Jess Nocera, Correspondent
WASHINGTON — Lonnie Bedwell had just 14 days of whitewater kayaking experience before he paddled the entire length of the Colorado River in 2013 — a 226-mile stretch through the Grand Canyon, home to some of the most dangerous rapids in the world.
Besides facing the raging waters, Bedwell had one other hurdle: his blindness.
“The first time I got in a kayak I said aloud, ‘Crap this is difficult,’ because I (thought I) could never paddle a straight line, or keep my balance,” said Bedwell, who lives in Dugger, Ind.
Bedwell found himself in a kayak after getting involved with Team River Runner (TRR) in 2012 at a Disabled American Veterans winter sports clinic in Snowmass, Colorado.
Five years later, Bedwell has taken on leadership positions within TRR, also becoming the first blind person to kayak the Colorado River, creating a whole new life journey.
‘Butts in boats’
One can hear the phrase, ‘On me, on me,’ on rivers across the country, including on the Potomac.
At first glance, it isn’t clear why one kayaker is yelling back to the one behind him or her, but this is a typical session with TRR.
TRR was established in 2004 at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, then in Washington (now the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland), by Joe Mornini and Mike McCormick.
In the summer of 2004, Mornini and McCormick were paddling regularly on the Potomac River. Thinking about the many soldiers overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan sparked an idea, said Mornini, a resident of Rockville, Maryland, and a retired public school teacher and program coordinator in special education.
“Mike and I were talking about some of the wounded ones who were coming back from the war who were missing arms and legs,” Mornini said. “And so we were like, ‘Let’s put them in a kayak, we’ll teach them how to kayak.’”
And so the idea was born: to teach whitewater kayaking to returning wounded soldiers at Walter Reed.
Now 13 years later, there are more than 50 active chapters of TRR in 31 states. The whitewater kayaking program now aims to help blind veterans and veterans suffering from disabilities, brain trauma, PTSD, and more, to give them a chance at a new life.
“We have worked with close to 10,000 veterans in our history and we want to work with 100,000,” Mornini said.
A statement featured on the organization’s website says “our road to recovery is a river.”
When the program started, it was only focused on the physical healing. But as time went on, those involved started seeing that it had other benefits, as it provided a means for veterans to face challenges and create goals, said Dave Robey, TRR’s program director.
TRR “has evolved for veterans to have a sense of belonging to something, they are belonging to a community of veterans who are like-minded and similar,” Robey said. “Hopefully it motivates you (the veterans) to do other things in your life such as going back to school, pursuing professional aspects of their lives, having children, be a good general citizen, to transition on to a better life.”
Robey said that the kayaking creates camaraderie and gets the veterans “off the couch and outside.”
Whitewater kayaking is a niche sport that is probably one of the best for rehabilitation and physical therapy, Mornini said.
“We didn’t know, but over the years we have discovered that the things you do paddling are amazingly physically, emotionally and spiritually therapeutic,” Mornini said.
Reaching out to the blind
TRR did not start out assisting blind veterans, however. One year when Mornini was conducting a leadership clinic in Montana, a blind paddler was invited to it.
Afterward Mornini and fellow TRR guides thought, “that was pretty cool guiding a blind paddler — we didn’t know they could do that well.”
And so that side of the program, including blind veterans, was born.
The following year a clinic was created in Montana with 10 veteran paddlers, five of whom were blind. The veterans with full eyesight guided their blind companions first on flat water and then moved into different classes of whitewater.
“We had no idea that it would be that successful, we were still learning the techniques and what is necessary to safely guide and instruct a blind paddler, and so we invented it out of thin air,” Mornini said.
“If you think about how many things can a blind person do on their own — independently not much. But they can paddle a kayak all by themselves. All you need is to have someone clean up their lines and then they just paddle.”
One veteran came up with the name, Outtasight Clinic, and now there are five of these clinics in the country, but Mornini is hopeful to have more.
This year TRR is starting a new group called the Outtasight Vision Team. The team will consist of eight of TRR’s top blind paddlers who have been involved over the years and trained to run bigger and bigger whitewater rivers.
“At the end of the day it’s all about butts in boats,” Mornini said. “If you ask someone what Joe Mornini cares about the most, it’s getting your butt in a boat.”
‘Completely in the dark’
Bedwell, a former Navy Petty Officer 1st Class, ended active duty from the U.S. Navy on May 4, 1994, after nine years. Three years later to the day, he lost his sight in a hunting accident when his friend mistakenly shot him.
“I remember getting up from my belly and reaching for my eyes because I simply thought I had something covering my face and I was kind of puzzled when I still couldn’t see,” Bedwell said. “I wiped them a second time and it was then that I truly realized what had happened, that I lost my eyesight and I was completely in the dark.”
In 2012, Bedwell attended his first Outtasight Clinic in Emigrant, Montana.
“My first Outtasight clinic was pretty funny actually, just trying to get the feel on the pond and then on the moving water, to keep your balance, it was kind of interesting,” he said.
Bedwell soon picked up basic kayaking skills including doing an Eskimo roll. An Eskimo roll is when a kayaker flips upside down in the kayak and then uses his paddle to flip himself back upright.
“Still to this day when I go into some of the rapids I still get a little nervous that can I make the right move, make sure I can hear my guide,” Bedwell said. “Even though we’re blind we’re just like everyone else, we have the same thoughts and feelings.”
After that first Outtasight clinic, Bedwell was sitting in the airport talking with Mornini, who said, “How would you like to be the first ever blind veteran to kayak the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon?”
Bedwell said he thought to himself, “that’s cool,” and believed that neither of them thought he would be kayaking the river within the year — maybe in five or six years down the road at best. They were wrong.
“Joe instilled a dream in me,” Bedwell said.
Nine months later
Nine months after the Montana clinic, Mornini called Bedwell on the phone and asked if he would be interested in doing the trip in a raft first to get a feel of the river. Bedwell immediately said no, that he wanted to do it in a kayak.
“A raft would scare the crap out of me,” Bedwell said. “Joe kind of chuckled and laughed and said, ‘Well you got to do at least a thousand of those Eskimo rolls to gain more experience,’ so I went to my pond with my kayak and started doing Eskimo rolls and called some friends down from the Southeast, went down there paddling with them and got a little bit of experience.”
Bedwell did well over 1,500 Eskimo rolls in preparation for the trip.
“You try to push yourself for the right reasons,” Bedwell said. “My motivational factor is to make a difference, to let people realize it truly can be done.”
When Bedwell first sat on the Grand Canyon water he thought that he might have bitten off more than he could chew because of the mass of the water. He had prepared himself to swim a lot and possibly ride the raft through some of the river, as Mornini told him could happen.
What Bedwell did not know before the trip was that Mornini had told Bedwell’s guide, Alex Nielson, to not let him run some of the big rapids like Hance, Crystal and Lava.
However, when Bedwell and Nielson reached the first of the three big rapids, Hance, they ran it. Only after running it did Bedwell learn that Mornini had advised them not too.
“I (Bedwell) asked Alex, ‘Why did you let me do it?’ and Nielson said, “because we could.”
In the end, Bedwell ran every single rapid, paddled every single mile and only had to swim twice due to his kayak flipping over, throughout the 16-day trip.
When Bedwell got off the river and called Mornini to tell him about the experience, he first teased him a little bit.
“You were right: I had to swim a lot and didn’t run all the rapids, and he starts telling me, ‘that’s OK, it’s all right,’ to which I said, ‘Well Joe, no, I’m lying to you, I only swam twice and ran every rapid,’” Bedwell said.
At the time of the phone call, Mornini was driving the TRR trailer and had to pull over to the side of the road because he had gotten emotional.
“I could not talk (for) a bit,” Mornini said. “I had relief that he was OK and was proud of what he accomplished … he was the first blind veteran to paddle the entire length.”
Not only was that an accomplishment for Bedwell, but it was an accomplishment for TRR, to showcase to other blind and disabled veterans out there to discover the program and give it a try, Mornini said.
Bedwell added: “I’ll never forget he (Mornini) said, ‘Do you realize what you’ve done right here?’ and I jokingly said, ‘Yeah I just kayaked the Colorado River,’ and he answered, ‘No, you know what I mean.’”
Bedwell remembers the last night on the river, sitting around camp knowing he only had a few miles to go and it was all calm water.
“I remember telling everyone at the camp, ‘You know it’s cool to say I was the first blind person to kayak the entire length of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon’ … it was very humbling,” Bedwell said.
More than just a kayak
“For me TRR has given me the confidence to do things on the water … It’s empowering to have the ability to paddle on the water independently,” Steven Baskis said.
Baskis, of Montrose, Colorado, lost his sight on May 13, 2008, when he was serving in the U.S. Army 4th Infantry Division in Iraq. He was in the lead vehicle of a convoy when it was struck by an IED.
The blast caused a lot of metal to be pushed through the side of the vehicle, and as a result, little pieces broke off and damaged Baskis’ eyes. He also suffered from vascular damage, bleeding in the brain and nerve damage in his left arm.
“I don’t think I would be here today if I wasn’t in a vehicle. My team saved my life and I woke up on the other side of earth at Walter Reed with my life very changed — it was a surreal moment,” Baskis said.
Baskis became a good friend of Bedwell’s, after having participated in Outtasight Clinics together. Besides kayaking, they have also climbed mountains together.
“It’s really important to understand that TRR gives someone confidence and strength and the ability to re-evaluate what they are capable of doing,” Baskis said. “It has a huge impact on someone’s life even within daily living.”
For Bedwell, all of his achievements are his way of paying back all of the men and women that have helped him and made sacrifices for him throughout the years.
“I don’t know if I make a difference so much, I’m just Lonnie, I’m nothing special, I’m no different from other people,” Bedwell said. “I remember telling Joe one time that his dream became my reality and now I hope that my reality can become someone else’s dream.”