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“Post-traumatic growth” for five blind veterans kayaking the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon

"We showed what truly could be done when we worked together.”

Army veteran Steve Baskis rolls after flipping in House Rapid in the Grand Canyon. Baskis, who lives in Montrose, was among five blind veterans who kayaked the Grand Canyon in September 2018 as part of a trip supported by Team River Runner. (Bill Frake, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Steve Baskis got off line while kayaking in House Rapid, the first serious whitewater in the Grand Canyon. He veered left into the maw of a truck-sized hole he couldn’t see. It swallowed his kayak. He rolled up. It flipped him again. He rolled upright again.

He heard faint yelling from his friends — “Hup! Hup! Hup!” — barely audible over the roar.

He couldn’t see his fellow paddlers.

But that wasn’t troubling. Baskis hasn’t seen anything — not even light — since a roadside bomb tore through his Army truck in Iraq in 2008, sending shrapnel into his face and killing Victor Cota, a friend sitting next to him.

A decade later, Baskis was digging his paddle into the Colorado River and following his ears — chasing those “Hups!” — back to his pod of kayaking guides. They were hooting and congratulating him on his exceptional paddling through one of the rowdier rapids in the canyon.

Army veteran Steve Baskis, who was blinded by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2008, kayaked the Grand Canyon with four other blind veterans in September 2018 as part of a trip supported by Team River Runner. (Bill Frake, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“They kept telling me I took the hero line,” said the 32-year-old from Montrose. “I tell you, I was nervous about this whole thing, but then I got thrown into that washing machine and came out all right. I was like, ‘Wow. Let’s get this thing going!’”

Baskis was among five blind veterans — heroes chasing hero lines — kayaking the length of the Grand Canyon this month. After 12 days paddling through 226 miles of whitewater, they emerged transformed.

“It’s still just reverberating in my brain and coursing through my soul, everything I felt in there,” Baskis said. “There was so much feedback from the river and the people on the trip. It makes you think about life and the different things you can do. Things really aren’t that impossible. If we can work together, we can figure out a way through anything. That place, it changed me. It washed away some things, … and it gave me so much. It tested me, and I came through energized, empowered, revitalized, invigorated. Everything you can think of. I want to do it again.”

The Colorado River’s stretch through the Grand Canyon was first explored by a man with one arm. The blind veterans embraced John Wesley Powell’s legacy, giving the world a glimpse of inspiration and possibility just as that legendary explorer did 149 years ago.

Army veteran Steve Baskis, far right, floats with his pod of guides between rapids in the Grand Canyon. Baskis, who lives in Montrose, was among five blind veterans who kayaked the Grand Canyon in September 2018 as part of a trip supported by Team River Runner. (Bill Frake, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“It was unbelievably beautiful, the lessons that were provided,” said Timmy O’Neill, the Boulder rock-climbing and kayaking raconteur who served as one of 15 guides for the five kayakers.

O’Neill paddled the Grand Canyon in 2014 with Colorado blind adventurer Erik Weihenmayer and former Navy officer Lonnie Bedwell.

Bedwell, who lost his sight in a hunting accident in 1997, was among the five who forged the canyon this month. He ran more than two dozen rapids without a guide. His friends would line him up at the top and give him some pointers, and he’d paddle into the unseen maelstrom.

“I’ve gotten to the point where I can kind of hear the waves. Between the feel of the waves and hearing the sound when it breaks, I can turn my kayak to line up for that hole or that hit and adjust accordingly,” Bedwell said. “It’s a good feeling.”

Blind veteran Lonnie Bedwell, left, and Russell Davies, a decorated military veteran and professional kayaker, led four other blind veterans down the Grand Canyon in September 2018. (Seth Dahl, Special to The Colorado Sun via Big Cedar Media)

Bedwell learned to kayak in 2014, rolling his boat in the pond behind his Indiana home more than 1,000 times to prepare for the first-ever blind kayak descent of the Grand Canyon. He’s a father, author and motivational speaker whose kayaking résumé boasts first blind descents on rivers around the world. He has spent years urging injured veterans to seek relief in mountains and rivers.

Bedwell and Team River Runner, a national group, helped assemble the entire team of kayakers. Team River Runner, with more than 60 chapters in 31 states, offers guides and paddling programs to veterans and their families. The group supported the five Blind Veterans Association soldiers — the other three are Gulf War Army veterans Travis Fugate, Kathy Champion and Brian Harris — as they spent two years training for their Grand Canyon adventure by paddling rivers in West Virginia, Colorado and Idaho.

Five blind veterans and their 15 guides kayaked the Grand Canyon in September 2018 as part of a trip organized by Team River Runner. (Seth Dahl, Special to The Colorado Sun via Big Cedar Media)

Bedwell remembers the accolades that rained down on him when he and Weihenmayer became the first blind kayakers to navigate the Grand Canyon.

Lonnie Bedwell was among five blind veterans who kayaked the Grand Canyon in September 2018. (Seth Dahl, Special to The Colorado Sun via Big Cedar Media)

“But I knew it was meaningless and irrelevant if I couldn’t pay it forward and bring others down to have the same experience,” he said. “We wanted to be able to show that this could be done and it wasn’t just an anomaly.”

Bedwell said his highlight from this month’s trip was “seeing everybody achieve their Lava.” Lava Falls is the hardest drop in the Grand Canyon, a roiling Class V whose intimidating roar can be heard for miles upstream.

“Just watching everyone realize their dreams,” he said. “I’m not talking about the blind paddlers, but the entire crew. We showed what truly could be done when we worked together.”

The blind paddlers ran the river in pods, with three guides surrounding them: a kayaker on point, one flanking and a third nearby ready to assist in any rescue. The lead kayaker — a beacon who had spent many months, even years, training with their blind paddler — shouted, “Hup! Hup! Hup!” or “Yeah, bud!”

Army veteran Steve Baskis, who lives in Montrose, was among five blind veterans who kayaked the Grand Canyon in September 2018 as part of a trip supported by Team River Runner. (Bill Frake, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Those aural cues set the line to follow.

The paddler on the flank helped refine trajectories, usually hollering “Ten!” or “Two!” to direct the sightless away from trouble.

Eric Carlson, a kayaker from Denver, guided Baskis. They’ve been paddling together for more than a year. Carlson loves introducing newcomers to the rich rewards of river running, but the blending of passion and purpose with Baskis has taken his paddling to a new dimension.

“Just being able to take someone who has done so much for our country and paid such an ultimate sacrifice and show them a place that is so special is just huge to me,” he said. “I wanted to give back and repay just a tiny portion of the debts they’ve paid.”

Army veteran Steve Baskis, who lives in Montrose, digs deep as he navigates a rapid in the Grand Canyon. Baskis was among five blind veterans who kayaked the Grand Canyon in September 2018 as part of a trip supported by Team River Runner. (Bill Frake, Special to The Colorado Sun)

It wasn’t just the blind kayakers who emerged transformed from the grandest of gorges. The guides and support crew — many with long histories in the Grand Canyon — witnessed the power of the river. Not just in a cubic-feet-per-second sense or canyon-carving sense, but in its capacity to amplify the best in people.

“Absolutely humbling,” Carlson said. “It’s really hard to explain. It was so emotional down there, especially with these guys. They just never complained. Brian Harris, he’s not only blind, but he’s an amputee. We would do these hikes, and his leg kept popping off. We’d be like, ‘Let’s turn around man,’ and he’d say, ‘No, let’s keep going.’ He never once complained. I was in awe. It was epic. It was emotional. I don’t think anyone left there without crying at least once. Mostly from joy. From laughter.”

Every evening, the group gathered on the sandy bank and played music. Fugate, a lifelong guitar player, led the melody. Baskis, a drummer whose left hand was damaged in that roadside bomb, played djembe and hand drums. O’Neill, another drummer, directed the orchestra of tambourines, cowbells and other percussion instruments.

Five blind veterans and their guides kayaked the Grand Canyon in September 2018 as part of a trip organized by Team River Runner. The group would play music at night after paddling, calling themselves the Blind Bastards. (Rachael Ward, Special to The Colorado Sun via Team River Runner)

“We called ourselves the Blind Bastards,” said Bedwell, who contributed lyrics that he said will forever remain at the bottom of the canyon. “You can hear us on WNOC. Outta-sight radio.”

The music was something you didn’t need to see to experience, O’Neill said. It was the great leveler among the sighted and the sightless.

“Travis, who has three guides, can all the sudden lead us in the music. Lonnie has guides doing all this stuff, and now he’s leading us,” O’Neill said. “It allowed a level of energy that I’ve never seen before.”

Timmy O’Neill, left, Brian Harris, in the back, and Lonnie Bedwell play music after a day of kayaking in the Grand Canyon. Bedwell and Harris were among five blind veterans who kayaked the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in September 2018 as part of a trip supported by Team River Runner. (Rachael Ward, Special to The Colorado Sun via Team River Runner) 

When one paddles the Grand Canyon, stretches of flatwater are typically spent staring up at the dramatic canyon walls, carved over millions of years. It’s a visceral, visual experience — one that the blind paddlers could only peripherally share. But they found ways to reap the same rewards as those awestruck oglers.

“Why is it beautiful?” Bedwell would ask his guides.

That forced the guides to dig deep and share. O’Neill said they would spend the serene moments describing the vibrantly colored layers in an attempt to reveal hundreds of millions of years of geologic history. Those moments allowed both the blind veterans and their guides to better absorb the canyon’s beauty.

“It created instant community,” O’Neill said. “These guys earned this hard-won wisdom by having these grave injuries from war. They have earned this wisdom and they decide to share it; a joyous understanding that they need us and we need them. Which is the foundation of love and community and meaning in our lives.”

Five blind veterans and their 15 guides kayaked the Grand Canyon in September 2018 as part of a trip organized by Team River Runner. (Seth Dahl, Special to The Colorado Sun via Big Cedar Media)

O’Neill has kayaked the Grand Canyon 19 times. It is the “most wondrous place,” he said. “And then add in the most wondrous activity,” he said, and it can overwhelm the senses of all who float it.

“And it’s all exponentially increased when you are blind kayaking,” O’Neill said. “This trip created a consistent, high level of joy. Like the consistent roar of the rapids. It felt like we were seeing the best of humanity. Such an interesting dichotomy to take the ravages and horrors of war and contrast it with the Grand Canyon and how that sacred place changes everyone.”

Baskis, a mountaineer, climber and padder who finds solace in wildlands, considers his trip down the Grand Canyon part of a never-ending journey he calls “post-traumatic growth.”

“I’ve experienced post-traumatic growth from a lot of experiences in my life, and they’ve all been about embracing challenges,” he said. “It’s one thing to pursue challenges, but it’s the unexpected challenges that really try us and change us and ultimately make us better. And there were a lot of unexpected things going on in the Grand Canyon.”

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