Life on the river
Larry Berg was a quiet man, except when it came to kayaking
It’s probably a fact little known to most Chicoans, but if you are a whitewater kayaker, this is one of the better places to live in the United States. There are several great whitewater river runs right in our back yard or within reasonable driving distance. That’s what drew a talented kayaker named Larry Berg to Chico in 1990.
Berg earned the reputation as “King of the Middle Fork,” a popular kayaking spot on the Feather River. People from all over the continent, and even the world, came to the North State to have Berg lead them down the rapids. Though autistic, he’d kayak with anyone, whether a newbie or even a complete stranger.
Recently, he drew some of the best kayakers from all over California and Nevada to Yuba River State Park. More than 50 people gathered on the beach—within sight of one of his favorite rapids—to share memories amid laughter and tears.
Just a few days before, on Feb. 9, the 57-year-old Berg quietly lost his battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease, a progressive neurodegenerative ailment that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord, leading to loss of muscle control and eventually death.
Always calm and unflappable with his trademark deadpan expression, he kayaked with grace and style. He made it look easy. And when you kayaked with Berg you knew you had a solid boater on the river with you.
Everyone on the beach had a story to tell, and many owed him a debt of gratitude.
“Larry would go with anyone, any time, on any river, which is kind of unique to kayaking,” said Dave Steindorf, stewardship director of the American Whitewater organization. “Sometimes kayakers are reticent if they don’t know the person and their ability.”
With good reason. Whitewater rivers and rapids are rated from Class I to Class V. Class V is for experts only, requiring very technical and skilled maneuvers through the rapids. A mistake or accident could cost you your life.
Larry Berg was born in 1950 in Eureka. He was raised in the shadow of the giant redwoods by quiet, self sufficient and frugal parents who were products of the Great Depression. They built their home using only hand tools, many of which they had made themselves.
Berg lived with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism usually characterized by severe deficiency in social skills. Individuals with Asperger’s are usually described as odd or eccentric. They often have above-average or even genius intelligence, but they tend to have obsessive routines and rituals or become preoccupied with a single subject.
It didn’t get in Berg’s way. He attended Humboldt State University for two years, before receiving an engineering degree at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Berg completed his master’s degree at Long Beach State in 1974.
Fresh out of college, in March 1975 Berg traveled to Alaska to work as a structural engineer and help to design the Alaska Pipeline. The controversial 800-mile long pipeline would have to cross three mountain ranges, several geologically active earthquake fault lines and more than 300 rivers and streams, as well as provide for the migration paths of caribou and moose.
After the completion of the pipeline, Berg went to work in Saudi Arabia, which was developing its oil industry. He acquired his first kayak while snorkeling in the Red Sea, which he used to paddle out to the reefs. It was the beginning of what would be his lifelong passion.
Berg had saved enough money from his engineering jobs to invest his savings and retire at the ripe old age of 33. He returned to his favorite hobbies of flying small fixed-wing aircrafts and traveling, and he eventually signed up for a nine-day whitewater kayaking class with Sundance Expeditions on the Rogue River in Oregon.
Within two years he was an accomplished kayaker, taking on some of the toughest Class V rivers.
I first met Berg in 1991 when I joined the newly formed Chico Paddleheads club. He had intense blue eyes. And at 6-foot-4, he could be a little intimidating.
I remember asking Paddleheads founder Rick Stock what Berg did for a living.
“I don’t know. He’s a strange guy,” Stock said. “Whenever I call he’s always at home, and when I ask if he wants to go kayaking, he always says yes.”
Although Berg was doing well with his investments, he lived a Spartan existence. His small rented apartment was furnished with lawn furniture, tools and overflowing book shelves. His bed was a camping mattress on the floor.
Berg’s clothing was often worn and tattered, and when his kayaking drytop (a waterproof jacket worn by kayakers) became leaky, he simply wore a garbage bag over it. In fact, once he forgot to bring his drytop along, so all he wore was the garbage bag under his life jacket.
His diet never changed, either: Berg always ate canned tuna and Top Ramen when he was on the river.
“Rather than just go through life accumulating more stuff, he accumulated more days on the river,” Steindorf said.
Steindorf, who presided over Berg’s memorial, remarked that kayaking is a sport in which one experiences the entire gamut of emotions—from absolute elation to total terror and tears.
“Most people don’t look like they are playing golf when they’re kayaking, except Larry. He always had the same calm expression, whether he was swimming out of his boat or styling a rapid.”
I don’t think anyone at the memorial really knew Berg. A reclusive man who spoke little, Berg rarely joined in the party after a day on the river, and preferred to cloister himself away with a book. Yet on the river, he gave himself completely to others.
In that giving spirit, American Whitewater has set up a river stewardship fund in Berg’s name.
He loved the Middle Fork, one of North America’s crown jewels of kayaking. Every summer as the spring runoff dried up the northern rivers, Berg drove his Volkswagen van down to Casa Loma in Santa Clara County, where he parked and became a local fixture, living out of his van and kayaking Cherry Creek.
In Casa Loma Berg was known as “El Patron.” If you wanted to be a Class V kayaker in California, chances were you would cut your teeth on Cherry Creek. And chances were kayakers would tell you to knock on Berg’s van and have him take you down the river.
It was difficult to break into his personal space, but everybody loved to paddle with him.
One person who attended Berg’s memorial joked about the time they were trying to maneuver their kayak near a fall in the Feather River.
“Larry paddled up and said, ‘Come on, what are you waiting for?’ I learned that contrary to what your mother told you, if all your friends go over a cliff, you, too, will go over a cliff.”