By Bryan R. Brown

The Challenge of Exploration Is Now The Exploration of Challenge
While the world at large celebrates heroes, the American West elevates heroes to cult status—provided that the hero is either larger than life (Buffalo Bill Cody) or completely self deprecating (Kit Carson). There is no such thing as an everyday hero west of the Front Range or east of Death Valley.

The West has historically forged larger-than-life heroes from explorers by tempering iron souls in a frontier furnace. Power travelers like Lewis and Clark, Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith, John C. Fremont, and John Wesley Powell (among many others) battled epic challenges during the grand age of western expansion. They simultaneously defined the American West and refined the American Spirit by attacking a largely blank map with energy, endurance, creativity, wit, and often sheer cussedness. (Powell was notably dour but Fremont traveled in brilliant social circles after eloping with the fifteen-year-old daughter of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton.)

The magnetic nature of empty space and the unstoppable drive of three generations of explorers over a notably short hundred-year span (between roughly 1800 and 1900) filled the map with storied place names and vigorous legends of discovery. Fortunes were made and lost. Mountain ranges were named. Drainages were defined. Voids were filled. Promising folds and wrinkles in the landscape were bookmarked for the inevitable age of extraction. While the need for explorers eventually dwindled, the driving desire to explore did not.

In remarkably short order, the challenge of exploration became the exploration of challenge. Though now meticulously mapped, the western landscape has not been tamed. It is still possible for seekers to seek, for finders to find. Today’s heroes are more often adventurers than explorers. The mystery of the West abides durably in regions that—by dent of uniqueness, remoteness, or both—still offer rewards for souls craving raw challenge.

The fabled stretch of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon is such a region, and blind kayaker Lonnie Bedwell is such a soul. He is, in his own words, “lights-out blind” but he nevertheless managed to kayak the entire Grand Canyon. He completed this unprecedented journey on August 20, 2013. The effort required enduring 106-degree desert heat and frigid 55-degree water temperatures while negotiating roughly one world-class rapid per mile for sixteen straight days.

Lonnie’s blindness resulted from a 1997 turkey-hunting accident in the Indiana backwoods. At the time, he was a U.S. Navy veteran (a submariner) serving in the Indiana Army National Guard. To its distinct credit, Team River Runner (TRR)—a foundation that provides innovative paddling opportunities for disabled U.S. military veterans—adopted Lonnie, recognized his extraordinary talent, and sponsored his historic Grand Canyon run (an effort funded by Check-6, a Tulsa-based performance training firm).

The stage for Lonnie’s historic effort was quintessentially Western. The Colorado River between Lees Ferry and Diamond Creek in the Grand Canyon is one of the most challenging whitewater stretches in the world. The fact that Lonnie kayaked it blind is simply astounding. Lava Falls Rapid is a whitewater exemplar—a Class V rapid with a sixteen-foot drop over about one-quarter of a mile that can generate standing waves of fifteen feet or more at normal river flows—and double that at high water. Eternity might well be defined as “thirty seconds of the wrong line through Lava Falls.” Nobody sane who has scouted Lava Falls Rapid in person from the Prospect Canyon debris field upstream of it has ever returned to his or her boat thinking “I believe I’ll do this one blindfolded.”

But that is exactly what Lonnie did: he ran this behemoth(and some 220 more like it) without the benefit of sight. In order to accomplish this feat, at least two sighted kayakers ran with him. Lead kayaker Alex Neilson preceded him (frequently backward) through each successive rapid screaming “on me” over and over again in order to be heard above the roar of the whitewater. Lonnie tracked Alex by his voice, but the rest was classic solo kayaking—a demanding ballet of paddle skills, kinesthetic awareness, and momentum.

Chip Sell and Mike Bradley, the two highly experienced kayakers who rounded out TRR’s Grand Canyon team, traded off flanking Lonnie and served as safety valve paddlers to snatch him from the maelstrom in the event of a swim. Lonnie swam exactly two times. He successfully negotiated 220 world-class rapids ninety-nine percent of the time. This is not the stuff of asterisks and footnotes. It is the stuff of Klieg lights and fireworks. It is a remarkable feat by any standards.

When he made the Grand Canyon descent, Lonnie had been flat-water kayaking for about a year and had exactly fourteen days of whitewater experience under his spray skirt. During that short time he mastered advanced paddling skills including Eskimo rolls (a complex but essential self-rescue technique for upsidedown kayaks) by doing 1,500 of them in the pond on his small farm in southwestern Indiana. He trained for the Colorado River by kayaking some of the most challenging whitewater in the Appalachian foothills (the Nantahala and Pigeon rivers). He also ran portions of the Yellowstone River in Montana before attending a kayak finishing school of sorts at the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, NC.

Off the water, Lonnie has climbed some of the highest mountains in the southern 48 states (including peaks over 14,000 feet tall), and is a motivated downhill skier. He is planning an ice-climbing trip to the Colorado Rockies this winter, a hang-gliding trip to California in the spring, and is considering a command performance in the Grand Canyon next summer. In Lonnie’s own words “six people on the Grand Canyon trip spent a combined total of fourteen years in Walter Reed Hospital recovering from wounds suffered serving the U.S.” “Every paddle stroke was an effort to repay all the sacrifices they made for me.”

Lonnie Bedwell is neck-deep in his own personal exploration of challenge—an exploration that will be neither defined nor limited by blindness. We all need to find a way to climb aboard for the ride. This guy is the real deal. He is earthbound, earnest, articulate, and downright inspirational, and we should all be proud to share with him this brief moment in time.

Boatman’s Quarterly Review