"Tao is recognized as the world's premier
radical hair-boater (extreme kayaker)" -
Men's Journal


In the Cauldron Below
By Christian Knight

I was sitting in my kayak in the cauldron below. The waterfall towering ninety-eight feet and four inches above my head tossed and chilled me with its moist, angry breath. Perched ten feet above and behind me and squeezed into a wooden monkey cage were tourists expressing various forms of emotion ranging from an idle curiosity to trembling fear. Sitting directly below them on the bank, divided only by the ambient deafness were all of the Twitch Extreme Kayaking Expedition members. Well, all but one. That last one, Tao Berman was one hundred vertical feet above scouring the waterfall, trying to predict whether his kayak angle could be kept vertical, and the damage to his body limited to a pair of broken ribs. Ultimately, he was calculating whether his 5'5 body could survive the ninety-eight foot, four inch free fall that would undisputedly grant him the world record for the biggest vertical waterfall ever kayaked. Tao Berman and the ninety-eight foot and four inch waterfall is why all of us, the tourists, the world-class kayakers behind me, Erik Link braced to film, and I in the cauldron below were here.

The path to the waterfall was two and a half kilometers up a beaten path. But the journey there had not been so direct. We had been chasing waterfalls for two weeks now. Alberta's dramatic mountain views lifted our spirits at times, but the mosquitoes had followed us the whole way and with them came calamity.

We all had our stories. A few days before, Tao's legs were red and ravaged by a swarm of angry yellow jackets. His ankle was swelling, apparently from the chase that ensued. Erik was as near to heat exhaustion as we had ever seen, and he kept absorbing the water we forced to his lips without sign of a bottom. I had my broken paddle, which barely begun to tell my story, but no one was willing to elaborate on their own stories, so neither was I.

The ruggedness of Alberta's mountains had not produced a generous amount of what we were looking for. So after days, and weeks of frustrating misadventures, our Twitch Expedition limped into Johnston Park within Banff National Forest.

The park could by no means match the calamitous adventure in the days previous. There were ranger stations, ice cream stands, guardrails, trails, lots of confused tourists and waterfalls. This was indeed the tourists perception of the primal wilderness, but to us, it seemed like Disneyland.

At the top, where the trail ended, according to one of the brass plated signs was a thirty meter waterfall, ninety eight feet, four inches. That is where we were going. Tao had made no indication to anyone about his interest in the big one, but I remembered the conversation from the day before. Just yesterday, as we were retreating from a seventy-five foot waterfall, Tao professed he was beginning his search for a hundred footfall water to run. I had been wondering when he would begin his quest to top his original eighty-three foot record set on the El Tomata River in Vera Cruz, Mexico. That quest began August 22, 1999.

The trail began as a concrete walkway, but eventually transformed into a badly beaten path. We wove through huffing tourists who were on their way down and asked some who appeared qualified to answer basic details about the big one. They tried to answer effectively, exclaiming how beautiful it was and how much farther we had to go, but they had no idea why we were there, or where we had already been. They thought we were one of them.

We knew it when we reached it. The waterfall dropped an enormous height through a seven foot wide limestone chasm. The walls on both sides jutted abruptly inward in places, and near the bottom an obnoxious rock fanned water outward. It was a dramatic waterfall, but none of the seven world-class kayakers surrounding me were convinced this waterfall stretched ninety nine feet. We had learned to distrust whitewater guidebooks, forest rangers, tourists and especially signs in National Parks, and turn our trust inward to instincts and experience instead.

Routinely, the seven of us began throwing waterfall height estimations into the air, some as low as sixty feet, some as high as eighty feet, but no one was willing to agree with the sign. Then I remembered Tao. He had wasted no time in these silly estimations. His tiny figure had already climbed to the top and was scouting it from above. Sam Drevo joined him moments later with his seventy foot throw rope and dropped it over the edge. It fell humiliatingly short. The tiny line scurried back and forth at each moist breath the waterfall took. However it was apparent the waterfall was much bigger than we originally thought. All of our instincts had taken a serious blow. By the look of it, the sign, the park, the forest ranger, the tourist who had read the sign was right, and we were wrong.

Tao knew then it would be another world record, and this time there would be no disputing it. It would be exactly what he was said he was looking for just one day previous, but he couldn't let that prospect overwhelm his motivations. I joined him at the top, and side by side laying on our stomachs we respectfully peered our heads over the abrupt edge and down one hundred feet to the pool below. It was an opportunistic view. For a brief imaginative moment, I could feel the adrenaline pumping as I approached the lip and dropped... "What do you think?" Tao blurted. I looked over at him. He was not looking at me. His head and eyes were swaying to the motion of the water. "I think it's big." I said humbly. He wanted more, and I knew it. "Yeah," he pressed, "but what do you think?"

In all of our adventures together, I couldn't remember a single time he listened to me when I told him I thought he was going to hurt himself. Still, in all of those adventures, I couldn't remember him ever hurting himself. What was I supposed to say? I told him it would be an amazing feat, but the fan rock at the bottom could seriously hurt him.
"I know," he agreed, "what do you think it will do, do you think it will make me land flat?"

"No, I think it will corkscrew you face first into the wall and rake face off in the process, dependant upon which side of it you are on."

He wasn't ready for that one. We argued about that concept for awhile, until he consulted the advice of the others who readily agreed with him, and then he told me with a renewed sense of arrogance, "I told you so Christian."

One by one we shuffled away from the waterfall, away from the observation deck and back onto the trail back to the parking lot. Once there, we congregated to talk about the big one and its future relationship with Tao. They were asking me whether I thought he would run it, and what if, if he did. It was not an easy question. Lately I had seen Tao walk away from things much smaller, and less consequential, but this one in particular seemed to have an undeniable pull at Tao. It would take all of the will lingering in his brain, and some borrowed for him to resist this one. It was not a perfect waterfall. Things could happen in a few seconds that could change his life forever. To live in a world surrounded by regret would be an awful thing. This is the tragedy of Tao's mind. That is why he can't just simply walk away. There is only one way for him to elude that awful world, and that is to run it, whatever it is, an unrunnable rapid, or the world record waterfall and run it clean. It had taken me years to understand this paradox and I knew I could not explain it to my peers, so I shrugged, and told them I didn't know what he would do. They were not satisfied with my answer. They would have preferred to know now.

We waited until Tao returned from his extensive scouting. They asked him too. His reply was as disappointing as mine. He shrugged and said he'd see when he got up there.

The hike back up was frustrating. It was the middle of the day by now and the trail was packed with tourists streaming from one end of the trail to the other. Most people scowled and looked away. The very image of me hiking up this trail in this park with a kayak on my shoulder must have been insulting to them. Those were the ones I appreciated. The nice ones stopped me and asked a sequence of non-varying questions, not realizing the ones before them asked the same sequence. I smiled and answered politely, yet curtly, however slightly less politely than the time before and slightly more curtly. The kayak was getting heavy, and the anticipation was mounting. Tao was still behind me, but he was sure to be moving faster. He was on a quest.

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By the time I arrived at the base of the falls, Tao was already in his kayak paddling around in the foam. Some of the tourists had excitedly followed us up adding to the ones already in the observation deck. Their curiosity encouraged them to withdraw their video cameras and capture Tao's peculiar actions on film. This spectacle surely rivaled with the elk they saw on the road just yesterday, and they would have been fools to miss either of them.

The waterfall was frayed and broken up. By the time it hit the pool one hundred feet below it was thin and weak, leaving a rigid pool to land in. Worse, was the obnoxious fan rock taunting Tao twenty feet above his head. Hitting that could determine the difference between success and death, or if Tao allowed, between running it, or just simply walking away. But something told me, of all three outcomes, success, death or walking away, the latter was the most improbable.

Tao lives in a world where his actions are limited only by what he thinks he can not predict. The inevitable prospect of death can be removed by a graceful combination of skill and precise calculation, however, if he cannot remove the probability of death or serious injury, then he reluctantly removes himself. This is what I have forced myself to believe, but there are times when it is suspicious. Chance reveals itself in many forms. It has been a hole, boil, and a log and often times it is a rock but it is always what he cannot predict. This time chance revealed itself in that obnoxious rock taunting him twenty feet above his head, but try as he might, he could not remove it. Tragically, neither could he seem to remove himself.

The tourists did not understand this. They live in world where permanent injury, or death is the closest of kin to chance and chance looms everywhere. No amount of skill or calculation can remove the probability of death or serious injury, it is there with signs all around it warning us to stay away. Which is why there are trails and forest rangers and guard-rails and laws.

Displeased with the bottom, Tao charged to the top for a second scouting session. The sun had passed over the walls, leaving us at the bottom in a shadow. The top, however was glowing in sunshine. It can be a valuable thing to learn live in a shadow. I was not content where I was though. Everything was off my fingertips, out of my control. I was completely vulnerable to Tao's decision, and I resented him for that.

The observation deck was filling up behind me. The men herding into the observation deck were focusing their cameras against their eyes. Some of the women beside them were weeping. People were being squeezed beyond their normal spatial comfort zones, their bodies were pressed tighter and tighter into one another as more and more tourists packed themselves in, but no one, not even the weak stomached dared leave. They were waiting as I was for the verdict. All eyes were focused one hundred feet above on a twenty year old who's glowing silhouette kept appearing hovering audaciously over the edge. Each time he appeared, the crowd would gasp. They were certain he had gone past the guard rails and violated chance, and as a result he would eventually slip and plunder one hundred fatal feet to the bottom.

I was sitting in my kayak in the cauldron below being tossed and chilled by the waterfall's cold, moist breath. There were world class kayakers behind me on the rocks bracing for the shot of a lifetime, but they would have rather not had to take it. Erik was poised to film. He was worried, but eager. This one shot would make the whole thing worth while. The mosquitoes, the yellow jackets, the broken paddle, the heat exhaustion, would ease into an epic, laughable memory if it were for this one two and a half second shot. However none of us, not I, nor the kayakers behind me, nor the tourists herded into the observation deck knew what Tao would do.

Tao popped over the edge to relay a message holding up his thumb. It was difficult to know what he was trying to say, but I was sure it was not the signal we were waiting for.

Then in a yellow blur, the kayak dropped. My throat suddenly became awkward, until I remembered Tao's boat was blue. Then he popped over the edge holding up his thumb questioningly. The boat he threw hit the rock at the bottom and corkscrewed into the right wall. I couldn't stop thinking what if Tao was inside. But when Tao subjected his decision to our perspective, no one relayed to him what I felt for certain I saw. Instead they excitedly held up their thumbs, indicating it was a good probe. Immediately I began doubting myself, rather than to believe something more sinister and I remained silent.

He disappeared behind the wall again. The longer he was gone the more apathetic the others seemed to be becoming. I meanwhile was enduring another session of moral torment, compulsively asking myself the same lines of questions. "Maybe I should run up there and tell him what I saw? I could take his paddle or his helmet, and force him to walk away from this? I could use my words to scare him?" But I knew the decision was not up to me, it never has been. So I remained at the bottom looking for a good place to rescue, when it would all be too late anyway. Tao meanwhile was stuffing two one-gallon water jugs into the bow of his seven foot six inch kayak. Those were there to ensure that he would fall vertically. He was adorning himself with protective sunglasses, elbow pads, and a skull cap to protect his ears, along with the rest of his protective gear.

One last time he appeared over the edge. The helmet, sunglasses, life jacket, and elbow pads had ripped the boy out of him. We all knew the verdict before he raised his thumb, but he raised it anyway, high and steady. No one looked around greedily or worried, no one dared flinch. Whatever the outcome, it would all be over within a few seconds, and none of us for whatever motivations, were going to miss it. When he disappeared into the sun's glow that last time, the sobs in the observation decks stifled, the video cameras were pointed and all unblinking eyes stared intently to the top.

I meanwhile am still being pushed and shoved by the waterfall's angry breath. I was looking for the most probable place Tao would resurface, so I could be there when he needed me. But before I found that probable place, before I really grasped what it was I would be doing down here if things did not go as exactly planned, he began falling too quickly for fear. He hit the flake at the bottom and it corkscrewed his face into the left wall. I thought I him saw him tuck protectively, but it was too fast to tell. And then the boiling, white pool sucked him down.

He was down for a while, but not long enough for me to think. When his upside down boat resurfaced, it was next to my boat, I didn't even have to move. He began struggling to roll and at that point I knew something was terribly wrong. I began looking for blood and struggling for emotion at the same time, but neither came. And then he rolled up beside me with half of his graphite paddle in one hand, a smile and a world record in his other hand. I scanned his body and face for blood, gashes, scrapes, but there was nothing, not even a scratch.

When the crowd reclaimed their breath, they burst into hysterical applause. The women began weeping again, the men were still filming. It was a good show.

Nearly two years before Tao Berman broke the world record for the biggest vertical waterfall ever run in Johnston Park, he broke it for the first time on an eighty three foot plunge in Vera Cruz, Mexico. The two waterfalls couldn't have been more different. The eighty-three foot waterfall in Mexico was swollen from the recent hurricane that ripped through Mexico, littering the river, as well as the country with garbage. The water was thick, brown, and unpredictable. More significantly, the waterfall was nestled deep in a treacherous canyon farther away from civilization than most people would prefer to go. The only measurement consisted of a seventy-five foot throw rope dangling about ten feet from the bottom. As a result, Guinness scoffed at the claim, which failed nearly all of their stringent technicalities for documentation. The video footage did appear on Erik Link's debut film, "Twitch," but exposure was ultimately overwhelmed by Shannon Carroll's less credible, yet more exposed world record claim on Oregon's seventy-eight foot Sahalie Falls in the heavily trafficked Sahalie State Park.

As of August 23, 1999, there has been no question about who holds the world record, where it was and how high it stands. And no, this time, Guinness isn't laughing. They have already begun documenting.

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