Pioneering Competitor, River Explorer, and Boat Designer Dies

posted August 28, 2011
by Charlie Walbridge

article photo 1

John L. Berry, whitewater pioneer, died peacefully on Aug. 11th at the age of 86. Berry lived in Bethesda, Maryland and was an outstanding whitewater canoeist and competitor during the 50's and 60's. He began racing in 1956 at the Brandywine Slalom, He was National C-1 and C-2 Champion in 1960-61 and a member of the first US whitewater team, at the 1961 World Championships. What he and his teammates learned there resulted in huge advances in American whitewater sport.

As a member of the Canoe Cruiser's Association of Washington, DC he explored much of the Potomac and Cheat headwaters during the 1950's. He also made several early descents of the Lower Yough. In 1957 he and his long-time C-2 partner Bob Harrigan (In the photo, Harrigan has the stern, Berry the bow) lead a first descent down West Virginia's Cheat Canyon. The trip took two days with Berry solo paddling a half-decked wood-and canvas canoe. In September the pair lead one of the first trips down the New River Gorge, taking three days to go from Thurmond to Fayette Station. During the mid-sixities he also led several trips down a pre-dam Gauley River. He completed one run at very low water but was forced to abort the second run because of high flows.

Dave Kurtz, a long time slalom paddler and coach, writes, "John Berry was one of the paddling leaders that inspired me and others in my group, Explorer Post 32 in State College, PA, to get involved in whitewater and slalom paddling. His participation with Bob Harrigan at the 1961 Worlds moved us to go for it in 1963. At those Worlds we had the C-1 Trio (paddling new C-1 canoes designed by Natan Bernot) of Tom Southworth, Dave Guss, and myself plus the Explorer Post 32 C-2 duo of Hank Yeagley and Les Bechdel along with the C-2Mix duo of Bill Bickham and Barbara Wright. We simply wanted to carry on the start of the Berry-Harrigan exploits. 

Ten time national kayak champion Eric Evans said, "John was an early icon of the sport in this country and, along with Dan Sullivan, carried an aura about him. He was a gentleman who never hurried, raised his voice, or got rattled.  Most impressive to my 14-year-old eyes were his long arms which were ripped. These were a gift from God and I think allowed him to reach over the gunwales on the big boats of his day. John was a key figure in bridging the gap between the Grumman Open Boat era of the 50's to the fiberglass era of the 60's."  

Olympic Bronze Medalist Jamie McEwan remembers that his first C-1 was a green John Berry boat he found under the Christmas tree when he was 15. He got into it on the living room floor and the rest is history! Other Mid-States Berry Boat paddlers included Bob Burrell and Charlie Walbridge.

In 1970 Berry quit a high-paying finance job and moved from the DC area to Waitsfield, VT. He  changed his business name to " Millbrook Boats", because the "Mad River Canoe" was already trademarked. In 1975 Millbrook Boats moved to the Hudson River in Riparius, NY where he created several legendary open canoes: the ME, the Flasher, the Flashback, and the AC/DC. He was active in open canoe slalom racing and his designs revolutionized the sport. Anyone who paddles a whitewater canoe today owes much to his innovations. In 1988 Berry sold the business to John Kazimierczyk, who continues the Millbrook legacy of innovative light-weight designs.

A resident of Belchertown, MA since 1989, Berry paddled on the nearby Swift River daily until this past year. His beloved wife of 63 years, Janet Berry, passed away a year ago. He is survived by his three daughters, Katharine L. Berry, Rebecca Berry Creswell, Virginia Berry and son John Berry, Jr., four grandchildren and a great grandson. 

(Photos scanned from Canoeing White Water by Randy Carter, published in 1967)

Charles Walbridge
Bruceton Mills, WV