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Navy veteran recounts tale of kayak trip through Grand Canyon

TERRE HAUTE — Sharing his story is exciting for a Dugger man who made history by becoming the first blind solo kayaker to travel the entire length of the Grand Canyon.

Lonnie Bedwell told the Terre Haute Rotary Club on Tuesday about his experience learning to kayak, and why he chose to make the journey down the Colorado River, accompanied by a support crew from Team River Runner.

“To me, you can live in fear and pity, and do nothing, or, you can just live. I have chosen to live life,” said Bedwell, who lost his eyesight in May 1997 in a hunting accident when a friend shot him in the face.

At the time, Bedwell had served nine years in the U.S. Navy. His prior military service made him a candidate for Team River Runner, which gives active duty service members and veterans an opportunity to find health, healing and new challenges through whitewater boating and other paddling sports.

Bedwell has worked with the Terre Haute chapter of TRR, located at Indiana State University’s Sycamore Outdoor Center, where he learned how to handle a kayak despite his disability.

He made the 16-day journey through the Grand Canyon in August 2013. But it was 16 years ago that he lost his sight, and he had gained confidence in his own abilities during that time to feel that he could make the hazardous and physically demanding trip.

At all times while he was in the water, he was surrounded by a team of paddlers and followed by four support rafts. Through their verbal commands, Bedwell was able to navigate the entire trip, and he ended up swimming outside of his kayak only on two occasions near the end of the trip.

After losing his sight, Bedwell said, he was frustrated that he couldn’t maintain his property as he had in the past. It was his 5-year-old daughter who took him to his lawnmower, guided him to his barn and watched as he drove around the barn with one hand touching the wall of the structure while he mowed down the weeds.

Later that day, he said, his father got mad at him for taking on the lawn mowing, but Bedwell pointed out the faith of his youngest daughter, who knew he could still do anything he wanted to do. Bedwell said his other two daughters quickly caught on to challenge their father and help him do regular activities.

“Those three little girls refused to let me quit,” he said. “Just to know somebody believes in you makes all the difference in the world. And that’s what Team River Runners does for me.”

Bedwell said he met the organization’s leader several months ago, but neither one of them dreamed that Bedwell would end up kayaking the Grand Canyon as soon as August 2013. He did a lot of training on his own and with the local TRR group. In addition to kayaking, Bedwell has ridden a bike across the Rocky Mountains and gone mountain climbing.

“Seventeen years ago, I never dreamed of doing any of this kind of stuff. Impossible. Yet, it’s coming true,” he said.

His next challenge is to solo hang glide, he said. And he will likely accompany other disabled veterans on kayaking adventures.

Bedwell said he enjoys sharing his story. He hopes it inspires others and that it builds support for Team River Runner and other organizations that assist disabled veterans.

He summed up his feelings about his experiences this way:

“When a tough part comes up in someone’s life, it’s like, you’ve been dropped behind this big wall, and you’re just stuck,” he explained. “And then this organization comes along, and people financially support it, and that puts a door in the wall. And then, you can go through that door to the other side and start to live again.”

But that, he said, is not the best part of the experience.

“When the time is right, people go back through that door, to get someone else, and bring them through that door, too. That’s why I support this so much, because I have literally watched this happen time and again,” Bedwell said.

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.

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©2014 The Tribune-Star (Terre Haute, Ind.)

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