As I gather up my kayak and paddling gear and head to my small pond, I start thinking about the first time I made this short trip five years ago. I had to practice rolling in order to kayak the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon for the first time. I was nervous as I thought, “could I do it as a blind man?” What a leap of faith! I pulled my kayak behind me as I stepped off the porch, crossed the yard to a little mowed path that goes across the field from my little barn to the pond. Tapping my cane to find the way, that short walk seemed to last forever. I practiced that day until I reached 100 rolls.
Today as I walk this path, it’s a reminder… a reminder of how far I’ve come since the accident that took my eyesight and how much my life has changed. A few months after I was shot, I could barely imagine myself going anywhere beyond my house. It’s amazing how a few little seemingly small events can completely change the course of your life. I think about how unsure I felt that first time I walked this path compared to how I feel now – full of gratefulness, confidence, and a sense of normalcy with the idea of blind kayaking. I especially feel this when I get the honor of helping other people as they learn how to kayak – blind or sighted.
Every time I tap that barn as I navigate with my cane, I think of my wonderful daughters. Not much changed in their minds or hearts when I lost my eyesight – to them I was still “Daddy.” I could do anything! Kayaking has in some ways had the same effect, making me feel no different than I once was. If you didn’t know me, at first glance of me sitting in a kayak with my sunglasses on, you can’t tell I’m blind. It’s such a powerful adaptive sport. When my buddy Aaron sits in his kayak, you can’t tell he lost his legs in combat. Kayaks and rivers are great equalizers in this way. When we put on our gear, grab our paddles, and sit in our boats, we look like any other kayaker. We have similar dreams and goals and a connection with the river. You can imagine how that makes us feel… not as adaptive or disabled kayakers, just simply kayakers.
Sitting in my kayak on my pond, I reflect on the journey the sport has taken me… the Grand Canyon, the Gauley, the Zambezi and so many more. I dream about where and with who my Zen and I can go next! I’ll be heading out on my third kayak trip of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon this week with two wounded veterans, Aaron Howell and Russell Davies, who will be my guides. This trip will be Aaron and Russell’s first run down the Grand Canyon, so on top of navigating it for themselves, they have to guide me! What lucky guys – LOL! My good buddy Timmy O’Neill (who help guide me down the Zambezi) organized this trip with filmmakers Seth Dahl and Will Stauffer-Norris who will be making a film about our journey. Another buddy, Brandon Hudson, who is constantly helping me back home will also be joining us as a safety boater and swamper. What a crew!
Aaron is an awesome boater and one chill dude. He lost both legs above the knees and several fingers from an IED blast in Afghanistan. This never gets in his way of kayaking – he simply puts on his half leg “stubby” prostheses, throws his boat on his shoulder, and heads to the river. As for Russell, who was also hit by an IED and suffered a traumatic brain injury, is also a chill dude and a total badass kayaker – he paddles just about anything, including major waterfalls. His biggest to this point was 101 feet. Wow!!!
We’ve all come a long way thanks to the sport of kayaking and the amazing community that surrounds it. When I put my butt in my Jackson Zen boat and grab my paddle, I feel free. These rivers have a way of allowing you to just let things go. I’ve had the honor and privilege to paddle with both of these guys throughout the summer and we’ve got our communication dialed. There is no doubt I’m going to be in good hands on the Grand. I can’t wait till we’re on the river together… Paddle on!