Team River Runner Kayaks Grand Canyon Blind
by Ken Braband
If you’ve rafted the Colorado River through Grand Canyon, you know what a thrilling experience it is. Imagine kayaking through those rapids without the benefit of eyesight.
It’s September 2018, with raft support provided by AzRA, five blind military veterans (the “Vision Team”) plus their 17 kayaking guides and safety boaters are about to take on the challenge of Grand Canyon. Each has trained hard over the preceding months to get ready. The trip is the brainchild of Lonnie Bedwell, who in 2013 was the first blind person to kayak the length of the Grand Canyon. This time around, Lonnie has recruited four fellow veterans, who are also blind, to accompany him for this historic return trip organized by Team River Runner (TRR), a nationwide non-profit whose mission is to help disabled veterans on the “river to recovery.”
As a TRR volunteer, I am honored to be chosen a safety boater on this life-changing, 12-day trip. At the outset I knew it would be special but I didn’t know how profoundly this remarkable journey through the canyon would affect each of us.
My “pod” of kayakers consists of blind vet Steve Baskis (who in 2008 was severely wounded in Iraq by an IED), his primary guide Eric Carlson, safety boater “Big Mike” Plourde, and me. We are one of five kayaking pods on this once-in-a-lifetime expedition.
As we enter each of the approximately 80 rapids, the kayaker in front shouts a steady chant such as “On me! On me!” or “Hup, hup, hup!” so the blind kayaker can follow the sound. As a safety boater, I follow closely behind, ready to assist should Steve get separated from Eric. At least that’s the plan. Things don’t always go as planned in the chaos of the Canyon.
After launching from Lees Ferry, our first taste of big Colorado River rapids are Badger Creek and Soap Creek. Steve has a swim at Badger. He isn’t happy about it but his spirits pick up after a successful run through Soap Creek.
Each succeeding day is filled with new challenges and experiences. We are harassed by Hance, socked by Sockdolager and confronted by Crystal. Tested by these challenges, our skills, teamwork and communication grow stronger each day. During the journey there’s also time for peaceful flat-water paddling, side canyon hikes, late-afternoon relaxation and meal-time conversation.
Each evening we make music with guitars and percussion instruments supplied by AzRA. Our Team Vision vets — especially Steve on bongos and Travis Fugate on guitar — demonstrate their advanced musical chops. Improvised songs include light-hearted ditties about paddlers capsizing. There are also moodier lyrics about getting bashed by unseen monster waves.
At Lava Falls, not all of us stay right-side-up, but thankfully there are no swims among our entire group! It’s hard to describe the amazing feeling of camaraderie when we attack these big rapids and come out high-fiving at the bottom. For the vets, it’s an emotional reminder of the crucible of military service.
During our final night on the river (Sept. 11) before takeout at Diamond Creek, trip leaders and vets offer heartfelt speeches. For his turn, Steve points out that this is the anniversary of the day that changed so many lives; especially his when it led him to enlist in the U.S. Army and serve in Iraq. Steve pays tribute to his best friend, Victor Cota, who died next to Steve in the explosion in which Steve lost his sight and suffered shrapnel injuries to his head, neck, arms and legs. It reminds us why we are here and what we are accomplishing, not only for these five vets, but as an example for anyone with a disability and EVERYONE who doubts what he or she may be capable of achieving.
Ken Braband is a volunteer with Team River Runner. You can read more about this Grand Canyon trip and view videos here.