By: Joe Carberry
Tao Berman has seen big waves like the one bearing down on him now, but never from the seat of his kayak and never while sitting in the impact zone.
Berman, a world record holder, freestyle champion and one of the greatest kayakers to ever don a sprayskirt, is in a bright red surf kayak adorned with cameras and sponsor logos, directly in the path of a 40-foot monster.
The jet-ski driver, who makes his living towing surfers into giants like these, glances nervously at the approaching wave and several more behind it. “Grab the handle,” he yells.
“No, I’m okay,” Berman says calmly. He wants to feel the wave’s power, and he’s certain he can take it.
“Your call,” the driver replies, speeding out of the wave’s path.
Seconds later the wave terminates on Berman’s head. Before the thought even crosses his mind, Berman, who hadn’t swam from his kayak in more than a decade of extreme paddling, has been ripped from his boat. He’s swimming in the sea. Alone.
Tao Berman’s garage is impeccably organized. For that matter, so is the rest of his two-story home in White Salmon, Wash., overlooking the Columbia River. Every piece of paddling gear has its place. Boats line one wall, helmets and paddles another. An immaculate BMW Coupe takes up most of the floor space and two sporty motorcycles stand ready nearby.
It’s three days after the wave incident, and Berman is back in familiar space. He’s orchestrated every element of his extraordinary career, from world record attempts to the way those projects are portrayed in the media. Now he’s invited me here to announce his retirement from professional paddling in a Canoe & Kayak exclusive. Why now? “I like to have a goal,” Berman says. “And I’ve accomplished every goal I set in this sport.”
His most pressing goal, and the one at which he succeeded unequivocally, was to make kayaking profitable. He grew up with a single mom who, he says, “chose to live poorly.” Berman pictured a different life.
“He just came into it young and knew what he wanted and sometimes that rubbed people the wrong way,” says whitewater icon Dan Gavere. “He started off running the gnar, when all the people making money in the sport were playboating. So he worked hard at playboating, got good, and beat us all.”
Berman also found a way to make “running the gnar” lucrative. In 1999, when he was 19, he ran 98-foot Johnstone Falls in Alberta. The feat landed him in the pages of Sports Illustrated and The Guinness Book of World Records. More made-for-media paddling stunts followed: speed-descent records and a steady diet of stout rapids and big waterfalls for both magazines and the Twitch series of paddling videos. With the cameras from Discovery Channel’s Stunt Junkies rolling, he dropped out of a helicopter into a fearsome 90-footer in Minnesota.
Berman’s stunt boating made headlines around the world, and he never failed to convert those headlines into cash. When critics said he lacked soul, Berman took advantage of the controversy. “Bad press is good press,” he says. “Look, you have to know how to monetize your story. If you ask a lot of kayakers how they’re going to monetize their press, it’d take them a minute to know what ‘monetize’ means.”
That confidence affected the people around him. “Tao always had a way of talking you into things, even if you thought that they weren’t the best idea,” says Josh Bechtel, Berman’s good friend and Twitch co-star. I know exactly what he means.
“The Little White is at 3.8 or so, perfect to cover up all the rocks but not pushy,” Berman says. I swallow hard. He regularly solos the Northwest’s benchmark Class V run at over 5 feet; I haven’t paddled serious whitewater since summer. We drive a few miles through the beautiful foothills of the Columbia River Gorge to the takeout, where we meet some local paddlers who’ve just finished. “It’s full of wood,” one says. “But everything goes.”
“So 3.8, good level huh, not too pushy,” I ask, looking for reassurance.
Berman answers for him. “It’ll be great,” he says.
The Little White Salmon brings river running’s best elements together into one package: tight rapids, slides, waterfalls, portages, easy access and predictable flows. It’s the reason Berman lives nearby, and he knows every nuance. I stay close through the continuous upper section, where a swim could be fatal. Dangerous strainers are everywhere. “On this one we need to punch a hole, stay left and go over the left side with right angle,” he instructs. “Then move right to get under a tree.”
We’ve been spot-on so far. No rolls, no missed lines. We’re on fire. We punch through the top of the rapid and everything goes white. Suddenly I’m freefalling. Out of the mist, Berman has disappeared. What log was he talking about? Then, in an otherwise innocuous Class II drop, I see the most terrifying thing in my life: two logs spanning the river. There’s no escape; I try to boof, but slam into the fallen timber. The tree rips into my skirt. I’m stuck. The water is pulling me under.
Berman holds his 6-month-old daughter as we talk in his living room, looking out the big-picture windows onto the Columbia. He asks me to wash my hands before I hold her (“his germs are new to you, Violet”). You can tell he’d do anything for her. This is a man who’s matured, from a hard-charging kayaker known—fairly or unfairly—for looking after himself, to someone who cares for other people and their success deeply.
“I watched Tao go from a punk-ass kid nobody could stand being around to someone who has a nice social network,” says Twitch videographer Eric Link, who now manages one of Berman’s commercial properties in Leavenworth, Wash. (Berman has reinvested most of his kayak earnings into real estate rentals.)
Berman ran in a tight crew and took care of his posse. If one of his paddling partners wasn’t invited to a competition, he’d persuade organizers to make room. If a magazine needed photos, he’d push the work of his longtime friend, photographer Jock Bradley. A television network needed video? Link was his only guy.
“There were definitely people that would say stuff behind his back,” Bechtel says. “But you get to know him and you realize, ‘Wow, this person is actually genuine about what he’s doing and a loyal friend.'”
My boat’s gone, floating down the Little White. So is my paddle. I didn’t want to swim, and technically I didn’t—I managed to pull myself onto the log where I had been pinned and shimmy to shore. Tao meets me there, having sprinted up the bank. “Just keep walking downriver. I’ll find your stuff.”
Two hundred yards downstream I find him roping up my boat. My paddle is still missing so I hike out the steep canyon and he continues down, alone. When I get to the takeout he’s waiting with my paddle. “You can hike in and we’ll run the rest tomorrow,” he says.
“I don’t know,” I reply. “Maybe that was a sign.”
“You actually believe in that shit?” he says. “You’ve got to finish the river.”
For his final project with longtime sponsor Red Bull, Berman set out to ride the biggest wave ever surfed in a kayak. It took six prototype kayaks and 24 months of waiting for perfect conditions. He chose Nelscott Reef, a thunderous big-wave spot on the central Oregon Coast. The decision reflects Berman’s need to maintain some sort of control in his extreme world. There are far more iconic surfing waves, such as Mavericks and Jaws, but they are also unpredictable as they break, barreling often and with more ferocity. Nelscott is closer to his home and he could study its nuances.
So Nelscott it was, and in early February conditions finally came together. Berman spent a day towing into waves that were big by anyone’s standards. The meatiest measured 37 feet. He swam twice, first when he declined the jet-ski tow and again when he got caught too deep inside a wave, but he was able to maneuver on the faces, truly surfing the biggest waves yet ridden in a kayak—or, at the very least, the biggest ever documented.
Still, the swell didn’t generate the size he wanted. On Facebook pages and Internet forums, people questioned the project’s merits. The retirement is still on—Berman already has informed Red Bull—but he’s vowed to go bigger in the wave-riding realm: “I know I can get a 50-footer,” he says. Leaving the Little White Salmon, sharing high-fives after returning to style the rest of the run, Berman shares with me an ambition that can’t be readily monetized: to run the Little White higher than it’s ever been run. It’s a goal that no one will witness, and for once, Berman doesn’t seem to care.