By Steve Kash
Special to the Tribune-Star
TERRE HAUTE —
Some people say the fun of boating on the Wabash is dealing with unexpected challenges such a big body of water can present on certain days; others delight in the wild beauty at Terre Haute’s doorstep, from bald eagles soaring above trees lining the banks of the Wabash to the panorama of the river itself as it curls through woodland in many places reminiscent of primeval splendor seen hundreds of years ago.
Members of Terre Haute’s Team River Runner chapter (an organization established at the Walter Reed Army Hospital in 2004 with the original intention of helping active duty military personnel wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan cope by using water recreation therapy) had the opportunity to fully experience both sensations on Oct. 20 when their flotilla of seven kayaks, three canoes and a motorized support boat operated by Brendan Kearns embarked for an 8-mile journey from the Michael Kearns landing at Tecumseh toward the Fairbanks Park landing in Terre Haute. The Year of the River adventure was the chapter’s first boating activity away from its training facility at Indiana State University’s Health and Human Services’ arena pool.
‘An outta sight experience’
The afternoon was sunny and warm, but the Wabash’s surface became a virtual wind tunnel with southerly gusts of up to 30 mph. Many people in the fleet had difficulty going downriver while paddling against white-cap waves. After battling conditions for two hours and two miles on the water, Team River Runner and friends decided to return to the Tecumseh landing instead of fighting wind and waves for five more hours by going on to Fairbanks Park.
Through it all, one kayaker was hardly fazed: rural Dugger resident Lonnie Bedwell, a 48-year-old Navy veteran who has been without sight since 1997. He was the first person in the chapter to learn about kayaking after the Team established its Terre Haute chapter in January 2013 to train in ISU’s arena pool.
Eight months after commencing kayak training at the arena pool, and with a support network of the Team’s national organization, in August 2013 Bedwell became the first person without sight to kayak the entire 226-mile length of the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River.
Don Rogers, director of ISU’s Sycamore Outdoor Center in Brazil and the man who set up the Team’s local chapter in the fall of 2012, first met Bedwell in May 2012. Bedwell came to his facility mentoring members of a group called Wounded Warriors, who were going to try the outdoor center’s Keystone Adventure Program’s challenge course. Afterward, the men stayed in touch by email.
A few months before Rogers and Bedwell met, Bedwell had had his first taste of kayaking when he participated in a Wounded Warrior event during March 2012 at the National Veterans’ Sports Complex in Snowmass, Colo.
“I had been doing adaptive sports since 2010 and have done adaptive mountain climbing and snow skiing, but I had never kayaked until Snowmass,” said Bedwell. “We didn’t do much kayaking, just paddling around in a pool, but I thought what I did was ‘kinda’ neat.”
Rogers recalls his initial meeting with Bedwell at the ISU challenge course. “It was amazing watching Lonnie in action,” said Rogers. “Here was this man who can’t see at all dealing so successfully with our physical tests, which include a difficult 25-foot-tall ‘dangle duo’ comprised of horizontal beams supported by cables on each end that people attempt to scale as a pair with supporting safety ropes connecting them. The first time Lonnie went up the challenge wall, like most other people he struggled getting hand and footholds.
“Somehow during his initial trip up the wall, Lonnie formed a mental map of its obstacles. What he did next was really extraordinary — he began climbing up the wall’s ropes and chains ahead of others while helping them make it to the top. After participants scale the wall, they return to ground level using a zip line cable.”
In the summer of 2012, Bedwell had his first serious kayaking experience when he accepted a Team River Runner invitation to attend a kayaking clinic on the Yellowstone River near Immigrant, Mont.
“It was an ‘outta sight’ experience,” Bedwell said. “I had no real idea how to kayak. They taught me beginning paddling techniques and introduced me to following voice commands ‘right’ and ‘left’ so I would go in the proper direction. They also taught basic safety by knocking me over in my boat. I would then tap on my boat, and they gave me ‘hand-of-God’ rescues and ‘bow’ rescues.”
(Hand-of-God rescues are accomplished by a person in a helping boat using his or her hands to right the overturned boat in the water; bow rescues take place when an assisting kayak pulls beside an overturned kayak so individuals submerged under the water can use the bow of the assisting boat as a prop to hold onto while righting themselves.)
“We had one-day excursions while staying in a lodge. First, I kayaked on a lake in a hard-shell kayak and I did a day outings on the Yellowstone River on water that was moving but not a rapids. After I had gotten a taste of kayaking, I was offered a choice of kayaking in inflatables or hard-shell. I chose hard-shell because they were more difficult.”
Terre Haute River Runners
During the fall of 2012, Rogers, a paraplegic who uses a wheel chair, worked with Team River Runner to establish its Terre Haute chapter. Lessons and use of the pool are free. Team River Runner provides the chapter with kayaks.
By January, Rogers’ set-up work was completed. He had also made arrangements with a skilled kayak instructor, Neil Fleming, an exercise science professor at ISU who is an active competitive kayaker and former junior world champion in international flat-water kayak racing for his native Republic of Ireland.
“I really didn’t know much about kayaking until I started learning from Neil and Don,” said Bedwell, “and I didn’t have a clue how to do an Eskimo roll. I learned so much from them about stroking techniques, responding to voice cues and the Eskimo roll.”
(Eskimo rolls are accomplished after a kayaker is knocked over and hanging upside down in the water while held in place by a protective rubber skirt that keeps water out of the boat and the kayaker in it. The rolls enable kayakers to use their paddles as a lever to turn themselves into upright positions without having to release themselves from the boat’s sleeve into the water.)
“Neil really pushed me. Last spring I became pretty good doing Eskimo rolls. Without the instruction I received working with Team River Runner at ISU, I would not have been able to go to the Grand Canyon when I did.”
Fleming said of Bedwell, “I’ve never seen anybody pick up the Eskimo roll like Lonnie, able-bodied or not. Now he’s working on becoming skillful doing hand rolls, which are similar to Eskimo rolls but executed using hands only.”
Grand Canyon bound
After months of training at the arena pool with Fleming and Rogers, Bedwell received a call from Joe Mornini, co-founder of Team River Runner.
“Joe invited me to go down through the Grand Canyon on a rubber raft with a group,” Bedwell said.
“I refused. I told him I intended to kayak my way through the Grand Canyon.”
“‘You’ll have to successfully do 1,000 Eskimo rolls before that can be considered,’ he told me.
“The next day I did 100 of them in the pond behind my house and called Joe to tell him. I ended up doing 1,500 rolls before my trip.”
During the summer, Bedwell went on training excursions operated by the River Runners in hopes of getting himself better ready for Grand Canyon conditions. His first stop was to Charlotte, N.C., at the U.S. National Whitewater Training Center, a large man-made river offering kayakers the chance to experience a variety of classes of whitewater rapids. (Whitewater rapids are graded one through five based on the difficulty level, but in the Grand Canyon has a special one to 10 scale.)
During the same trip, the Team took Bedwell to an area along the North Carolina/Tennessee state line to kayak on the Pigeon River and the Nantahala River. A few weeks later, he went to the Yellowstone River in Montana for more advanced training, and then he had a final training session in Charlotte, where he kayaked on class-four rapids.
Nine days after the second trip to Charlotte and ready as possible, Bedwell left for the Grand Canyon. On Aug. 5, his 16-day adventure had its push off onto the Colorado River. Team River Runner had promised him an opportunity to go down through the canyon on his own in a kayak, but he would have to prove himself to be allowed to go all the way. Mornini and other River Runner leaders alerted him that he would probably have to portage around some of the Grand Canyon’s most turbulent passageways.
Sixteen people would be in the group, including six kayaks, one paddle raft with four oarsmen and a helmsman, and four, 18-foot support rafts. Throughout the trip, Bedwell always paddled alone in an eight-foot Wave Sport Habitat plastic kayak. One support kayak would be positioned ahead of Bedwell to call out commands and two more trailed at close distance. The support craft were in the vicinity. After seeing Bedwell handling his kayak, the Team never insisted he make a walking portage.
Although Bedwell could not see the Grand Canyon’s physical scenery, he was sensitive to the Colorado River’s surging down through the canyon, often raging like an angry bucking bronco with a thorn in its side. Powerful swirling currents and frothing waterholes toppled his kayak so often during the journey that he was forced to execute more than 30 Eskimo rolls — twice more, the river ejected him from his kayak like a cannon shot. As Bedwell said, “It was a lot of fun.”
“The first really bad place I came to was mile 17 near House Rock, a stretch of the Colorado where the water swung to the right around big boulders,” said Bedwell. “I was kayaking in pillow waves. They are big, fluffy, muddy waves that are hard to row in because so much air is in the water. My boat flipped. I did an Eskimo roll and then flipped again and had to do another roll. This set the tone for the rest of the trip — it was such an adrenaline rush!
“‘Get ready to be beat up more,’ a Team River Runner told me. ‘Expect to go swimming.’”
Bedwell got another Colorado River trouncing a few days later at mile 98, Chrystal Rapids, one of the river’s most notoriously treacherous spots. Rocky formations in the river have been formed at this site by millennia of geological cataclysms, and it is also the spot where the raging river is converged upon from both sides at the same location by two rushing creeks with Chrystal Creek pouring into the river from the north and Slate Creek from the south.
“I got flipped upside down in Chrystal Rapids,” said Bedwell. “It was like being in a washing machine on steroids. I started feeling cold and running out of air. I managed to do a semi Eskimo roll and got a half a gasp of air before the current took me back under. The river dragged me along upside down for a while until I was able to make an Eskimo roll that set me upright. … I really began appreciating the full power of the river that day.”
Bedwell made it to mile 150 before he got busted out of his kayak for his first swim at a place known as Upset Rapids.
Then on day 13, mile 179, at Lava Falls, Bedwell encountered one of the Grand Canyon’s rockiest and most challenging torrents (often rated class 10 by Grand Canyon standards). “It was in the afternoon and a storm was coming at us. We wanted to make camp for the night so we kept paddling on with a 30 mph crosswind blowing. The conditions made it difficult to approach the falls at the best angle. A lateral wave flipped me. My boat shot out of the water like a catapult and I was thrown out of my kayak and was under water for 10 to 15 seconds and then had to swim in cold water for three or four minutes.”
At mile 205, Bedwell was imperiled again. “A 12-foot rolling rapid got ahold of my kayak,” he said. “It was so strong that it broke my safety glasses and caused my kayak to make a complete backflip in the river.”
Back home in Indiana, Bedwell now can say, “It’s neat to have been a part of history, but what I accomplished is essentially meaningless if it is not helpful in inspiring other people with disabilities to explore life’s opportunities.
“I want to help promote Team River Runner. Until I came into contact with programs like Team River Runner, I was buried behind this huge wall. It was like a prison. These programs had vision and support networks that could make things happen. They put a door in my wall, opened the door for me, and guided me through it to a place I never knew existed, yet it was there.
“People shouldn’t let their lives be bound by fear whether they are without sight or have other difficulties. Ninety-five percent of what we fear is not true. We talk ourselves out of our possibilities.”
Back on the Wabash
When the kayakers and canoeists associated with Team River Runner made their Sunday launch, weather appeared to be accommodating, and the 15 kayakers and canoeists were all smiles. To the south, the sun was directly over the river, causing a wide swath of the Wabash’s surface to glow a silver sheen. A southern breeze caused the countless silver maples along the shoreline to flash the shimmering white bottoms of their leaves. Before the trip came to an end, four bald eagles were spotted.
Two veterans who started learning how to kayak this fall were joining Bedwell for the float: Katie Patterson, a recreation therapy major from Greenwood, who has competed in such adaptive sports as snow and water skiing since losing use of her legs in an accident unrelated to her military service; and Mike Aird, a former Marine who served in Iraq and is originally from Terre Haute but now lives in the Indianapolis area.
“I can’t wait to get on the water,” said Aird. “I’ve been looking forward to finding something like Team River Runner for a long time. Training with vets has been a good experience. I’ve had two sessions in the pool and loved kayaking right from the start.”
Several recreational therapy students as well as Fleming and Rogers and family members also participated.
“I just like being out here goofin’ and paddlin’,” said Bedwell, who was in a kayak similar to the one he had used in the Grand Canyon.
For much of the trip, Patterson, who had had only three kayaking lessons, plowed through the river’s white caps as the lead boat.
The farther the kayaks and canoes ventured south, the more the winds picked up. People in the group began noticeably tiring except for Bedwell and Fleming, who paddled a long, slender carbon and Kevlar racing kayak.
By the time the lead boats in the fleet made it to the power plant north of the Indiana 63 bridge, several kayaks and all canoes were lagging behind.
Waiting for other boats to catch up, Bedwell made several displays of Eskimo rolls in the 59-degree water for people in boats who were near him.
Although the downriver trip was more difficult for the canoes to make headway into the wind than kayaks, going back upriver toward Tecumseh, the kayakers had the more troublesome time because gusting winds and wavy conditions blew them off line.
Back at Tecumseh landing, Bedwell was the person to give the kayakers and canoers their final talk: “You will not have a much windier day than today. I think we all enjoyed the experience; it was just harder than we wanted. We’ll be able to take more trips in the future.”
Rogers and Fleming think Terre Haute’s chapter of Team River Runner has good prospects. “These kind of adventures can heal a person,” said Rogers. “What we want to do is develop a core group of military veterans who slowly take charge of Team River Runner activities here. Our outreach is not limited to veterans injured in Iraq or Afghanistan. Once our chapter gets really going, other clubs from around the Midwest can come to Terre Haute for kayaking rallies on the Wabash, and our members will be able to make trips to rivers out of state.”
For more information about Team River Runner, visit
www.teamriverrunner.org. Click on “Chapters” in the header for information about getting involved with the organization in Terre Haute.