Lonnie Bedwell, a former Navy Petty Officer 1st Class, was injured in a hunting accident that took his sight instantly. Thirteen years later he got into adaptive sports. Through Team River Runner, a chapter of Disabled Sports USA, Lonnie was the first ever visually impaired kayaker to complete the entire 226-mile stretch of Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, which is considered one of the toughest stretches of river in the country. In this interview, Lonnie discusses his trip and his reason for participating in adaptive sports.
The VA Blind Rehab center had been trying to get me to go to clinics for several years, but I had been waiting to raise my children. When my youngest daughter graduated from high school, I attended a snow skiing event with the Hines Rehab Center in Chicago. I had a confidence that I could still do stuff, because I help build houses and still mow my lawn and go hunting and fishing. So I went to this VA clinic and I met four guys who had lost their sight in Iraq. They invited me to an event in Chicago with them. They refused to attend unless I was invited. So I went, and there I water skied and cycled, and since then I’ve been skiing and climbing 14,000 footers in Colorado and attending clinics with USABA and all that. It’s just another challenge.
When did you first get involved with Team River Runner?
In 2012 I attended the VA Winter Sports Clinic and Team River Runner was there with a bunch of kayaks in a heated pool and so I played around in the pool for a while. Then they contacted me last summer and asked if I would like to go to their Out of Sight clinic, in Montana for visually impaired kayakers. And I went and would paddle for a while, then flip upside down and Team River Runner would rescue me and we’d do it all over again.
When did you first start thinking about attempting to kayak down the Grand Canyon?
Joe Mornini, the founder of Team River Runner, took me to the airport after the Out of Sight clinic and we were talking and he asked me if I would want to go on one of their Grand Canyon trips. ‘Would you want to do it in a raft?,’ he asked. ‘No, I want to do it in a kayak.’ And he mentioned that I might be the first visually impaired person to kayak the entire section of the river. I think we both imagined it would be three or four years down the road. But that gave me a goal to shoot for, it gave me something to strive for.
At that time I’d only bee in the water a total of about 5 days, and I’d never done a roll so Joe had set a goal of 1,000 rolls before he would event let me consider going. So I was sitting at home with all of this equipment and I thought I’ve got to do something. So I started to take my kayak down to my pond. The first time, I called up Joe and I said, ‘I just took my kayak down to my pond and did 100 rolls today.’ When I got up to 1,500, Joe brought me back out to the Out of Sight Clinic and they had me intentionally flipping in the rapids to make sure I could roll in them. When we left for Arizona, Joe said ‘Expect to swim several, several times.’
The rapids on this stretch of river are considered some of the trickiest in the country. Can you tell us a little about them?
The trip took 16 days and covered 226 miles and I only swam twice, because my stupid skirt imploded on me.
The very first rapid, House Rock, we stopped and scouted and I was given directions to stay to the left. Well somehow I got pushed to the right, right up beside a huge pillow wave and it sucked me in. But I got right up on top, paddled the rest of the way and got through it. All the guys were looking at me like ‘How did you do that?’ But I think it was a good thing, because I felt the complete power of the river. It made me realize that I could hear the guys and they could guide me and we were going to be able to do this.
A bit later, they were guiding me and saying ‘Whatever you do, don’t get turned sideways, don’t flip.’ And what does Lonnie do? He flips. But I ended up in a straight line, which just goes to show that a little bit of luck is always good too.
Day 12 was the first day I took a swim. My line dropping into Lava wasn’t the best and the rapid jerked me into the river like I was being shot out of a cannon.
The next day, the water slapped me so hard it broke my glasses. I just came up laughing. When you can find humor in your own life, it makes it much, much easier.
What was your favorite part of the trip?
The whole group that went with me, from the nine other vets to the six other support people. All of the veterans were OIF/OEF veterans who had spent some time or another at Walter Reed. We had a great group. I can’t quite put into words, but somebody always had my back. That last mile, the guys put a flag in my back and I just let out this loud cry and said ‘We did it’ and I really meant WE did it. It took the entire group of 16 people.
What was most challenging for you?
I think just paddling the water in general. It was so powerful. More powerful than anything I’d ever experienced. With not being able to see, especially with lateral waves and now knowing when they’re coming. A sighted kayaker would be able to see them coming and lean into them, whereas I just had to react once they hit me. I guarantee I rolled more than anyone else: probably 30 or 40 times. You wouldn’t roll if you could see it coming.
I think the answer is twofold. First, it’s fun, and I enjoy it, so why not? Second, I keep meeting these guys and gals who have come back from wars and it’s a way that I can help pay the young men and women back for all the sacrifices they’ve made for me. I say to myself, ‘You’ve got to show them that it can be done.’ I told Joe once, ‘You had a dream and that dream has become my reality. I hope and pray that my reality has become someone else’s dream.’
What’s your next big adventure?
I’ve been invited to climb a frozen waterfall this winter, and go hang-gliding in California. Maybe some parachuting and mountain climbing. If you could get me on Dancing with the Stars, that would be the highlight of my life. I want to get on there and boogie down. What can you as a sighted person do? If you can do it, let’s do it!
What is your best advice for other adaptive athletes looking to get into kayaking?
Do it. I tell people we have the option of living in fear and pity and going nowhere or just living. Just live. Fear is just false reality. Adaptive sports opens the door and guides you through it to this world you thought no longer existed. It makes you feel like you have a purpose, you have a value, you have a worth. It’s the best part of humanity I’ve ever been a part of. You still can. We just need a little help, and it’s amazing what we can accomplish. And that’s true for every human being.