By B. J. Phillips
We are approaching Nantahala Falls. My friend is behind me and it is his first descent. I keep turning my head around to be sure he is on line and still upright- he is. Britt Lindstrom is behind him helping make last second corrections. I bypass the traditional eddy at Truck Stop, but yell for him to try to slow down some to decrease our momentum and approach the middle line (Line B) just river left of the top hole while ‘hugging’ the current as close to that hole as possible. This is the easiest line for the Falls, and is the line that my mentors taught me when they were ‘passing it on’ to me when I was a novice boater. I hug the hole and start down the green tongue and take one last look around and yell, “Paddle hard”. He is still behind me on a perfect line. I hit the curler wave at the base of the Falls and run it clean, and he flips at that wave (Not unusual for most of us) and does a textbook combat roll. He has run an almost clean first descent.
Some will say that there is nothing exceptional about this first descent and it is typical at Nantahala Falls on a daily basis, but in this case it is nothing short of remarkable. You see, my friend, my paddling partner is 100% blind!
His name is Lonnie Bedwell and I met him on a Team River Runner trip in 2012 in Montana at an “Outta Sight” clinic. That trip was his introduction to whitewater kayaking. We paddled the Yellowstone River that flows out of Yellowstone National Park and into a valley known locally as Paradise Valley, which is appropriately named. It is a beautiful river valley nestled among the mountains, hills, and the brilliant blue of Montana’s ‘Big Sky’ country. We stay at the ranch of Mike Story, who has allowed the participants of this trip to enjoy, and paddle, this scenic area in Montana. I am a combat veteran and kayaking has become my passion and therapy for the effects that war has on a person, and for the love of the sport!
On this trip ‘sighted’ paddlers, such as I, are paired up with totally or partially blind veterans and we all learn the techniques and skills of paddling and guiding our non-sighted brothers and sisters down whitewater. This section of the Yellowstone is class I/ II. We started out on a nearby lake to introduce the non-sighted participants to a kayak, paddle strokes, the ‘feel’ of being in a boat on water, wet exits, bow rescues, and how to lead and follow verbal commands. Then we progressed to a class I section to actually lead and follow verbal commands and ‘how to’ swim in current. Lonnie caught on quick to bow rescues and was performing them with no problem in moving water. The final step was a class II section known as Yankee Jim Canyon. Although all the non-sighted paddlers/veterans did phenomenal, Lonnie Bedwell sort of stood out with his determination to attempt to learn this sport! We fast became friends and agreed to meet again (He lives in Indiana and I live in Lexington, Kentucky) and paddle together. We did!
I am a member of the Bluegrass Wildwater Association (B.W.A.) and each year the B.W.A. holds a spring clinic at the Russell Fork River on the Kentucky/Virginia border to teach kayaking skills to people just beginning the sport and more advanced paddling at higher skill levels. Also, a B.W.A. member, Adelessa Grace, has “Adventure” weekends that does much the same for beginning paddlers. Lonnie attended one of those
in the fall of 2012 at the Russell Fork and, again, showed great dedication acquiring the skills to be a paddler. Ron Hunt, another combat veteran paddler, and Robert Smith, a ‘local’ of the Elkhorn City area, helped me work with Lonnie at that clinic. Both of them said it was one of the greatest experiences of their kayaking, and personal, lives! Ron gave Lonnie a kayak and much gear. Plus, Benchmark of Lexington donated a new paddle (Thanks Benchmark and Neil!), and Lonnie never turned back- HE WAS HOOKED ON THE SPORT.
Between that fall session and the next time we met to paddle together, with the help of a paddler in Indiana, Lonnie had perfected rolling on both strong and weak sides.
During the summer of 2013 Lonnie once again came to Lexington and we took off for Tennessee/ North Carolina to do some ‘Southeast’ boating. Our first run was on the Lower Pigeon (Class I/II). Lonnie nailed it and Robert Smith again joined us as I paddled lead giving verbal guidance.
Lonnie did so well that I decided to skip the Hiawassee and go straight to the Nantahala (This is a ‘normal’ progression for Southeast boaters and the same progression that my mentors led me). The Nantahala is basically a Class II run with, of course, Nanthala Falls (Class III) at the end. It is a kayaker’s paradise though, with the area virtually designed for the river enthusiast. It was the site of the World’s Free styling Championships in 2013. For more advanced skill levels there are releases on the Upper and Cascades periodically. You have read about Lonnie’s first descent, but we tried various other lines and some resulted in carnage- but it was good carnage. His bombproof roll and paddling skills saved him from swims more than once and led me to believe that he was ready for the Upper Pigeon. We headed that way.
The Upper Pigeon may be one of the best ‘secret’ Class II/III sections of whitewater in the Southeast, and, in my opinion, is a great river to ‘step it up’ to bigger water and to learn to read and run whitewater. It is a superb beginning intermediate run! The U.P., or Dirty Bird, as it is affectionately known locally, is challenging to paddlers stepping up from Class II water. To be honest I was somewhat hesitant about us achieving an Upper Pigeon run in such short time, but it was my highest, although perhaps farfetched, goals of this trip. After the Nanty I thought it was feasible.
There were several paddlers now who wanted to paddle with Lonnie, and, by “happenstance”, we ran into Lou Rudolph, a local paddling friend at the put in. So we had plenty of safety. The kayaking community ‘knew’ something special was going on! I led, Britt Lindstrom was behind Lonnie, and a safety net was spread up and down the river. Just a bunch of ‘yakers’ having a good time on the river!
Lonnie runs Powerhouse rapid clean at the put in. As we approach Lost Guide rapid he has ran the river clean following verbal communication and we go to mid river left following local outfitter Dave Crawford of Rapid Expeditions line. Lonnie flips at the hole/ wave at the bottom of the rapid but he combat rolls to cheers. When we tell other kayakers/rafters, at the eddy on river right, that Lonnie is 100% blind they looked stunned or ask, “How is that possible?”
The next major is Double Reactionary. This rapid is one of those confluences of currents that intermingle in a relatively narrow slot with a strong current from river left and a stronger current coming in from the right of the rapid and they slam into each other near mid river. The river right current being the dominant creates a curler wave and becomes the main channel current crossing from river right to river left. It can be a tricky but fun rapid!
We take a line shown to me by Brent Austin (B.W.A. Class V boater) that he calls, “A Class IV move on a Class III rapid”. We skirt the holes and negotiate the boogie water approaching the rapid near river left, then cross over to mid river above the rapid where the kayak almost comes to a stall, and then the current along with some paddle strokes propels the kayak towards the ‘head’ of the curler of Double Reactionary. We hit the curler and have a swimmer- it is me!
I got turned around too much trying to assure Lonnie is on line, miss the line, and drop off into a pour over sideways, get window shaded, and try repeated rolls to no avail- I pull! Lonnie stays on line with Britt’s help, flips at the curler, and does a combat roll.
Sometimes leading and making verbal/visual contact with a non-sighted boater is like walking a tightrope where trying to keep them and yourself on line is not always easy. Also, as we all know, whitewater has a way of humbling us at times. The safety boaters gather myself, my boat, and my ego up and we head into the final major rapid called Accelerator.
We go into that rapid at mid river right where there is a tongue and follow the main current into a wave train that leads to slightly river left into where the main current does an ‘s’ curve at the bottom of the rapid. Lonnie gets off line slightly at the ‘s’ curve, but runs Accelerator clean.
On the last section of Class II boogie water and surf spots we approach a fun boof, that, if hit right, propels the kayak to cop a little air. Lonnie hits the boof perfect and we end the run of the Upper Pigeon laughing and yelling!
Lonnie, once again, attends the Team River Runner ‘Outta Sight’ clinic in 2013 and Chip Sell, a combat veteran Washington state paddler, asked him, “ Who have you been paddling with?” Lonnie tells him and Chip thinks that he is ready for something bigger.
At this time let me say that we challenged Lonnie, and myself, and we didn’t take easy lines or sneaks. We took on difficult lines, caught eddies with squirrelly water, and crashed through holes. With that said, at the age of 62, I keep trying to expand my own paddling skills with creek runs on the Little and the “Greenbrier” section in the Southeast in the beautiful Smokey Mountains this year with the help of B.W.A. mentors and the kayaking community ‘passing it on’. I do these runs in an old school Wave Sport Big EZ play/river runner. I am not ready to lie down YET or quit learning this sport that I love!
Oh, I guess you may be wondering what “something bigger” may have been for kayaker Lonnie Bedwell. Well, my friend, my kayak partner, became the first non-sighted paddler in his own boat to paddle the Colorado River section of the Grand Canyon in late summer of 2013 with Team River Runner.
Awesome stuff dudes! That is PASSING IT ON, with a twist!