCK BRADLEY/RIPPIN PRODUCTIONS FLIPPIN' GOOD Not just a daredevil, Berman, here performing an aerial loop, won the 2002 Pre-World Freestyle Championships.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOCK BRADLEY/RIPPIN PRODUCTIONS VIEW FROM THE TOP In the laid-back world of kayaking, the self-promoting Berman has occasionally roiled the waters.
"Women in the crowd were weeping," says Link. "THEY ASSUMED TAO
WAS GOING TO KILL HIMSELF."
[BOX]
TAO'S FAVE FIVE
Berman recalls his top falls, all in the Cascade Mountains
1 Log Choke Falls May 1999, 30 feet
"I had to rail slide on a 40-foot-long log. If I had lost my
balance, I would have hit a rock and ripped my face open."
2 My Little Friend May 1999, 200 feet
"No one has repeated this descent. The falls are cascading, so
you're sliding the whole way down. If I'd gotten pushed too far
left, I would have crashed into a huge rock at the bottom."
3 Chenius Falls May 2001, 690 feet (world record)
"This was dangerous because it was so big and long. If anything
had gone wrong, there was no way to stop."
4 Dingford Creek May 2001, 100 feet
"I was going over five falls, and the water was about three times
its usual level. I did the descent in 19.38 seconds, a world
record for five waterfalls."
5 Robe Canyon November 1996, seven miles
"This was a long, narrow canyon. The water was at twice its
normal height. No one else wanted to go, so I did it by myself.
It probably wasn't the smartest thing, but it seemed like a good
idea at the time."