Tom Bergh’s moustache is older than most of the folks he boats with. He makes his living paddling, and if you pry, he’ll tell about self-supported missions to the ends of the earth, but he’s not your typical pro. He is a guide, first and foremost. It’s a role he values in a deep way. He’ll spend hours delving into the transformative connections and ethos of a guided trip into uncomfortable territory. Except, he’d rather just go paddle a rock garden with you.
The only times this salty Yankee worked for someone other than Tom Bergh were short contract jobs for the ACLU and Senate Appropriations Committee. But his career as an attorney waned after he founded the Maine Island Kayak Company in 1986. After guiding people through life-altering journeys in the Gulf of Maine, he found it hard to muster enthusiasm for divorce hearings about “who’s going to cut the puppy up into pieces and get to keep it.” So he moved to Peaks Island and began acquiring the seafaring skills and judgment that only long experience can teach.
Now 58 and a father of three young children, Bergh stays a little closer to home, focusing on pushing students’ limits and his annual New England Rough Water Symposium, where students and accomplished expedition sea kayakers alike seek action in the tides, paddling by the mantra that “a smooth sea never made a skillful mariner.” — Dave Shively
I came from the whitewater tradition. It’s a real different, timing thing. Whitewater boaters have the personal handling skill sets, just no integration of seamanship. That big puzzle is what’s fun.
It’s the period, the length of crests, the units of energy. Sea kayaking is not about paddling, it’s about judgment; the integration of good wind systems and navigation systems, knowing the tide depth changes and swells, the effect of the wind.
The biggest rapids in the world are in the sea. There’s a tide race in the Faroes that is 15 by 25—miles—long, between islands. The real issue is not speed, it’s volume.
We’re in the third phase of sea kayaking. The first were the pioneers who brought the info, the Frank Goodmans and Derek Hutchinsons, the three Czechs or the Brits who went across the Northwest Passage in the 50s and 60s. The second was the let’s-go-to-sea-in-small-boats phase, coming from different traditions and starting easy with one- to two-week trips. Now we’re in this third suburban thing, where every Subaru has a boat, with a retail-ey, big commercial aspect.
There were these unbelievable granite islands in Penobscot, dream-like. And just hanging out on this idyllic spot, rafts of eiders going by, fishing before sunset—you live in tidal time—reawakening that nomadic life of journeying over the earth with small groups of people. Stop on some exposed rock, pull out some gruel, throw it all back in the boat and go.
You see these guys, like Shackleton, who was a mess in the real world but was phenomenal outside. I meet these guys who don’t have a pot to pee in, but take a group of novices out for days and on a really bad day with a storm going by I know they’re just going to be a master at making the right decisions. You meet people like that who are so intuitively tuned in.
The last time I got out and kissed the ground was only a few years ago. There’s been times where I’ve been nervous, happy to have made it to shore without getting just picked up and slapped down hard, pummeled face-first onto the beach. It gets big, you get nervous and you gotta push that nervousness back down and get the head working.
I’m still a lawyer, still licensed, just walking malpractice now. It’s such a different head place; really tight, precise threads of analyses you whip up into a whole when you go to trial. It’s not entertainment like I do now, it’s somebody going to jail or not, or somebody going to lose money or not. Now they’re just going to lose their life if I goof up [laughs].
You’ve got to push them over a little bit and pull ‘em back, like rappelling. Hang them over the wall then bring them back to solid land. That’s our job; people don’t want to go out and just be safe, then they’d watch a video, that’s safe. They want to feel it a little bit.
Micronesian navigators were the most important people in their society because they could find their way. Guides today are the translators between the natural and the suburban world, they connect the modern back to the primitive, and our culture might not honor it with wages, just respect.
The sea strips you down so quickly. It shows you how people relate to themselves and their environment and that it’s all about taking total responsibility for every aspect of your actions.
It’s just a big beautiful sea and we’re in really little boats.