This time last year, I witnessed the greatest feat of athletic skill I've ever seen a kayaker pull off. Except it was nowhere near a river and the label "athletic," could be a stretch referring to this circus act of bodily proportions.
Say what you will about Tao Berman's shameless self-promotion in courting corporate sponsors - perhaps you saw his recent Stunt Junkies episode, dropping out of a helicopter and over Superior Falls or dropping his drawers for a creepy BVD-only spread in Rolling Stone's Athletes on the Edge feature - but I've never eaten with another human that could hold a candle to the notorious world-record waterfall hucker's performance on a fresh 40-pound yellowfina tuna reeled in by former Paddler Magazine managing editor Jeff Moag.
After my own 2005 accomplishment of taking a dare to down a half-chicken dinner, with a side of half-chicken dinner, I thought I could hang. I went 10-ounce tuna steak for steak with Tao for as long as I could. But I dropped out after five steaks and lost count of Tao's after seven.
The point is that the next day, while Tao was competing in the first annual Pro Invitational race down Fish Creek, I was taking some jolly photos beached beneath Triple Drop while digesting. Berman, the favorite to win, fell behind and didn't compete in the afternoon freestyle event at Charlie's Hole, citing stomach illness and possible poisoning.
While Tao will not be back for tomorrow's dual-event Invitational, and I have no gluttonous news to share about the competitors' pre-race meals, I offer these predictions.
Brad Ludden will repeat as the overall downriver race winner.
You'd think full-time, globe-trotting paddlers would have no trouble with Fish.
"There's so many rocks to peton or spin off to take the wrong line, there's constant paddling and it's the coldest water I've been in anywhere, you're breathing hard with the altitude and can't feel your hands - the factors all pile up," said Kevin Dombey, Steamboat's only local competitor, who pointed out that Ludden was one of the only racers to actively seek out locals to help him dial in his lines.
Although the race will be on a lower, more straight forward section of Fish, you have to respect the competitors who prepare and tap the local knowledge.
It's the same reason Ruth Gordon will take the women's title. It's not all because she's fresh off a Freestyle World Championship win on the Ottawa River's massive "Buseater" wave and, staring at the C-hole on Friday, said she was excited to be on a wave-like feature after competitions on smaller holes, from Reno, Nev., to Salida. It's because she was the last to leave and the first to arrive back at the wave Saturday morning.
My pick for the men's freestyle: Todd Baker. The Pennsylvania teenager took veteran world champ Jay Kincaid to the finals last year, getting bigger air off the wave and louder cheers from the crowd than any competitor.