For The Record Records & Record Breakers

Navy veteran becomes first blind kayaker to paddle length of Grand Canyon

Lonnie Bedwell makes historic 226-mile, 16-day journey with support from Team River Runner, a kayaking organization designed to help wounded veterans

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Lonnie Bedwell was new to kayaking and had a mere 15 days on whitewater before embarking on a 226-mile journey down the Colorado River that had never been done before.

The plan was to paddle the entire length of the Grand Canyon in a solo kayak, which under normal circumstances would be a challenging quest. Normal meaning, for people who can see.

But Bedwell is blind.

Lonnie Bedwell

Remarkably, Bedwell, a Navy veteran who lost his eyesight in a hunting accident 16 years ago, became the first completely blind person to paddle the entire length of the Grand Canyon in a solo kayak, completing the 16-day trek on August 21 with the support of Team River Runner.

TRR, a chapter of Disabled Sports, USA, is a volunteer-based kayaking organization designed to help wounded veterans. Three of its military veterans used voice commands to help Bedwell navigate, including through the 50 miles of significant whitewater with rapids as big as Class V.

“I really truly sometimes think that because I had training in the service and them [the guides] having training in the service helped,” Bedwell told GrindTV Outdoor in an email via a TRR coordinator. “In the military they teach you that no matter how chaotic it gets you have to stay calm. That way you can react to the chaos and it can become a controlled chaos. If you can’t stay calm it becomes chaotic chaos.

“Before a rapid I could hear how loud the water was, but I thought it was just that loud because it was bouncing off the canyon walls. When I felt my heart rate was going up I would just talk myself down and tell myself that I had been through worse.

“Telling [guides] Alex, Mike, and Chip to stay calm was helpful in that it helped me to stay calm. It is twofold really. When we did House Rock rapid, knowing how to roll and having them have confidence in me was comforting and calming—to know that they were there. I could hear them without radios and they could stick with me no matter how much I screwed up and they were just awesome to have.”

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Bedwell, who was introduced to kayaking when he recently joined TRR, definitely knew how to roll.

When Bedwell set out on his Grand Canyon goal, TRR executive director Joe Mornini shipped him a donated kayak and told him not to call to seriously discuss this goal until he successfully rolled 250 times. He also told Bedwell he wouldn’t add him to the Grand Canyon team until he successfully rolled 1,000 times. Bedwell rolled 1,500 times.

“This is simply unheard of,” Mornini told GrindTV Outdoor in an email. “He paddled with TRR and other volunteer guides a total of 15 days on whitewater before he went down the canyon. And he styled it with three war veterans as guides and safety … [along with] other veterans and volunteers, making it a healing trip as well—a support group that is beyond words in focus, devotion, and healing empowerment.”

Bedwell said the whole group worked together to make it happen and make it enjoyable.

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“Totally awesome” and “almost indescribable” and “fun” and “surreal at times” is how Bedwell described the experience.

Erik Weihenmayer, perhaps the best-known blind adventurer who has climbed the Seven Summits and is the only blind person to climb Mount Everest, had hoped to do what Bedwell did, even rigorously trained, and this past spring did trial runs down 10 of the canyon’s biggest rapids in preparation.

But Bedwell beat him to the punch.

So what’s next for Bedwell?

He told the Associated Press that he’s been invited to climb a frozen waterfall in Colorado this winter and he might someday go hang-gliding.

Why not?

Photos courtesy of Team River Runner guide Marc Huster.