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Tao Berman is featured in "The White Water Report" in the March/April 2000 ADVENTURE.

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Tao Berman
(Very) Extreme Kayaker
Age: 21
Home: Ashland, Oregon
Hero: "I don't have a hero."
Dream Job: "I'm living it."
    "What I do is beyond what Mountain Dew would want to use in an ad."

Southern Oregon University sophomore Tao (rhymes with "day-o") Berman spent his summer vacation not dying. Might sound pretty easy to you and me, but try doing it while falling from a 98-foot (30-meter) cliff in Canada's Banff National Park. On August 23, 1999, that little flight of fancy earned him the world record for the longest vertical drop in a kayak.

On impact Berman's paddle snapped in half (a few degrees off and his back could have easily done the same), but the man himself emerged unharmed. In the face of such risk, he remains eerily unafraid, saying his success stems not from luck but from confidence, control, and practice (he had already survived an 83-foot [25-meter] fall). But then a marketing major would say that.

  Are you serious when you say you have no fear?

People tend to think extreme kayaking is about fear and adrenaline. That's not the case for me. I usually don't feel frightened because of my high confidence level when kayaking. It's people that second-guess themselves who are afraid.

  What's your biggest thrill outside of kayaking?

Helping to design and market the Tao X-Stream drytop with my gear sponsor Stohlquist. Negotiating contracts with sponsors, media, production companies, and photographers is fun. I also enjoy finding creative ways to get more exposure for my sponsors.

  What do you say to people who think you're nuts to run these waterfalls?

Everything is relative to one's perception. For example, many consider a 50-foot (15-meter) waterfall crazy to run. That's relative. Fifty feet isn't crazy to me.

I carefully calculate whether or not I think a drop can be done based on past experience. Being calculated doesn't make me crazy. It makes me safer in a dangerous environment.

  Why kayaking?

I wanted to do a sport that didn't involve a team. I wanted my accomplishments and failures to be mine alone.

  How do you balance school, sports, and business?

I have been so busy traveling to paddling events and working on kayaking-related business—flying to gear shows, doing poster signings, and promoting videos I'm in—that I haven't had much time for school. Stuff like that doesn't leave much time for schoolwork.

  Is this all just an elaborate stunt to land a Mountain Dew ad?

What I do is beyond what Mountain Dew would want to use in an ad. I do things for myself. Capitalizing on them comes second.

  Do you remember your first time in a kayak?

I was 14 years old and I ran the Skykomish River (Class III rapids) in Washington State. That first day was awesome. I later had to decide whether to give up rock climbing for kayaking. About a year after my first day in a kayak, I quit climbing so I would have more time to paddle.

  What do you do to relax?

It's rare that I ever sit around and relax because life isn't long enough for that. I find more enjoyment in being productive.

  What goes through your mind when you're in midair?

I focus on my body position, boat angle, and paddle strokes. Training on many different types of waterfalls, I try to get my reflexes and reactions to be part of a carefully thought-out plan. The training I do also gets me to a point where I don't have adrenaline clouding my mind when I'm in the air.

  What do you do immediately after a big drop?

I test my muscles to make sure I haven't acquired any injuries.

  Other than the record breaker, what was your most memorable kayaking trip?

Once I was in Mexico doing a first descent in the middle of nowhere. The trip was terrible. A friend and I spent two days in a canyon doing portage after portage. We didn't eat or drink for two days because we had run out of food and water.

Two days later, when we finally got out of the canyon, we both agreed it was one of the worst first descents we had ever done. On the other hand, it is one of my favorites, because it reminded me that sometimes it takes a bad experience to make one really appreciate all the great experiences.

  How much of extreme kayaking is luck?

People frequently want to think that all the big, difficult waterfalls I have run are luck. My response: Isn't luck a 50/50 chance of success or failure? If I have been successfully running big, hard waterfalls for years without getting hurt, then it isn't luck that's determining my fate.

  You've just made the world's longest vertical drop in a kayak. What are you going to do next? (Please don't say you're going to Disney World.)

Let's just say I am always looking for something spectacular.


Photograph by Brandon Knapp; portrait by Jock Bradley


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