FAYETTEVILLE — If you think running the lower New River in a kayak is difficult, try doing it blindfolded.
Lonnie Bedwell did it, and he didn’t even need to wear a blindfold. Bedwell, 52, has been stone blind since a hunting accident claimed his sight 20 years ago.
It hasn’t slowed him down much.
The Indiana native has kayaked the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. He’s kayaked Africa’s Zambezi River. He’s climbed 19,341-foot Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak. He sails. He water skis. He snow skis. He hunts turkeys and deer.
“I wanted to run the New River because I’d rafted it back when I was in college, but I’d never run it in a kayak,” Bedwell said. “Also, I’m scouting the river with the idea of bringing in four or five blinded military veterans to run it with me later this summer.”
Bedwell has a special affinity for military veterans because he is one. He spent nine years in the Navy, most of it on the USS Oklahoma City, a fast-attack submarine. Three years to the day after he got off active duty, Bedwell lost his sight.
“It was May 4, 1997. I had killed a turkey the day before, and I went out to call for my best friend. We were working our way back together. I didn’t see him, and he didn’t see me. He saw a turkey, but when he shot, he ended up shooting me.”
Eighty-five shotgun pellets struck Bedwell squarely in the face.
“I didn’t lose consciousness,” he recalled. “I got off my belly and up to my knees. I realized what had happened and went to wipe my face. I could feel the blood on my hands, but I couldn’t see my hands. At that point I took a deep breath and went into survival mode.”
Bedwell’s friend, Tim Hale, tried to carry him out of the woods, but Bedwell told him to put him down and run for help.
“I made a pile of leaves and lay down with my head higher than my feet to minimize the blood loss,” he said. “I spent the time lying there trying to burn images of my daughters into my mind.”
Paramedics carried Bedwell out of the woods on a stretcher, put him on a boat to cross a lake, took him in an ambulance to a baseball field and helicoptered him to a hospital.
Adjusting to being blind didn’t take him long. He had things he needed to accomplish.
“I raised three daughters as a single parent,” he said. “I had a lot of things to do — mowing the grass, using a chainsaw and the like. I learned to build houses. People would see me on the roof and ask me what I’m doing up there. My standard answer was, ‘I’m on a roof?’”
One of the first things he did was get back to hunting. A year after his accident, he returned to the woods and, with the guidance of the friend who shot him, killed a turkey. He remains an avid hunter.
His compound bow has a laser sight on it that allows his guide to determine when Bedwell has his arrow aimed in the right place. His rifle’s telescopic sight has an iScope, a device that allows his guide to see Bedwell’s sight picture projected on a smartphone screen.
Bedwell’s friends urged him to go to a rehabilitation center, and he agreed to do so — but only after his daughters were grown. When he finally did, he was introduced to the world of adventure sports.
In 2012, he discovered he had an aptitude for kayaking.
“I got introduced to it at an Out of Sight clinic. That was my first time running whitewater in a kayak,” he said. “I got asked if I’d like to be the first blind person to run the Colorado through the Grand Canyon. They were asking me if I wanted to do it in a raft. I told them I’d like to run it in a kayak.”
One of his advisers told him he’d need to be able to right an overturned kayak using a maneuver called an “Eskimo roll.”
“At that time I had four days’ worth of kayaking experience,” Bedwell recalled. “I was told I’d need to have 1,000 rolls under my belt before I could attempt any big whitewater. So I grabbed my paddle, my helmet and my spray skirt and dragged my donated kayak down to the pond. I quit counting after 1,500 rolls.”
“I ran all 226 miles of it through the Grand Canyon,” he said. “I ended up writing a book, ‘226,’ about the experience.”
Two guides accompany Bedwell whenever he’s on the river. One paddles a boat length or two ahead of him, and the other paddles a similar distance behind.
“They call directions to me — ‘Give me a 2 o’clock bow angle.’ ‘Hard left.’ ‘Hard right.’ ‘Charge,’” he said. “But even with their directions, there are times I’m going to tip over. I might be going over the peak of a wave, reach down for water and get nothing but air. Or maybe I get into a hole and can’t see which way to lean.”
When that happens, as it did several times on his recent trip down the New, Bedwell sweeps his paddle blade in an arc just under the surface, snaps his hips and rolls his boat upright.
“This was only my second time out this year,” he said after taking his kayak out of the river just below the rapids known as Fayette Station. “I had to roll a few too many times for my liking today. I’ll do better tomorrow.”
Bedwell plans to be back in August to run the New with at least four blinded veterans. He said they’ll be training for a 2018 group trip through the Grand Canyon.
“We’re trying to raise money to do this trip,” he said. “If people want to donate to Team River Runner’s 2018 Vision Trip, we’d sure appreciate it. Our trip here in August will be so these guys can get a feel for running a big-water river. It’s a scouting mission, more or less.”
He said he considers his work with veterans “a higher calling.”
“People helped me,” he said. “Now I want to help as many of these guys as I can.”
Lonnie Bedwell might be blind, but he has a vision — a vision for just how much ability a person with a disability can have.
Reach John McCoy at firstname.lastname@example.org,
304-348-1231 or follow @GazMailOutdoors on Twitter.