Team River Runner group on the Colorado River. Photo: Team River Runner.

In June, I will have the privilege of bringing five blind veterans to McCall. This “Vision Team” – four men and one woman – will be here to hone their whitewater kayaking skills as they prepare to paddle 220 miles of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in September. The Colorado, with its large raft-flipping holes, big waves, long rapids and swirly eddies, provides challenges to the most capable of boaters. Many solid kayakers have had this river get the better of them. Now, imagine being blind and relying on someone else’s eyes to guide you. It requires tremendous courage and trust.  

These veterans, along with guides and safety boaters, are a part of a national nonprofit, Team River Runner (TRR). TRR started in 2004 at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington D.C. as a volunteer organization offering kayaking lessons as physical therapy for wounded and disabled veterans. Fourteen years later, it has grown to over seventy chapters across the country, serving more than two thousand veterans annually. My connection with TRR started in 2005, teaching kayaking to wounded vets, which I continued until I retired from the Navy. 

After retiring, my wife and I moved permanently to McCall. We first visited McCall in 1991 while on leave, fell in love with the town and decided that at some point we wanted to live here. After moving to McCall, I was hired as the program director for TRR and managed to work remotely, helping orchestrate trips, start new chapters and manage requirements for existing chapters.   

As an avid paddler living here, I quickly recognized McCall as a great place to bring TRR veterans to paddle and first brought a group here in 2011. The lake, the town run, the Payette River and the Salmon River offer numerous opportunities to improve paddling skills. And it is, as we all know, a great place to visit. Many of the vets who have been here have never had the experience of visiting an outdoor-oriented town like McCall.  

TRR roll training in a river. Photo: Seth Dahl, Big Cedar Media.

As this Grand Canyon trip emerged as a reality, I recognized the Salmon River would be a fantastic venue for training the vets to go on the Colorado. May and June high-water levels on the Salmon can provide the same big water feel as the Colorado River. I promoted McCall as our base to use the Salmon in preparation for the Grand Canyon and got approval from our executive director. Having brought veterans here before made the choice of McCall an easy one. The blind veterans, guides and safety boaters will arrive in McCall on June 14th and stay thru the 17th. We will be driving to Riggins daily to kayak sections of the Salmon.

The seasoned member of Vision Team is Lonnie Bedwell, a blind Navy veteran. I first met Lonnie in 2013 when he wandered poolside to try kayaking at the VA (Veterans Affairs) Winter games in Snowmass Village, Colorado. Lonnie is, as I call him, “a character.” From Indiana, he is usually seen wearing coveralls and a broad smile. He is also a dance machine who can’t stop himself when the tunes start to play. Humble in nature, Lonnie has a rock-steady determination to not be held back by anything, especially blindness.

It often takes a new boater multiple training sessions to learn to roll a kayak right-side up. It took me months! Lonnie rolled the first time he got in a kayak, the day that I met him. Motivated, he returned the next day and enthusiastically brought the first of many other visually impaired veterans to try kayaking. Two years after first getting in a kayak at Snowmass, and literally a thousand practice rolls later, Lonnie became the first blind person to kayak the Grand Canyon in 2015. He has since kayaked it twice more.       

Lonnie Bedwell and another veteran take a break in an eddy. Photo: Seth Dahl, Big Cedar Media.

Lonnie is now our “Ambassador” and a tremendous promoter of the sport to other visually impaired veterans. He imagined and inspired this trip down the Grand Canyon. Other visually impaired veterans consider Lonnie a model and want to rise to the same challenge. Lonnie and I coordinated the list of blind veterans and they became known as the “Vision Team.” Guides and safety boaters with the desired expertise and experience have been chosen. Having five visually impaired kayakers paddle the Grand Canyon together for two weeks is quite an endeavor. Each vet requires a guide that they have to get to know and trust. There are also two safety boaters who paddle directly behind each blind veteran to assist and rescue if needed.

People often ask, “How can a blind kayaker paddle on their own? Is technology used?” The answer is that there is no technology used as none to date has been found robust or reliable enough to use on the river. A highly skilled kayaker is assigned as a guide to each blind paddler and constantly projects his voice for the visually impaired kayaker to hone in on. The usual command is, “On me.” Roaring rapids can make it a challenge to hear. Some of the larger rapids are intensely loud, requiring the guides to constantly shout over their shoulders at the veteran they are leading, keeping their boats upright and weaving through holes while not getting too far in front of the blind kayaker.   

At the same time, the visually impaired kayakers have to concentrate to hear their guide’s commands and paddle in that direction while getting slapped sideways by waves they can’t even see. The relationships between team members require huge amounts of dedication on the part of the guides and safety boaters and an unbelievable level of trust by the visually impaired veterans that their guides will safely navigate them through complex rapids.  

A Team River Runner group trains on the Main Salmon River. Photo courtesy of TRR.

Other than Lonnie, the Vision Team members are fairly new to kayaking. This trip will be a big challenge for them. Three of them lost their vision in combat events. I have known most of the guides and safety boaters for years and many have become good friends as well as paddling buddies. A really neat aspect of this trip is that many of the guides and safety boaters are also veterans. Some are former beneficiaries of the program who are now expert paddlers and leaders in Team River Runner.

It is exciting to be a part of this amazing team of veteran guides and safety boaters. I am lucky to get to participate with so many friends helping out. Chip Sell, a good friend of mine, also living in McCall, was on Lonnie’s first Grand Canyon trip and will be on this one. Our Executive Director and co-founder of TRR, Joe Mornini, will be visiting McCall for the first time as a safety boater in June and will also be on the Grand Canyon trip in September. We are all looking forward to our experience in McCall and this Grand Adventure!

You can learn more about the Grand Canyon Program here.

Stay tuned for another article in June profiling these amazing veterans coming to McCall.

In August, more Team River Runner participants will be experiencing the wonders of McCall during our first Western Conference. Thirty veterans will attend a Swift Water Rescue course directed by ACA (American Canoe Association) instructor Charlie Duffy, assisted by long time McCall resident Les Bechdel. The veterans will be staying at Pilgrim Cove.

I am glad to answer questions and can be reached at dave@teamriverrunner.org.

Team River Runner is a nonprofit organization and any contributions supportive of these events are tax deductible.

[Cover photo of Lonnie Bedwell courtesy of Dreamline Ninja.]

 

Photo: Seth Dahl, Big Cedar Media.

About the author

Dave Robey

Dave is a retired Naval officer living in McCall with his wife Cynthia. An avid kayaker, his wife indulged him in his passion for the sport while they traveled the US and Europe, compliments of Navy duty stations. After volunteering several years with Team River Runner (TRR), a national nonprofit offering paddling to healing service individuals and veterans, he became TRR Program Coordinator. Dave also volunteers as an adaptive ski/snowboard instructor for the nonprofit AWeSOMe program at Brundage and is a member of American Legion, Rotary and the McCall Environmental Advisory Council. When not working, he can usually be found kayaking, rafting, running or skiing!

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