• Dec 18, 2018
  • 3:41 AM

Blind Veteran on Tough River Challenge: “I’ll Never Say I Can’t Again”

By Chuck N. Baker
The Colorado River touches Nevada’s Lake Mead and heads south through Arizona, through the Grand Canyon. This is where a group of battle-trained veterans loaded up in their kayaks last month to ride the choppy waters and punch through 226 miles of some of the most difficult rapids in the United States. While these veterans are battle-trained and brave, their adventure poses a unique challenge because some are blind.

Members of Team River Runner (TRR) and the Blinded Veterans Association joined together for a historic venture. Five blind veterans kayaked down the Colorado River under the umbrella of Operation Peer Support, a program for Gulf War I and II era veterans.

Four of the men served in the Army and one served in the Navy. Prior to their trip,  the participants invested two years training with experts from the non-profit TRR that promotes kayaking and team water recreational programs for disabled veterans.

The veteran guide team was led by Dave Robey, a retired Navy captain and the program director. Co-directing was blinded veteran Lonnie Bedwell. “These veterans demonstrated to the public their accomplishments, inspiring others with disabilities to continue to participate in activities,” Bedwell said.

Brian Harris is a blinded Army corporal who served in Iraq. One of the five veterans who took part in the kayaking, he attended the recent Blind Veterans Association national convention in Sparks. In an interview at the Nugget Hotel, he discussed his preparation for the Colorado River excursion. It began when he joined the BVA. “The BVA was a place I was able to fit,” he said, referring to his loss of sight caused by an enemy explosion. “I started doing adaptive sports, including skydiving. I did rappelling, snowboarding, scuba diving.”

Bedwell was a friend of Harri, and he got him into kayaking, initially traversing several somewhat smaller waterways. So Harris had some prior experience, but in the pre-Grand Canyon Sparks interview he said, “I feel the Colorado is going to be the most challenging.” When it was over, he confided to friends that his prediction was correct.

Clothing makes the man, and when one is kayaking, that is no exception. “We wear helmets, appropriate clothing, and I wear a mask ‘cause I don’t like water shooting up my nose,” Harris said. Some of the participants attach GoPro cameras to their headgear to capture hands-free video.

The veterans and their guides showed great resilience paddling for 12 days. The experience was empowering for all. It demonstrated to those following the trip’s progress, as well as to themselves, that they are capable of incredible feats. Travis Fugate, a blind veteran, said “I don’t think I will ever say ‘I can’t’ again.”

Participants Eric Carlson and Steve Baskis jointly commented, “What we learned on this trip is you don’t have to change the world to accommodate people with disabilities. Nor do most of them want that. We need to change our attitude and realize they are capable.” Those statements follow what TRR believes, that every wounded and disabled veteran deserve the opportunity to embrace new challenges, invoke leadership and promote camaraderie.

While Harris and the others were getting soaked (with both water and fun), two veterans from Minden were having fun of their own soaring an engine-less glider more than 76,000 feet above the Andes in Argentina. Reports said they flew higher than the highest recorded flight of the vintage U2 spy plane.

Mindenites Jim Payne and Tim Gardner said their flight of the Perlan 2 experimental glider was the second highest flying aircraft to achieve sustained flight within the earth’s atmosphere. In a news release, the men stated that their pressurized glider is designed to soar as high as 90,000 feet. They said their flight passed the Armstrong Line, the point in the atmosphere above which an unprotected human’s blood will boil without pressurization.

Ed Warnock, CEO of the Perlan Project, said “Our victory and whatever other milestones we achieve this year are testament to a pioneering spirit of exploration that runs through everyone on the project and through the organizations that support us.”

The glider was built in Oregon and is home-based in Minden. A few of the many sponsors include at least one company with a Nevada connection — SoaringNV, a flight school based in Minden in Douglas County. Another sponsor company with exclusive products available in Nevada cycler shops is Garmin, a manufacturer of multisport GPS watches. On the military side, Argentina’s Air Force Director-General of Research and Development is an active supporter.

Payne said he had been a military test pilot and is retired from Southern California’s aerospace industry. He moved to Minden, 45 miles south of Reno. The glider flights were conducted over El Calafate in Argentina because of positive weather patterns that occur there. The 2,000-pound Perfan 2 has an 84-foot wingspan and an emergency parachute that can lower the aircraft safely to the ground. If that had happened over the Colorado River, the kayaking members of the Blinded Veterans Association surely would have been pleased to give the pilots a lift to dry land!

Terrific story by the Colorado Sun on this event. Just click the link: