Kayaking the Grand Canyon is difficult for even the most experienced river runners. Imagine doing it without being able to see. Until last month, no completely blind solo kayaker had run the entire length of the Canyon. And then Lonnie Bedwell came along.
Bedwell, a U.S. Navy veteran from Dugger, Indiana, completed the 16-day, 226-mile journey on August 21. Team River Runner, a kayaking group that serves veterans of all eras, provided a support team that helped Bedwell navigate the Colorado River, and Check-6, another veterans organization, funded the trip. How did he do it? We spoke with Bedwell by phone to learn more about his remarkable achievement.
First of all, congratulations! It’s quite an accomplishment.
Thank you. It was an awesome experience. It’s neat to be able to say I was the first to do it.
Tell us a little about your background.
I was in the Navy from 1985 to 1994. Three years to the day after I got off active duty, I was shot in a hunting accident and lost my eyesight. I’m 100 percent “lights out,” so it’s completely black.
How did you become involved with Team River Runner? Was kayaking the Grand Canyon something you had always wanted to do, or did they propose the idea to you?
I was at the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, in Snowmass Village, Colorado, in March 2012. Team River Runner had a group there with kayaks in the heated swimming pool, and they had me hop into a kayak and paddle around. That was when I first became acquainted with them, and that was also the first time I had ever sat in a kayak.
After that, in June 2012, I got a phone call asking if I would like to go to Montana, to the Yellowstone River, with a group of visually impaired veterans. I spent five or six days there. The first day, they put us in hard-shell kayaks in a pond and had us do basic strokes around the pond. The second day, they had us go on the river in moving water, but no whitewater. The next day, we did inflatable kayaks and some whitewater. I spent the rest of the three days in a hard-shell kayak, flipping upside down on the Yellowstone River and learning how to do it. I had to swim a couple of times.
When [Team River Runner executive director] Joe Mornini took me to the airport, he mentioned running the Grand Canyon. I said, “That sounds awesome.” He said it would take a lot of practice, but I thought it sounded like a cool idea. I think we both expected it to be three or four years down the road. Well, I met someone from Team River Runner who was in Lexington, Kentucky, which is about a three-hour drive from where I live. I went down there to do some kayaking, and I met someone else there who gave me some kayaking gear. I brought it home and was looking for someone to paddle with. In February and March of this year, I started going to the pool at Indiana State University, learning more about kayaking and doing Eskimo rolls. [Editor’s note: An Eskimo roll is the act of righting a capsized kayak.] I had a decent roll going on my right hand, so eventually I just started dragging my kayak out my back door and down to my pond, and practicing on my own. I also spent some time with a friend in North Carolina and did some kayaking there.
Joe called me up and asked if I’d like to run the Canyon in a river raft, but I told him I’d be more comfortable in a kayak. He told me I’d have to do 1,000 rolls to be able to do it. I called him up the next day and said I’d done 100 rolls that day. He said, “What?!” Eventually, they invited me to go, and I just kept working on my rolls. In July, I kayaked on whitewater for four days in Montana. They had me flipping upside down intentionally and doing rolls in the rapids until I was good enough to go on the trip. I did some more training in North Carolina, and by that time, I’d probably done 1,500 rolls in my pond. Joe told me, “Lonnie, expect to swim several times.” He listed off about six big rapids, and he said, “If you have to portage around them or get in a raft, that’s OK.”
My family asked me, “Why do you have to do this?” A couple of things came to mind. The first was, knowing that this program was founded to inspire disabled veterans and get them going again. I felt I owed it to the men and women who have served over there [in Iraq and Afghanistan]. Every paddle stroke I make is an effort to pay them back for the sacrifices they have made for me. I have to at least try and let them know how much I respect what they have done. The second reason was, why not?
Generally, a kayaker relies on his sight. What were the logistics of your run through the Canyon? How did you navigate the curves and rapids of the river?
The group consisted of 16 people, including me. There were nine other veterans, all post-9/11, and six support-crew members. Three of the veterans were my guides. They are phenomenal kayakers. One was in front of me, and the other two were behind me. They just gave simple voice commands and tried to line me up with where I needed to be. The guy in front would pick the line we were going to take, and he would be yelling, “On me! On me!” because the rapids were so loud. And I just chased that sound. And he would give me directions like “Hard right” or “Paddle hard” or “Paddle easy.” The simpler we kept it, the better. If I couldn’t hear the lead guy, the guys behind me would yell the commands.
At times, some of the lateral waves coming off the Canyon walls would literally knock me 30 feet across the river. How those guys stayed with me was unbelievable. It was just amazing. A couple of times, a whirlpool came up underneath me and spun me, and they had to get me corrected. The first big rapid we went into was House Rock, and after we dropped in, it did a 90-degree turn to the right. Somehow, something pushed me to the left and I rolled over right at the base of the pillow wave. But I made it out of it, and they were stoked. We were all hooting and hollering after I was able to get through that, and it set a real tone for the whole trip. We started out with some “waterproof” radios, but by House Rock, they had quit. It was nice to know we could hear without them, even in the rapids.
What other challenges and highlights did you encounter on the trip?
Probably the highlight was just the people. It was such a team effort, and it took everyone. The encouraging words and the teamwork of the whole team — it literally took all 16 of us to make it happen.
When we got to Hance Rapid, everyone got out to scout the rapid. I just kicked back in the kayak and relaxed. One of the guys said, “I think I’m more nervous than you are.” I just had to stay relaxed. On that rapid, they told me, “Whatever you do, don’t roll,” so what did I do? I rolled and went under, but I punched out on a perfect line to kayak the rest of the rapid. Afterward, they told me they’d been planning to not have me do some of the tougher rapids, but they hadn’t realized how much of a tenacious bastard I was. [Laughs.
On Crystal Rapid, I flipped outside down and got worked over like I was in a washing machine on steroids. I was starting to run out of breath, so I pulled up enough to get a breath of air and went back under. Finally, I managed to roll back over, and we went on down through Crystal. That was the first time I felt the absolute power of the river. I’m glad I didn’t have to swim. But around that time, I really started to feel like we could really kayak this river.
On Day 9, I couldn’t seem to do anything right, and then a screw popped out of my right knee brace, so I didn’t have as much control for a while. It really shook my confidence. Later that day, I got bit by two fire ants, we shook a scorpion out of my wetsuit and we ran a rattlesnake out of camp. So I thought, well, hopefully we got all the bad stuff out of the way!
A few days after that, on another rapid, I had to swim for the first time, which was disappointing. The next day was Lava Falls Rapid, the “big one” that everyone takes the photos of, and we were trying to beat a storm. We ended up battling 30 mph winds that were pushing us across the river, toward a hole. I got ripped from the kayak like I was shot out of a cannon. But I held onto my paddle and came up madder than a hornet. I got back in, and we went a little ways and called it a night.
Tell us about the emotions you felt when you finished the trip.
At the end, with about a mile and a half to go, they took one of the flags from the support boats and stuck it down the back of my life jacket. The meaning of it for me, with the other nine vets and the whole team, was just so humbling. I just remember saying, “We did it. We did it.” It was just overwhelming, and it was an honor to be able to do it with that group. It was a phenomenal feeling. It’s neat to know that you’re a part of history. It’s almost irrelevant if it can’t be paid forward to all those others who’ve sacrificed so much. It’s almost fitting that I had to swim those two times. If I had run it without having to swim, it wouldn’t have been enough to pay those guys back.
On an anxiety level of 1 to 10, I don’t think I got above a 5 on the whole trip. I think it was due to my military training, having things thrown at me and having learned to manage myself. The more you stay in your head, the better you react. If you keep your calm, you can have controlled chaos. If you lose your calm, it’s just utter chaos. And the guys around me stayed calm, too, so that gave me a lot of confidence. I knew that entire group had my [back], and that was such a comforting feeling.
What’s the next big accomplishment you’re hoping to tackle?
I never saw this coming this quickly. I’ve been invited to go hang-gliding in San Diego, and I’ve been invited to go to Colorado this winter to climb a frozen waterfall. If I get the opportunity, I’m gonna do them. My bucket list is just “What can I do next?” The courage is in the people who take us to do these things. My life is in their hands, and I react to them. Organizations like Team River Runner and Check-6 are so awesome in that way. I don’t know that they really know what a difference that makes in our lives.
Would you kayak the Grand Canyon again?
Yes, definitely. I’d do it again. But I’d want to do it with people just as experienced as those I did it with. You need really, really skilled kayakers.
— Noah Austin