Written by Joe Bousquin
Larry Berg, an avid whitewater kayaker, fixed-wing pilot, civil engineer who worked on the Trans-Alaska pipeline,
world traveler, lover of books, politics, nature and the wilds of California, died Saturday, Feb. 9 after battling
early onset dementia and Lou Gehrig's disease.
He was 57.
Born March 9, 1950 in Eureka, Calif. Larry grew up on the North Coast in the shadow of the Avenue of the Giants, and eventually moved into a house his parents built themselves. A smart student with a sharp intellect, Larry attended California Polytechnic University, and earned his master's degree at California State University Long Beach. After graduating, he headed to Alaska's North Slope, where he was employed by the Fluor Corp. to help build the 800-mile long Trans-Alaska pipeline, a modern engineering feat that crosses three mountain ranges and became a hallmark of achievement among daunting environmental and political challenges. Once the pipeline was finished, Larry transferred to Saudi Arabia, where he lived and worked for five years. With eight weeks of paid vacation each year, Larry took advantage of the Mideast's central location to travel to Europe, Africa and even Antarctica. Always a frugal soul, Larry managed to save enough money to retire when he returned to California, and buy a home in Fountain Valley.
With a passion for flying, Larry earned his solo fixed-wing license in 1974, and loved to fly the canyons and mountains of the Golden State. It wasn't until later, probably the early 1990s, that he took up whitewater kayaking, but it didn't take him long to become a fixture in the paddling community.
With his VW van parked under the shade of the pines at Casa Loma, Larry spent more than a few summers on The Road there, where he would read his books, listen to the radio or enjoy the company of friends who showed up to paddle. On Sundays, when Cherry Creek flows are often shut off, Larry would invite friends to fly with him from the airport in Modesto. I went up a few times to scout out the Fantasy Falls run on the North Mokelumne, as well as the Upper Cherry Creek run, that now legendary cleft in the Earth that was just starting to get the attention of kayakers. At the end of the day, we would drive back to The Road, ready for another solid week of good kayaking.
For many, it was a reassuring thought to know that if they drove down to Cherry Creek, they could be sure they would have a competent paddling partner and shuttle organizer in Larry. And while Larry wasn't exactly a lady's man, there were, of course, Larry's Girls. I'm talking of the women paddlers who would come to Cherry Creek, always a testing ground for Class V paddlers in California, for their first run down the canyon. Larry ushered more than a few women down Cherry Creek for their maiden paddle there, always exhibiting his knowledge, and patience, in the process, giving quiet direction from the eddies with his piercing blue eyes. I remember one particular Cherry Creek run where I caught up to Larry and the group he was paddling with that day, including a woman he was showing down for the first time. When I asked Larry if it was okay to join his group, he replied in his signature, matter-of-fact deadpan. "Sure," he said. "Just don't get between me and the girl."
I spent the summer of 2002 on The Road with Larry, as well as my friend Kenny Gould, who committed suicide later that year. Larry and Kenny always had a special affinity for one another, and Kenny often referred to Larry as "The Legend." I think for Kenny, who struggled to live his life free of the societal pressures he felt, Larry, who never had children of his own, became a role model and father figure, someone who had made a conscious choice to live his life in a particular way, consequences be damned. Larry's way was to live simply, in a little VW van, as he traveled up and down the West Slope of the Sierra, following California's annual melt, always making sure to get a run or two in on the Middle Feather, before returning to Cherry Creek's guaranteed releases once summer set in. In Larry, I believe, Kenny found a friend who never cast judgment upon him for his mental illness. And I think Larry found the same in Kenny. For those of you who knew them both, I'll say that there was a sameness in their souls, and a lucidness in their eyes that stays with me now, though both their bodies are gone. They're always with me, and us, on every river we're blessed enough to paddle in California. I'll miss them both forever.
There will be a memorial for Larry on the banks for the South Yuba River at Bridgeport this Saturday, Feb. 16, at 1 p.m. Please join us to celebrate Larry's life and friendship, and join with the kayaking community to say goodbye to our remarkable friend.
February 12, 2008